It’s winter and Kemar Lawrence is running along the Jamaican beach, pushing the limits on his recovery from a medial collateral ligament tear. The fall in training during November where it all unraveled for Lawrence, for the 71-point New York Red Bulls, serves as ground zero for the Jamaican left back’s most painful and challenging injury comeback. In the horizon, he sees more than the powder blue sky. He envisions Atlanta United, a chance to re-create the ecstasy of a 2-0 win on Sept. 30 and right the wrongs of Nov. 25. That is what he is chasing after.
The sky was clear and the sun beamed down a golden glow on Red Bull Arena. The date: Sept. 30, 2018. It was hard to imagine beforehand how important the next 90 minutes would be; defining narratives, deciding a single-season points record. North vs. South, Big Apple vs. King Peach, two immovable objects at the top of the league table.
New York was without two pillars, Tyler Adams and Bradley Wright-Phillips, but the Red Bulls system is meant to be bigger than any one player. It proved bigger than beloved captain Dax McCarty and his successor Sacha Kljestan. On this day, with the budding Adams injured and wily Wright-Phillips suspended, the Red Bulls press was as rampant, energetic and effective as ever.
This is vintage high press #RBNY early on. Kemar Lawrence is between midfield and #ATLUTD's 18-yard-box when Brad Guzan cycles the ball around (seen below). Davis and Rzatkowski are also positioned high up. It's left #RBNY suspectible to counters, but there is energy and passion. pic.twitter.com/DNk4CFyotB— James Justice (@JamesJusticeIII) September 30, 2018
“That game was, that was fire,” Lawrence says with a laugh. “To be honest, going into that week, we already knew who we had and what was going on with those guys, Brad and Tyler. And since I’ve been here, with (Former Coach) Jesse [Marsch], (Head Coach) Chris [Armas], they always try to make the team an all-rounded team. So, when guys are out, somebody can step in and it looks the same.”
High-priced South Americans that had taken the league by storm, Atlanta midfielder Miguel Almiron and forward Josef Martinez, were nullified. An Atlanta team defined by its attractive passing was incapable of building from the back with the Red Bulls’ swarming press. Lawrence, nicknamed “Taxi” for his surreal stamina, pressured Atlanta high up the field and was still capable of racing back to thwart off counter-attacks. New York prevailed, 2-0.
The Red Bulls’ league-best backline was heaped with praise, their RalfBall system covered in further adulation. New York won its final three regular season matches, while Atlanta capitulated on the final day, handing the Red Bulls a third Supporters’ Shield. New York – for all its chronic ineffectiveness in the postseason throughout the years – became MLS Cup favorites.
Then, the re-match, in the Eastern Conference Final, but with a devastating twist. That week, Lawrence fell in training and ruptured his knee, tearing his MCL and spraining his PCL. Lawrence was a Best XI player, one of only three defenders in Major League Soccer to earn a spot on the 11-man team of the season. The Red Bulls had another, Aaron Long, who won Defender of the Year. Having defeated Atlanta without Adams and Wright-Phillips, they held out hope a playoff win was possible without Lawrence.
The last time New York flew south to Atlanta, for a match on May 20, 2018, Lawrence suffered a different kind of fall. Like a chain reaction, Lawrence lost his balance and – for a brief moment – all coordination. He slipped forward with the ball bouncing toward him and, in his haste, didn’t brace the fall with his arms. His chest pounded the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf, causing his neck to violently snap back.
After remaining down for several minutes, Lawrence was stretchered off and rushed to the hospital. He stayed overnight in Atlanta while his team traveled back north with a 3-1 win. It was a seminal result, but an outcome that felt hollow without Lawrence, who, for a moment, saw his career flash before his eyes, like one of his lightning-quick runs down the wing.
“When you see an injury like that, you’re just, at that moment – you just have that feeling for that player,” Lawrence said. “For it to happen to me, while my family and everyone was watching, I just couldn’t imagine how they felt.
“When I actually called my wife and my friend, and everybody was just really sad, my wife was crying. So, you never want that to happen, especially if anybody’s in tears when it’s not tears of joy.”
Lawrence counts his blessings. After scoring his picturesque free kick against Mexico in the 2017 Gold Cup – a goal that improbably took the Reggae Boyz to the final – he dropped to the ground and said a prayer. At least he could run along the beach this past winter. There was a brief moment – before doctors told him that fall in Atlanta only resulted in minor whiplash – where that was not a certainty.
GOD ALONE CAN EXPLAIN THIS MOMENT pic.twitter.com/zeZtCKIpU4— Kemar Lawrence#92/20 (@kemarkemar24) July 24, 2017
Even still, missing the Eastern Conference Final this November, in Atlanta, crushed him. It was the biggest club game of his life. He couldn’t bear to be there when it all unfolded.
“They asked me to come on the trip, and I told them no,” Lawrence says with a laugh. “I told them I actually wanted to stay home and watch it on my TV. I had a feeling that I was going to be very, very mad about something. I wasn’t sure what. I just had a feeling that I was going to be pissed off about a couple things and I wouldn’t be able to come back with the team on the plane.
“Because, being at a game that you done everything right up to that point to play in and you get injured and you’re not able to play, you get that emotion drop where, you know, you feel sad. And, my thing was, I don’t want my teammates to see me in that mood or I don’t want that energy, that bad energy or that negative vibes that I’m feeling deep inside, around the team.”
The Red Bulls unraveled, losing by three goals, a result that would require a 3-0 or four-goal win in the second leg at Red Bull Arena. New York was not the same threat without Lawrence. Despite the Red Bulls priding themselves on their roster flexibility, there may in fact be one indispensable part. No one in that playoff series could replicate what the Jamaican brings to the game: the ground he covers, the speed he operates with, the tunnel-vision focus he possesses.
