Rocky road for Jamaica's MLS rookies
Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
It's been a rocky road for Jamaica's high-profile Major League Soccer (MLS) rookies, all failing to make on-field impact over a month into the 2014 season of North America's top professional football competition.
Expectations rose with the historic selection of André Blake, André Lewis and Damion Lowe among the top 10 players in January's MLS SuperDraft. Now, uncertainty shadows their immediate future.
Blake, after three seasons at University of Connecticut in the United States (US), became the only goalkeeper ever picked first overall in a SuperDraft. He's had the most success among the Jamaican rookies, despite not playing a single MLS minute for Philadelphia Union while serving as backup to Zac MacMath. Blake, like Lowe and Lewis, has gone from amateur star to pro battling for a job.
Barring injury or dramatic form loss by MacMath, Blake's future playing time isn't certain either. The incumbent is 22. Blake's 23. MacMath was drafted fifth overall by Philadelphia in 2011, started all MLS games last season, and recorded a 1.29 goals against average with 12 shutouts. The American, who has conceded six goals in five games in 2014, holds the early edge.
"He has four years of experience in MLS and I'm just coming in, so it's a learning process," said Blake, who has played a club reserve game and is hoping for first team action in non-league competitions.
"You know he's pretty much seasoned in and settled in. So, I just have to go in and learn as quickly as possible and try to adjust and then take it from there. Hopefully, I can do what I have to do to get on the pitch soon."
The MLS call may take longer for Lewis, the 19-year-old former St George's College, Portmore United and Jamaica Under-17 World Cup midfielder who was selected seventh by Vancouver Whitecaps. He was sent to lower-level United Soccer Leagues (USL) team Charleston Battery on a seasonlong loan.
Meanwhile, injury has forced Lowe to the sidelines. Selected eighth by Seattle Sounders after three seasons at the University of Hartford in the US, the 20-year-old defender wasn't projected for significant MLS minutes early, although the club expected him to eventually play in 2014. However, after an April 7 hip surgery, Lowe could be out up to four months.
Other rookies, who hoped to kick off their pro careers in MLS, also had hiccups. Kadeem Dacres, US-born attacker with Jamaican parents, was drafted 65th overall by Chicago Fire out of the University of Maryland - Baltimore County. He didn't make the MLS roster and signed with USL's Arizona United Soccer Club.
Romena Bowie, a Jamaica-born midfielder from Virginia Commonwealth University, wasn't drafted, but went on trial with USL clubs. He remains unsigned while rehabilitating an injured knee.
According to Jamaica-born agent Damani Ralph, multiple factors will slow rookies' MLS impact in 2014.
"It's harder for the youngsters to get on the field," Ralph explained. " ... It also has to do with the needs of the team that drafts (the player). The expectation is high, but it boils down to the improvement and quality of the league."
Jamaican rookies have impacted MLS. Darren Mattocks, drafted second overall in 2012, scored seven goals for Vancouver. Last year, Colorado Rapids' Deshorn Brown scored 10. Both were among MLS 'Rookie of the Year' runners-up. In 2003, Ralph won the honour after scoring 11 goals for Chicago.