Like most kids growing up in Jamaica, Alvas Powell’s first sport was track.
“I was a sprinter,” the Philadelphia Union defender said. “But I could not win any races.”
There’s no shame in that. With Jamaican sprinters winning eight medals in Tokyo, the tiny island of 2.9 million people has claimed 86 Olympic medals in track and field, more per capita than any other country in the world.
If Cubans were born to play baseball and Italians to sing opera, Jamaicans were born to run fast. And if they aren’t fast enough, there’s always soccer.
“When I was younger, I started with track. I was doing 100 meters,” Galaxy defender Oniel Fisher said. “But I didn’t like the concept of getting up to run every morning. That’s when I wanted to see what else is out there for me and I started playing [soccer].
“We’re natural-born athletes, you know, so it’s easy to adapt.”
That has proven a huge asset for Jamaica’s national soccer team, which meets the unbeaten U.S. on Thursday in Austin, Texas, in a CONCACAF World Cup qualifier. Jamaica has played in soccer’s world championship just once, in 1998, and has won just two games in the final round of qualifying this century, leaving it lagging far behind the country’s track program.
But Jamaica’s status as sprint powerhouse has paid dividends for the national soccer team by providing inspiration and drawing trainers and deep-pocketed sponsors to the island. It’s also given birth to some thinly veiled jealousy.
“The biggest thing for us is getting our country in a better place footballwise. Put ourselves on the maps for football, not track. We want to get there, where people know Jamaica is a football country,” Fisher said.
Midfielder Kemar Lawrence, who plays in MLS with Toronto FC, agreed.
“We love our sprinters. We were happy that you can put a tag on us and say ‘these guys are fast’,” said Lawrence, whose 64 appearances with the national team are second-most among active players. “But if we don’t take care of business on the pitch, we will never get that respect.
“Our sprinters went out there and got the job done. They won their gold medals. We just need to do the same. We need to get out there, play some really good football and show people what we’re good at.”
Getting back to the World Cup is necessary to make that happen, especially after the women’s team made its World Cup debut two years ago in France. And while the qualifying campaign isn’t off to a great start— the Reggae Boyz (0-2-1) are winless in three games — the fact they’re playing in the tournament at all is worth celebrating because Jamaica hasn’t won a game in the final round of World Cup qualifying since 2002.
“Every great thing has to start from somewhere,” Lawrence said. “The guys in ’98 gave us a blueprint and showed us ways to get there. It’s unfortunate it’s taken us this long to really fight again. But I feel like this is just the start.”
Part of the reason for that confidence, Lawrence said, comes from the fact that 16 of the 20 men on Jamaica’s roster play for foreign clubs. In 1998, 14 of the players on the World Cup team played in Jamaica’s National Premier League.
“The caliber of players we have now, they’re playing [on] better teams in England or in Germany or in MLS,” said Lawrence, one of six MLS players on the Jamaican roster. “When you play [on] a team with a bigger name, you play around more quality players, so you learn more and that gets transferred when they come play with Jamaica.”
That’s a double-edged sword though because as the country’s profile in international soccer grows, Jamaica no longer is taken lightly.
“This is a difficult team,” said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, who is wary of Jamaica’s speed on the counterattack. “It’s a difficult team to break down.
“I expect there to be urgency with Jamaica. We know it’s a good team, we know it’s a physical team. And we know there are some challenges they bring.”
The Americans (1-0-2) will be without two of their biggest offensive threats Thursday in Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna. Both are out with injuries. Jamaica, meanwhile, will be without West Ham striker Michail Antonio, who cited travel issues in his decision not to participate in October’s three qualifiers.
That will add to the challenges for a team of sprinters who have stumbled out of the blocks and are quickly running out of time to get up to speed.
“The future is here, now. So we have to get everything right, right now,” said Powell, one of 12 players on the Jamaican roster who will be over age 30 when the final round of qualifying begins for the next World Cup. “And right now, we’re not in a good place.
“We just have to keep believing. Qualifying for the World Cup, we know what it means to the country, what it means to us. So it’s now or never for us.”
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