By Gregory Bryce
Over the last few days, I’ve sat back and watched as Jamaica played second fiddle to England, yet again, in recruiting players for their national team. With FIFA’s decision to cancel all international match dates, excluding the teams from Europe, the Reggae Boyz will be inactive for the time being, and unable to field a team open to potential recruits. Leeds United player, Kalvin Phillips, seemed a realistic possibility for the Reggae Boyz as Phillips had spoken out on his willingness to represent Jamaica. However, that door has been shut as the 24-year-old midfielder has accepted England’s offer and is expected to play in their Nation’s League fixture tomorrow. Arsenal’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles was another player on the Jamaica Football Federation’s (JFF) radar but he (along with the even less realistic prospect of Mason Greenwood) has also been called up to the England squad in the last few days.
This is not the first, nor second, and undoubtedly, not the last time that we’ve found ourselves in this situation but at some point, or another, there has to be some drastic change in how we approach our scouting network. If Jamaica is to further advance up the FIFA rankings and ultimately stake its place on the global stage, we must set up a reliable system of supplying young talent to integrate into our national setup.
And this is where I draw your attention to the growing Jamaican representation in the Major League Soccer (MLS) and United Soccer League (USL) in America.
I have always been aware that the MLS and USL have been home to much of the country’s football talent, but it is only recently have I become fully aware of the extent to which these two leagues have served as development leagues for this generation of Jamaican players.
In a recent article where the USL made a list of the top 10 Caribbean-born players in the league, Jamaica made up a staggering 6 of the 10 players featured – with an additional three players making the honorable mentions list.
Former Jamaica College standout, Junior Flemmings, topped the list of players, accompanied by Kenardo Forbes, Devon Williams, Kevon Lambert, Neco Brett and Dane Kelly to round off the top 10. Nicque Daley, Sean McFarlane and Romario Williams made up the honorable mentions.
Alongside that, it is the Jamaican duo of Dane Kelly and Kenardo Forbes who hold the records for the USL’s all-time top goal scorer and assists respectively.
If some of these names seem familiar to you, they should, as the trio of Flemmings, Lambert and Devon Williams were part of the most recent Gold Cup squad, with the remaining players having been selected for national duty – whether it had been as junior or senior representative.
Jamaica’s influence does not end there, however, with the Reggae Boyz having a rich history with the MLS competition. Current captain Andre Blake is currently playing in the league with his club, Philadelphia Union. Also applying their trade in the MLS are Alvas Powell, Cory Burke, Oneil Fisher and Darren Mattocks.
All of these players have at one point, been involved with the Reggae Boyz programme, and it is a clear indicator that the USL and MLS are a common first step that many of our players take to experience the next level of football.
This does not mean, however, that the American leagues are the best destination for our players. In fact, national team manager, Roy Simpson, has been noted for speaking against the quality of the USL league in an interview earlier this year. While Simpson thinks that the increase of Jamaican players doing well in these leagues (particularly in the USL) is a positive for the national team, he says that it should serve as a stepping stone to more reputable leagues.
“The USL is a stepping stone for these players to move forward. The fact that their dominance is now evident suggests that they are making themselves more marketable. Their consistency is a good indicator that they are taking more seriously the programme we indicated to them. Hopefully, from these performances we can see them breaking into the bigger leagues,” Simpson said in an interview with the Gleaner.
And I can agree with what Simpson proposes. The USL and MLS do offer our players their first experience at international football, but should Jamaica hope to improve our style of play, we will need players who are more well versed in a higher level of professional football found mostly in Europe.
European club football, Simpson believes, should be the aspiration of Jamaican footballers, and if we can achieve this on a regular basis, our national team will no doubt improve immensely from the surplus of talent.
Gregory Bryce is a freelance sports journalist.