Scout Report: Three young Jamaicans ready to light up MLS

There were three Jamaicans in the top 10 picks of the first round in the 2014 Major League Soccer (MLS) SuperDraft last week: Andre Blake, Andre Lewis and Damion Lowe…

If that isn’t enough, Andre Blake was selected as the first pick of the SuperDraft by the Philadelphia Union.  He became the first goalkeeper to be top overall choice in the Draft. All three of these guys were born and bred in Jamaica and are ready to take American football by storm. We run the rule over each one of them…

Andre Blake – 23 – Goalkeeper – Philadelphia Union

Blake (left) greets MLS commissioner Don Garber on stage at the MLS SuperDraft (courtesy of Soccer.SI)

Andre Blake stands on stage, Philadelphia scarf wrapped around him, hands in pockets and engulfed in a dream bubble. He’s just been announced the very first pick of the SuperDraft. That in itself is an incredible achievement. But to be the first goalkeeper to do so is even more incredible. Asked he it feels to be named the first overall pick, Blake sighs before replying: “I mean words can’t explain right now how I’m feeling. First of all I want to say I’m a firm believer of God so I just want to say thanks to God right now. Thanks to MLS and Generation Adidas for believing in me and giving me the opportunity.” His words are humble and heartfelt. This is clearly an affable guy whose own hard graft and faith has propelled him to where he is now. You can’t help but admire.

Born in May Pen, Jamaica – Blake says it is “talent and foundation” as well as “being exposed to soccer at a very early age” that has helped him reach the lofty heights he’s currently at. From when he was a young boy, no other position on the field interested him. He loved preventing goals, commanding the box, diving around and being acrobatic. He says: “My dad, my brothers, they would always take me to the soccer field ever since I was young, since I was five. It all started there.”

Blake – pictured in goal for the University of Connecticut – gets down low to push the ball to safety (courtesy of UConn Athletics)

Concentrated on the game…(courtesy of NESoccerJournal.com)

He was destined to be a top level goalkeeper.

Blake was a member of the Harbour View and Sporting Central youth sides in his homeland and attended Clarendon College High School in Clarendon, Jamaica. In his final year at High School, the University of Connecticut (UConn) scouts traveled to Jamaica to see what all the fuss was about regarding Blake and were amazed by what they saw. He was snapped up almost straight away. At College level in the US, he  kept goal for  for three years at UConn but left a year early after signing a Generation Adidas contract with MLS. He continued to make numerous clean-sheets and claim respected awards such as “Big East Goalkeeper of the Year” (2011) and “American Athletic Conference Goalkeeper of the Year” (2013). “Andre will be an all-star in that league [MLS],” says Ray Reid, Blake’s former UConn coach. “He’s a fantastic goalkeeper.” 

Positive comments are coming in thick and fast for Blake, who made an outstanding impression at the MLS Combine in Florida. Athletic, vocal and a competent shot stopper – the 23-year-old excelled and was by far one of the key performers. It was blindingly obvious that this was no ordinary goalkeeper. One of the main aspects of Blake’s game is his positioning and authority in the box. Crosses will be whipped in and he’ll be the first to run out and claim the ball. 9 times out of 10, he catches it and relieves the pressure on the defence. Blake himself describes his style of play as  “fun to watch” and that he tries “to make everything simple”.

Jamaica’s No.1 Donovan Ricketts – a member of Portland Timbers and  reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year – will be cautiously looking over his shoulder. Blake looks up to him as a role model. “He’s [Ricketts] a guy I look up to. I remember when I was with the [Jamaica] U-20s and he came back from England and that was the first time I came in touch with him and he came to a practice. I felt honored to practice with that guy,” he says. “I really look up to him.” Indeed, Blake has been a prominent member of all Jamaica’s youth squads and recently he was called up to the seniors for Hexagonal World Cup qualifiers. Now the qualifying campaign for Brazil is over, The Reggae Boyz are setting their sights on Russia 2018 by which time Blake will be aged 27. Ricketts will be past his prime and Blake will be at the peak of his career. Without question, he is Jamaica’s future No.1.

