The senior men's national soccer team of Jamaica will shortly kick off the next phase of its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign with November matches against Panama and Haiti. Fans of the New York Red Bulls who are not Jamaican might reasonably choose to ignore this, as it has little direct relevance to RBNY - but this season has provided greater than usual reason for the Red Bulls supporter to keep an eye on the Reggae Boyz.
Kemar Lawrence is the primary motivation for any RBNY fan to cast more than a glance at Jamaica's international soccer efforts. He has emerged this season as one of the best - the very best to some seasoned observers capable of trusting their eyes over aggregated statistics - left backs in CONCACAF. Most of that reputation is built on his work for his national team, and creditable outings against quality opponents in this summer's Copa America and Gold Cup tournaments.
But he has also been a superlative performer for the New York Red Bulls, proving himself not just well suited to the club's recently-acquired gegenpressing approach to the game, but also invaluable in those moments when tactics fail and the team's success or lack thereof comes down to one player's ability to out-think and out-run an opponent.
Given that Lawrence was apparently passed over by both Vancouver Whitecaps and D.C. United before landing with RBNY, it ought not to be greatly surprising that the MLS commentariat has consistently failed to adequately recognize the world-class talent in its midst. The prevailing American soccer orthodoxy seems to favor the likes of Taylor Kemp or Chris Tierney: handy players - for teams that don't have a Kemar Lawrence.
But we are not here to chide overworked and myopic soccer writers; we are here to praise Jamaica for the recent and continuing favors granted the New York Red Bulls. Keeping Lawrence focused on developing as a player and ignoring the collective failure of MLS talent-spotters to see what was in front of them (he was passed over at the 2014 Caribbean Combine too) was the task of his local club, Harbour View, and his senior national team - for whom he was first selected (after stints with the U-17 and U-20 squads) in 2013. He has 27 caps since making his Reggae Boyz debut in September 2013; Jamaica has played 32 matches in that time.
Thanks to Jamaica's commitment to Lawrence's development, RBNY picked up a considerably more experienced 22-year-old full back in 2015 than D.C. United drafted in 2013 (not to pick on Taylor Kemp, but his name has cropped up recently in discussion of the best left backs in MLS). And thanks to Jamaica's continued faith in Lawrence this year, the player's confidence and ability has grown at a rate that might not have been achieved had he spent the entire season solely focused on MLS.
Thank you, Jamaica.
But RBNY's debt to Jamaica this season merely starts with Kemar Lawrence. It continues with the Reggae Boyz handling of their efforts to woo Bradley Wright-Phillips to their World Cup qualifying cause. The report that BWP has been offered a shot at joining Jamaica's national team has been around since late summer. The matter remains unresolved: BWP was not selected for the squad that will contest the November internationals, but reports on his absence from the roster indicate that he is still in the frame. The Daily Mail's report includes the news there is "no timeline" for his decision.
This looks a lot like prudent management by the Jamaica Football Federation. It is openly casting a wide net for players to bolster the player pool for World Cup qualifying and (hopefully) the World Cup itself. But BWP's MLS commitments have evolved since September: RBNY got sucked into a tight race for silverware in the regular season, from which he might understandably have been reluctant to be distracted. A bad bounce or two might have ended the Red Bulls' playoff campaign, making Wright-Phillips effectively free of club commitments for the present November window for international matches. But RBNY prevailed over DC in the Eastern Conference semfinals, and now has to think about the challenge posed by Columbus.
Every player is different. Unlike Lawrence, BWP has not spent most of his career balancing club and country commitments. If jetting off to a Jamaica training camp and missing a few RBNY training sessions feels like too much disruption to the routine that has served him as a professional thus far - it is almost his obligation to say so. That Jamaica reportedly understands the issue and has essentially agreed to defer the discussion to the MLS off-season (whatever happens to RBNY's 2015 playoff campaign, the Reggae Boyz won't have competitive games to play again until March 2016) is not inevitable. BWP's vacillation does Jamaica no particular favors, but it is extending a measure of sensitivity to the player's circumstances that certainly help him and his club.
This seems sensible all round. Jamaica doesn't need a distracted player in its camp, and BWP doesn't need any distractions at this moment in his RBNY season.
Once again: thank you, Jamaica.
There is, however, still more thanks owed. Perhaps due to BWP's absence, the Reggae Boyz have a vacancy in the squad for an untested (at the international level) attacking talent. The latest squad contains one bona fide surprise call-up: teenage scoring sensation Junior Flemmings (and maybe Dever Orgill counts as a surprise too, but he is not an uncapped teenager).
Flemmings is known to RBNY fans as the summer trialist we were told might be back for more in 2016. And then we were told he was going to college instead. And then it was suggested he is actually preparing himself for a "professional opportunity" in America - one that he will pursue in January 2016, which also happens to be around the time RBNY will be putting together its roster for its first preseason training camp.
Is Flemmings destined to have another run with the Red Bulls in a couple of months? We'll find out soon enough. Whatever his future holds, it can only be well served by involvement with his senior national team. If he does have another RBNY audition ahead of him, we may look back on this call-up as further evidence of Jamaica's nurturing of the Red Bulls' roster.
Much of this praise is also more specifically due to Damani Ralph: former RBNY trialist, once a Chicago Fire teammate of Jesse Marsch, now an agent, always a Jamaican.
He may also be credited with the presence of Dane Richards and Devon "Speedy" Williams on the fringes of both the Jamaica and RBNY squads this season (Richards now seems likely to move on in the off-season; Williams has just signed up for another year with the Red Bulls' reserve team).
But Ralph only represents and advises his clients. He does not, as far as we know, control the selection of the Jamaica national team.
For picking and not picking current RBNY players, and maybe helping to usher a young talent toward a career that may intersect with the Red Bulls: thank you, Jamaica. All the best in World Cup qualifying. Send our Kemar back fit and happy.