MLS door wide open but ...

Published: Monday | December 2, 2013 Comments 0
Andy Williams ... RSL's chief scout.
Andy Williams ... RSL's chief scout.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Khari Stephenson.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Khari Stephenson.
Paul Young - file photos
Paul Young - file photos

Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer

At best, two Jamaicans will play in Saturday's Major League Soccer (MLS) final.

Lovel Palmer and Khari Stephenson are on Real Salt Lake's (RSL) roster to tackle Sporting Kansas City as Reggae Boyz continue to carve inroads into North America's top professional football league.

But even with 13 other Jamaican-born players linked to MLS clubs in 2013, the influx rate still worries observers.

"It's ridiculous there are not many more players from Jamaica," said Andy Williams, retired Jamaica World Cup and MLS star, now RSL's chief scout. "It's sad."

The island appears stocked with potential.

"The raw talent," Williams added, "most Jamaicans have it in them."

For years, MLS clubs have drooled over Jamaicans' skill set - especially their speed and technical gifts. Boyz like Williams, Tyrone Marshall, Damani Ralph, Donovan Ricketts and Omar Cummings have also earned individual MLS honours and team trophies. No one has scored more MLS goals than Jeff Cunningham.

The MLS door, a huge upgrade from local football, is wide open. But Jamaicans' flow into the league is more creep than run. Some MLS coaches have tagged them unable to cope with professional life.

"Probably that's why I bounced around so much in the league," said Williams, who played for six different clubs from 1998 to 2011.

" ... Our stigma was we don't play hard or practise and that we're lazy."

Still, the first-ever MLS Caribbean Combine is scheduled for this month. Jamaicans are invited.

But they, too, bear blame for not making a larger MLS impact. Bad habits often derail some Boyz' development.

"They just can't make the transition day in day out," Williams explained. "The work, I don't think the guys down there are used to that."

That "work," goes beyond football skills. Dedication to training - on and off the field - proper diet, rest and adapting to a more rigid structure also count. The biggest test appears in their head, not feet.

"Brought up in Jamaica, there's no discipline or accountability," said Williams. "So when they come up (to North America) and come under pressure they give up."

Not all MLS coaches are capable or willing to mould bright, but unschooled talent.

TALENT AND ATTITUDE

"It takes time," said Williams, whose best came at RSL where he spent his last seven seasons, winning, MLS Cup in 2009.

As a scout, he first looks to Jamaica for "ball players" who are "athletic". His next benchmark, however, is equally crucial.

"Then I go for attitude," Williams said. " ... The coach doesn't want any attitude problems in the locker room."

He knows there's plenty upside with Boyz competing in Jamaica.

"You still find players in the local Premier League who you'd love to have up here," Williams said.

North American colleges - United States and Canada - offer a promising option. Approaching the MLS SuperDraft in January, several Jamaicans have attracted attention. However many, like University of Connecticut goalkeeper Andre Blake, are not yet eligible for graduation. Midfielder Romena Bowie, from Virginia Commonwealth University, is the most highly touted Jamaican senior.

At least one agent suggested most non-senior Jamaican college players are better off finishing school. Still, some buckle to pressure.

"(People) tell them to leave school early and make money," said the agent, who didn't want to be identified. "But many are simply not ready."

Some clearly were. Strikers Darren Mattocks (Vancouver Whitecaps) and Deshorn Brown (Colorado Rapids) finished runners-up for Rookie-of-the-Year honours the last two MLS seasons. Yet, the full college experience does help.

"Most of the players improve more than the players in the premier league," said Paul Young, ex-Jamaica international who played college and pro football in the US, and coached in Jamaica.

MLS clubs favour that edge.

"You have to lean towards the college player a little bit," said Williams, who starred at the University of Rhode Island.

Classroom time adds to the balance as well.

"The players are learning things outside of just football," said Young. "They learn to be a man."

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