Blake is starting off as a MLS rookie but evidently has all the ingredients to learn quickly and make a genuine name for himself at Philadelphia. The support he has is immense and a lot of people already know about him through his SuperDraft exploits. With his club and national prospects looking very bright indeed, there’s no hindering Andre Blake’s ascent up the footballing ladder…

Andre Lewis – 19 – Midfielder – Vancouver Whitecaps

Lewis (left) pictured in action for Jamaica U17s in qualifying for the 2011 U17 World Cup in Mexico (courtesy of Jamaica Gleaner)

Nothing seems to fear Andre Lewis. It was the 19-year-old’s brave and confident nature which set him apart from the rest and made him glow so bright at the Combine. At the end of the event, Lewis had pundits and spectators alike purring over his potential. A paragraph on MLSSoccer.com sums up his main attributes: “Regarded as one of the top talents in the Jamaican pipeline. A young, creative midfielder who plays on either flank of midfield. He is regarded as one of the most technical young players in Jamaica. His combination of ball control and passing ability sets him apart.” 

They are bold words but obviously Lewis is extremely well regarded. He began his career at Portmore United in Jamaica before making the jump to College level with St. George’s. At the same time, he was beginning to make a mark on the youth international scene. As a slight 16-year-old,  Lewis operated the right wing for the Under-17 team which qualified for the Under-17 World Cup in Mexico in 2011. For large parts of the tournament, Jamaica were bereft of any offensive threat. Lewis provided a creative spark and scored in the final group game against France in a historic 1-1 draw. For such a small and slender player, Lewis boasts surprising good upper body strength and is tenacious in the tackle. He was also picked to travel with the Under-20s for the CONCACAF U20 Championship last year. The Jamaicans battled well and reached the quarter-finals only to suffer a pounding by, ironically, Mexico. In late 2012, Lewis received his much-anticipated call-up to the full seniors.

Lewis was considered one of the stand-out performers at the MLS Combine in Florida (courtesy of TheProvince.Com)

Lewis was the No.7 pick in the SuperDraft and joined Vancouver Whitecaps, who were in need of a creative attacking midfielder. He was the first international player and first non-collegiate player taken which speaks volumes about his ability. However, his signing with the Whitecaps wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been. In fact, it was wholly controversial. Lewis had actually penned a deal with the second tier side New York Cosmos prior to his selection by the Whitecaps at the SuperDraft.

American football writer Jason Davies explains: “After the news broke [via Goal USA] that Lewis was in fact already signed to a professional contract with the Cosmos, fingers of blame shot out in all directions. Questions pertaining to Lewis’s contract status, and who was informed of what, when (apparently Lewis signed with the Cosmos after his combine performance but before the MLS SuperDraft) dominated the post-draft discussion. On the back of Vancouver’s contest of wills with Camilo, it was easy to suspect the Whitecaps failed in some way, spending a precious draft pick on a player who might never suit up for them. A league statement indicates that Lewis will head into pre-season training with Vancouver and remain with the club through an agreement with the Cosmos should Vancouver decide to keep him. Whether that proves to be a loan or a sale is unclear, as is who will incur the cost of any transfer should Lewis’s contract move from the NASL club to Major League Soccer’s centralized system.”

(Skip to 0:28 for Lewis’ strike in the U17 World Cup)

Ives Galarcep of Goal.com writes: “The Lewis fiasco was more simply the case of someone at MLS making a mistake, and the Cosmos stepping in and signing a player they had scouted for some time.”

Contractual confusion aside, Lewis should prove a massive hit in US football. It is imperative that he keeps his feet on the ground, continues to keep working hard in training and the rich rewards will follow. Jamaica have a fine young talent on their hands.

Damion Lowe – 20 – Defender – Seattle Sounders

Lowe (right) is congratulated after being picked by Seattle at the SuperDraft (courtesy of KitsapSun.Com)

The final Jamaican to profile is 20-year-old central defender Damion Lowe. Selected with the No.8 pick in the SuperDraft by Seattle Sounders, Lowe was ever-present in the heart of the defence in the Combine. A brawny, robust type of a defender – Lowe reads the game accurately and should slot into the Sounders back-line with effect. Son of former Jamaican international Onandi Lowe, there is perhaps added pressure on ‘Nana’ (this is his popular nickname) to deliver because of his roots. But he denies that. “I don’t feel pressured because both of us are two different types of persons. He’s Onandi Lowe. I’m Damion Lowe. Two different personalities,” he said. Damion’s father wasn’t the best role model as a footballer. He once stormed off the field in an international and was later handed a ban. But the youngster thinks people are too judgmental and he still looks up to his dad: “I’ve dedicated this year and this level of soccer to him because he’s been through a lot – ups and downs – I want to follow in his footsteps positively.”