“I’m not a guy that likes to take credit for anything, really,” Lawrence said. “It doesn’t matter what I put into it because it’s all a team effort at the end of the day. But, as I said before, when God has blessed you in a different way, you do different things.
“And, my team is able to count on me, my teammates are able to count on me, my coaches. They know, especially in big games, playoff time, they know I’m completely locked in. They don’t have to worry about me missing details or missing tackles, making fouls, I’m totally locked in.
For all his innate physical talents, his mentality is equally marvelous. Few athletes – or just people – can flip the switch like Lawrence does. He balances a cool, charismatic irie vibe with the aggression and tenaciousness of midtown Manhattan. Off the field, he is chill. On the field, he is relentless. Sometimes, in the locker room, both sides will blend together.
Never was that more evident than on May 19, the day Lawrence was chasing when he ran on that Jamaican beach. It was a Sunday matinee, a playoff re-match inside Red Bull Arena. Sun soaked the perfectly-manicured grass, and there was playoff energy within the 25,000-seat confines.
The two sides had changed from last year. Atlanta head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino had taken over the Mexican national team and Almiron gone to England’s Newcastle United; meanwhile, Adams had departed for Germany’s RB Leipzig. But one of the biggest changes – overlooked in the grand scheme – was the player who stepped back in, desperate to prove a point.
“I think we all know that Kemar Lawrence is a special player and a special person,” Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas said. “He’s got personality, he’s got bite, he has passion, and it means a lot to him. And when he gets a run of games and gets fitness, he has something different. Like, you can see it, you can feel it, what he brings.”
Lawrence helped suffocate Atlanta in the first half, bombing up the left flank and getting back to defend, but his match wasn’t perfect. The same can be said for the Red Bulls, who went down to 10 men after Tim Parker’s 35th minute red card. Through a 65th minute moment of ingenuity, though, New York took a precious 1-0 lead.
65' GOAL, #RBNY! 1-0, NY.— James Justice (@JamesJusticeIII) May 19, 2019
The Red Bulls were running on fumes. One of the only fresh players, Sean Nealis, took it upon himself to chug forward, springing an attack where Danny Royer lifted a cross that Tom Barlow climbed up and headed down. Pandemonium. #RBNY #RBNYvATL pic.twitter.com/6JDKObRcx7
Then, in second half stoppage time, the moment that poured gasoline on the hottest, most irresistible rivalry in MLS.
Atlanta’s enigmatic winger, Tito Villalba, prancing around with his shorts hiked up, clattered into Lawrence while going for a 50-50 ball. Lawrence sprung up, stood over Villalba and unleashed a furious roar. Villalba got up and teasingly mimicked a trophy raise, referencing Atlanta’s playoff triumph. Lawrence shot back with the motion of cradling a baby. The full-time whistled sounded and Villalba ran into Lawrence, setting off anarchy as both sets of players and technical areas converged on one another.
Afterward, wearing a black floral shirt with eye-catching pink flowers, Lawrence was markedly intense; a dichotomy between his easygoing off-the-field life and strict on-the-field demeanor. His emotions were raw, and the tension so thick in the humid locker room it could be cut with a knife. He didn’t need reporters’ questions. He could guess the themes, and he had all the answers already, written in his head over the six months leading up to that point.
“I told you what was going to happen, right? I told you that we were going to win,” Lawrence said. “I was going to win it for my team. We went out there and did that.”
The visceral ending became the major talking point, displaying the authentic dislike – hatred, even – between these two top sides. It is an animosity built not on geographic proximity or a league-wide campaign, instead forged over seven engrossing encounters, in which the Red Bulls have five wins, but Atlanta the most important one in the playoffs.
“Look, Atlanta’s great and they have what we want,” Red Bulls captain Luis Robles said. “They have MLS Cup. And we have a great regular season record against them, and yet they have what we want. So, we have to keep going. This isn’t a destination, it’s just part of the journey.”
Robles, a linchpin of the club since 2012, is not yet willing to concede Atlanta – who entered the league in 2017 – is the club’s chief rival. But, some may disagree. It’s worth noting, while fans stay and carry the lore and bad blood with them – and Robles is sympathetic to that tradition – athletes come and go. For players without firsthand background to call on, the dislike of longtime rivalries can seem disingenuous.
In New York-Atlanta, everyone shares the animosity, because everyone has tasted it, none more so than Lawrence. Almost a year to the day that he was stretchered out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and almost six months after watching his team crumble without him in that same venue, Lawrence was out to prove a point.
“I can tell you, to be honest, they haven’t beaten us with me in the lineup, that I know for sure,” Lawrence said. “So, I don’t know what it is with them but, I just want to be in the lineup because, I have a feeling they won’t win.”
Lawrence is glistening with sweat as he speaks these words, nearly an hour after the match; his colorful floral shirt and shorts dampened, adrenaline still rushing through his veins. This is the feeling of pure happiness and contentment he had yearned for all off-season coming to fruition. His mind is an open book, and he pours out that toll of emotion. When asked about the rivalry, he already jumps to the next meeting: July 7, in Atlanta.
“I feel like when we go back to Atlanta, it’s not going to be nice,” he says with a laugh. “But I feel like this [rivalry] is at the top of the list. And, you know when we go there, because the way their fans respond to everything and try to raise the noise in the stadium, it’s a big rival.”
It is rare to see Lawrence tired, but when leaving the locker room, he looks physically and emotionally drained; the high of it all is beginning to wear off. As the tidal waves of emotion subside, the pain of a playoff loss – a stolen opportunity – begins to fade into the distance, like the horizon he gazed into during those runs along the beach this past winter.