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Service with a smile: Kemar Lawrence is loving life as a leader for New York

Kemar Lawrence was almost a left back for Ben Olsen and D.C. United. Instead, he was embraced by Jesse Marsch and the Red Bulls, and has flourished ever since.

MLS: FC Dallas at New York Red Bulls
Kemar Lawrence recognizes the Red Bull Arena crowd, following his 48th minute goal against FC Dallas on Saturday night.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Before the red card, prior to the goals scored down a man, and far in the rearview from a touching post-match reunion on Saturday night in Red Bull Arena, New York midfielder Alejandro Romero Gamarra went down in the seventh minute.

The challenge was ultimately innocuous, but it was what happened in the midst of the stoppage that was significant for a Red Bulls team that prevailed on the night, 3-0.

During that break in play, while others stood still, Red Bulls left back Kemar Lawrence proactively ran toward and then down the sideline, to his head coach, Jesse Marsch, relaying to him what he saw from FC Dallas in the opening minutes. There was a brief moment one month prior – following an off-the-ball neck injury against Atlanta United – in which it was uncertain whether the 25-year-old, from Kingston, Jamaica, would ever run down the field like that again.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC
Head coach Jesse Marsch and teammates check on Kemar Lawrence, as he is brought out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, following his neck injury on May 20. Six days later, Lawrence returned to the starting lineup.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

And yet, on May 26 – six days after that initial scare – Lawrence was on the field against the Philadelphia Union, as if it was never in doubt.

“I’m good,” Lawrence said with a laugh when asked about the injury at training the following week. “I’m Jamaican, so, I wasn’t expecting to stay out long anyway.”

Lawrence arrived in New York for a trial in 2015, following a tryout the previous summer with the Red Bulls’ Atlantic Cup nemesis, D.C. United. Throughout the years, United has gotten the better of the Red Bulls more often than not; however, on this occasion, luck was on the Red Bulls’ side.

In the lead-up to that 2014 trial, Lawrence spoke with The Jamaican Gleaner, detailing a groin injury that he had to manage during his short stay in the nation’s capital. The injury can somewhat explain why the black and red were not impressed enough to sign the left back to a contract, but their loss was the Red Bulls gain.

Marsch and company fell in love with Lawrence, who they saw as a special prospect. Affectionately nicknamed ‘Taxi’ for his work-rate, Lawrence was free-spirited and relaxed, but also intelligent and willing to mentally commit to the high demands of Marsch’s pressing philosophy.

Throughout the years, Marsch and Lawrence have been yin and yang, with the at times overzealous coach coming across in hyper-speed to the largely easygoing outside defender.

“Where I come from, we’re much more chill,” Lawrence said through laughter after the win on Saturday. “He [Marsch] gets, he gets super-hyped sometimes, crazy sometimes, even at training. And I’m telling him, like, ‘Why are you doing that?’. In my mind, everything is going at a way slower pace than anything Jesse’s saying.”

After four years, though, no player has spent more time along the near sideline in front of Marsch than Lawrence. The two may be an Odd Couple-type of combination, but with Anatole Abang loaned out, Lawrence is the second-oldest signing under Marsch to currently be at the club.

Lawrence’s effort to seek out Marsch early in the game was not significant because of what was discussed – most of the strategy was null and void after a 27th minute red card to Daniel Royer – but because of the attention to detail that the left back was displaying. After only seven minutes, he was already checking with his head coach, to make sure no holes were opening up in the backline.

Dallas had gained the man advantage with an hour still to play, but Lawrence did not see the 10-player status as a burden. For him, the adversity was a chance for the backline to rise to the occasion, and the defenders did that and then some.

“Coming in at halftime, I really said to the guys, ‘This is our time to show what we’re made of, show what we’re about’,” Lawrence said after the match. “And, as defenders, we kind of, we kind of love these games. We don’t want it to happen often, but when it does happen, we love it, because, we get to prove a point, we get to prove how solid our defense line is, and I thought we did that tonight.”

Three minutes after halftime, the Red Bulls added their third and final goal, off the foot of Lawrence. The goal was a fluid move, with Bradley Wright-Phillips taking contact but playing a deft pass to Gamarra, who laid the ball into space for a flying Lawrence. The movement seemed instinctual, but the understanding between Gamarra and Lawrence was in fact something that the Jamaican left back had been working on in the lead-up to the game.

“Me and him [Gamarra] have been going at it for a couple of days, in a more friendly way,” Lawrence said. “Because, he sees so much things sometimes, he’s so good at seeing Brad, he’s so good at seeing the midfielder peeling off a defender’s shoulder. So, sometimes I’m running from so far that, he sees me but he’s like, ‘Alright, I don’t really -- Kemar’s running from so far, I don’t want to play him’.”

“But sometimes, lately I’ve been telling him, like, ‘Put it in a space, you know I’m going to get there, I’ve got the speed to get there. So, just put it in that space and let me get there,” Lawrence went on to say.

Lawrence was at least three steps behind Dallas midfielder Michael Barrios when Gamarra collected the ball, but remembering the words of the previous week, Gamarra played the ball into space, and ‘Taxi’ breezed past Barrios, and then past Dallas right back Reggie Cannon, before ultimately squeezing a shot between goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez and his near post.

MLS: FC Dallas at New York Red Bulls
Kemar Lawrence had been noticing goalkeepers cheating off their near post in recent games, and he made Dallas keeper Jesse Gonzalez pay with an abrupt and fast shot that snuck into the goal, in the 48th minute. The goal was his first of the MLS season and third of his MLS career.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

But while it may have been that goal which gave Lawrence the spotlight, his increasing leadership on the field, stemming from an unrivaled chemistry with Marsch, is what truly stands out. The two may be cut from a different cloth, but Lawrence is not only surviving, but thriving under Marsch.

“He always tells me that, when I’m at the place that nothing can get by me is, when I’m always alert, is when I’m always ready for anything to happen, and I’m kind of at that place right now; where it’s just fun being there, it’s fun playing, it’s fun training, and, it’s just fun being out here right now,” Lawrence said.