Jamaica's Blake emerges at MLS Combine
Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
FLORIDA, United States:
Nickardo Blake didn't arrive at the Major League Soccer (MLS) Combine here as a surefire professional prospect with a big reputation. Not like fellow Jamaican Darren Mattocks.
The right full back from the University of Connecticut - having "lived all over Clarendon" before migrating to the United States as a 13-year-old - virtually flew under the radar into the series of trial matches featuring the best players leaving United States colleges and hoping for a career in North America's top football league.
Blake didn't glow with the star quality the throng of pro scouts at the Combine eagerly rub their hands together in anticipation of seeing up close, for example a projected top draft pick like Mattocks. But he may have made enough impact to serve notice to the 19 MLS clubs represented at the Combine that come Thursday's SuperDraft, he is well worth their selection; with more than an even money chance to play in MLS for some time.
"Difficult to say," explained Jamaican-born Robin Fraser, head coach of MLS club Chivas USA, when asked about Blake's potential to make it in MLS. "I think he has a chance, you know. It comes down to positional needs and teams that are looking for a right back. Obviously he's a big, big right back and that's a different dimension you won't get other places. So I think he has that going for him for sure ... I would think he would get an opportunity (with an MLS team)."
At 6' 1", 167-pounds and still to iron out a few kinks in his game, according to observers, Blake generated a few whispers among the scouts. He has held talks with representatives of a few teams at the Combine as well.
Reports are that he was the fastest full back timed in the sprint tests for players at the Combine and also scored well during the agility drills. But it was his willingness to attack down the flanks that scouts noticed most.
Blake insists that is his strength and after a tentative start Friday, he was able to show what he could do.
"I think positioning-wise, getting forward, I got forward and I got a good amount of crosses in the box, enough that players could have scored," Blake said assessing his performance after his team drew 0-0. "Defending, I was there defending also. We didn't give up a goal. So I was sturdy there and I was going forward a lot. So I was doing my job."
His supporters believe he can not only claim a job with an MLS club when the 2012 season kicks off in March, but make an immediate impact.
"Nickardo has a big upside; super athletic, has an engine," explained Damani Ralph, a former Jamaica international whose company acts as Blake's agent.
"He will run all day. Needs a little more work, just cleaning up with the ball at his feet, in my opinion. But he will be a steal (for a club). Anybody who picks him, they will be getting a good right back. He's gonna stick wherever he goes. He's gonna stick."
Blake's longtime Jamaican-born coach, Val Brown , who helped Blake prepare for the Combine here, believes the 22-year-old is ready for the transition from college to the pro ranks.
"He has speed and an IQ of about nine out of a possible 10 when it comes to ball knowledge," said Brown. "He's pretty good at that. He's rough, he's tough and he has a lot of endurance in him. So he's gonna be one of the ones with a bright future in soccer in the US"
Blake understands he will have to learn to "play quicker" and "be smart with decisions" to compete in MLS. He is unconcerned about his lower profile coming into the Combine, saying Mattocks has "earned" all the recognition for his goalscoring exploits in two years at the University of Akron. Blake , after two seasons at "UConn", is confident he will not only make the jump, but stamp an early mark in MLS. He has "no real preference" for any MLS team and will play anywhere. He is also unperturbed that he may have to battle seasoned pros for playing time.
Beat the competition
"It doesn't really matter," said Blake." I just need to get in and put in work and see if I can get on a starting 11. Yeah. I'm not wasting any time. Once the competition is there I will beat out my competition and I will play."
Competition has always made him stronger. Blake left Jamaica after completing grade seven at Denbigh High in his home parish of Clarendon, where he played mostly pick-up games in districts like Treadlight. In the US, he attended Boyd Anderson High in Florida, where former Jamaica star Tyrone Marshall played, and later East Central Junior College, before transferring to UConn, which has schooled Reggae Boyz like Ralph, Shavar Thomas and O'Brian White, all who joined MLS after college.
Despite spending nearly half his life in the US, Blake admits his whole life has been Jamaican.
"I am always around the Jamaican environment," Blake said. "I lived in Lauderhill, (Florida) all Jamaican. I grew up, I went to Boyd Anderson, a bunch of Jamaicans again. Like everything I do was like Jamaican. I go to Jamaican parties, I eat Jamaican food."
He longs to wear Jamaica's national jersey.
"I've always wanted to," Blake said. "I've been trying to reach out to them. I think that whenever they think I'm ready, they'll see me. They're gonna see me soon. Trust me. They'll see me soon."
Like Ralph, Thomas and White, Blake is hoping a career in MLS will catapult him to an international career. Right now, with one game left at the Combine today, Blake is confident he can emerge from below the scouts' radar.
"Yeah," he said smiling, "it's my time to shine."