MLS in search of top Jamaican talent

October 16th, 2010

Lovel Palmer, formerly of Harbour View, signed with the Houston Dynamo this season.

Scouts for top professional football clubs in North America have quietly stepped up their search for Jamaican talent.

Sources at several Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs, and even the lower-level United Soccer Leagues (USL), confirmed that Jamaican players have become prime targets, not just for their skills on the field – specifically speed, athleticism and technical ability – but their cheaper price tag.

“(The clubs) are interested in Jamaican players,” Tyrone Marshall, a national player in MLS for over a decade and currently with the Seattle Sounders, said recently. “They are coming to Jamaica.”

“Definitely, there is an interest (in Jamaican players),” added Reggae Boyz striker Omar Cummings, a star for MLS’s Colorado Rapids.

Currently, at least a dozen Jamaica-born players are in MLS. According to Jamaicans in the league, club administrators have told them of their ramped up interest in local-based players.

“(They ask) just in general,” explained Cummings, “like if they have a position open. They themselves will be looking at players that I don’t even know about.”

SHIFT

The renewed interest is a shift in approach, from when Jamaicans were bypassed because some clubs labelled them lazy and lacking professional attitude.

“I think we’ve shed that (bad image) quite a while back,” said Marshall. “Those old traditional coaches had attached that stigma to the Jamaican players. Now they see Jamaican players work hard like anyone else, or harder. So that stigma is no longer there.”

The scouts are now being ordered to look closer at talent from Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, but without public fanfare. According to Marshall, MLS scouts quietly flocked to the last Digicel Caribbean Cup, which Jamaica won two years ago. The case of striker, prolific Digicel Premier League goalscorer Devon Hodges, who is currently at Tivoli Gardens FC, is a recent example of a Jamaican drawing heightened interest from MLS clubs.

“Quite a few teams sent someone there to look (at Hodges),” said Marshall.

Hodges, along with other Jamaicans, have earned tryouts with MLS clubs in recent years. The striker had a stint with the Rapids. Lovel Palmer, formerly of Harbour View, signed with the Houston Dynamo this season. Khari Stephenson, who started his pro career in MLS, recently returned to the league with the San Jose Earthquakes after time in Europe.

IMPACT

Jamaican players like Cummings, Marshall, Stephenson, Shavar Thomas of the Kansas City Wizards, Andy Williams of reigning champions Real Salt Lake, Earthquakes’ Ryan Johnson, plus newcomers O’Brian White of Toronto FC and Shaun Francis of Columbus Crew have been selected in the MLS draft by clubs out of North American universities. Most have made solid club contributions. Cummings is third among scorers in MLS this season with 12 goals, while St James native Jeff Cunningham of FC Dallas tied the record for most career MLS goals with 132 on October 2.

“The majority of the MLS teams have a Jamaican playing in the starting eleven,” said Reggae Boy Nicholas Addlery, a former MLS player now in USL with Puerto Rico Islanders.

” … So you can see that the impact of Jamaicans is coming more to the forefront of these leagues, and it’s becoming more important.”

Yet, while the search for Reggae Boyz talent has been extended deeper, it appears the clubs are not eager to advertise their interest in Jamaicans or their scouting missions to the island.

“They want to come in under the radar,” explained Marshall.

Clubs do not want to alert rivals of their interest in a particular player, cautious not to spark a bidding war over the price for his services. Scouts also want to observe players in their natural environment, without them knowing they are being watched, to get a better idea of their attitude.

“It’s a character issue as well,” said Marshall.

discreet enquiry

Earlier this year, a scout from one MLS club, who is also an assistant for a national team in CONCACAF, discreetly enquired where he could watch top Jamaican players during a visit to the island. A trend appears to be forming.

“I remember a year ago … I was talking with the GM (general manager) and he was down in Jamaica scouting,” said Johnson recently. “These are things they are telling me after the fact. So they’re doing their homework in Jamaica.”

According to Johnson, who left Jamaica as a child and grew up in the US, American players generally do not have the physical talents Jamaicans do, and North American clubs may have recognised that some of those assets cannot be coached.

“Just the natural speed,” said the striker. “Speed is the first thing. Speed is one big thing that Jamaica has. That’s one thing that a lot of people come down (to see), and just the natural skill level of certain players that you just pick up from when you are young.”

Some MLS players, for example, David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, earn millions of dollars in salary per year. Jamaicans can hope to command only a small fraction of that if they join the league, although the gap in talent between them and the trio is no longer wide. Jamaicans are relatively unknown quantities in world football, especially in MLS where name recognition is a key to generating fan support and revenue for the club.

Yet, although the low price tag makes them attractive, the increasing influx of Jamaicans in North American leagues could raise the Boyz’s profile appreciably in the next few years, especially as the US bids to host another World Cup. Word is spreading.

“It does get around the league that Jamaica has some talent there,” said Marshall.

Source:jamaicagleaner

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