Lowe describes himself as “pretty much aggressive on the field”, but “humble” off it. Invited to the MLS Combine after three successful seasons at the University of Hartford (UH) in the United States, Lowe played youth football for top Jamaican club Harbour View.  He attended Camperdown High School in Kingston before switching to UH. At UH, he flourished and was called up to the same Jamaican Under-20 team which featured Andre Lewis. He scored in the 1-4 hammering of Puerto Rico in the CONCACAF Championship last year and has high hopes for pulling on the senior shirt.

Lowe (centre) celebrates his 60th minute goal against Puerto Rico for the U20s last year (courtesy of ReadingUnitedAC.Com)

And Lowe isn’t afraid of acknowledging his achievements, too, as his post on Facebook in December 2013 shows: “I can say I had a successful 2013…..it is now coming to an end and I am a bit satisfied with my achievements thus far. Thanks to everybody who has supported me through my good time and bad times…like going through injuries and adopting to a new culture. I can say through hard work, confidence and persistence and having faith in God I achieved and deserved all my awards. Thanks again to the all. Thank you father God.”

Lowe has persevered and shown great dedication to become a professional within the game. “It’s a dream come true,” he beams. “As a kid I always wanted to play professional soccer. It’s awesome, it’s a great feeling.” And playing on the big stage in front of thousands of people doesn’t seem to bother him, either: “When I was playing for the [Jamaica] U20s in Mexico, there was like 50,000 [spectators]. So I’m kind of used to that right now. I like the environment that Seattle has to bring to the players and I’m looking forward to that.”

He speaks with such confidence and swagger, that you forget this is just a 20-year-old guy speaking in front of the cameras. He says he is a “warrior on and off the field” and his formidable strength and unquenchable thirst for progression bodes well for the Jamaica national team heading into the future. Alvas Powell is another very promising young Jamaican centre half – he’s just 19 – who is on loan at Portland Timbers in the MLS from Portmore United. Lowe is close with him and Powell-Lowe as a central defensive combination is an exciting prospect.

Without question, Damion Lowe is a name worth remembering.

What this means for the foundation of Jamaican football

College football in Jamaica (courtesy of Jamaica Gleaner)

So what does this actually mean for Jamaican football? It’s certainly a massive boost and it is no fluke that three players hailing from Jamaica were included in the top 10 picks. There are increasingly more Jamaicans transferring to the MLS. Local clubs on the island have profited from elite MLS teams buying local, homegrown talent. Instead of moving to the likes of Europe, they’re choosing America and Canada instead. When you think about it, the fact Jamaica has been able to produce and hone so many competent footballers who have switched to the MLS is really quite remarkable. The country has had to rely on its high schools to steer youngsters in the right direction. There are no luxurious, expansive academies. From high school, some (the very best) are cherry-picked and awarded scholarships to universities but the vast majority rot away and give up on the game.

The Jamaica Observer newspaper recently published an article on their website, enthusing a revamp of the Jamaican Football Federation’s (JFF) programme: “The JFF should encourage young footballers by providing as much exposure as possible regionally and internationally. Calendar international age-group tournaments for Under-17s, Under-20s and Under-23s help. But also, the JFF needs to proactively find exposure for its young home-based players in friendlies against Caribbean Football Union member countries, for example. We need much, much more of those initiatives which brought young Jamaican and Trinidadian national teams up against each other last year. Let’s also get regular competition against Barbados, Guyana, St Lucia, Guadeloupe, Cuba, Haiti, et al. It’s expensive. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Friendlies like this for the national U17s against Haiti are needed more in the JFF Calendar (courtesy of Jamaica Gleaner)

The article added: “Priority attention must be paid to strengthening and broadening the base of Jamaica’s football. The JFF needs to get beyond words.”

It’s a significant point and until words are turned into actions, this is an ongoing cycle. Blake, Lewis and Damion are prime examples of young Jamaican footballers (born and bred on the island, nurtured via youth clubs in Jamaica) that have benefited from the attention shown to them from an early age. Their natural talent has helped hugely but also via exposure, experience and effective advice.

Jamaican football is bursting with potential and exciting, raw youngsters. It’s about harnessing their abilities and constructing a sound national programme in which to work in that is truly essential for development and indeed enhancing the base of football in Jamaica.

By Nathan Carr

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*Thanks for reading (apologies over length, but always better to include too much detail than too little).

*You can track us down on Twitter @caribbeanftbl

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