Gold Cup: Strong showing has Jamaica dreaming of new era

Shavar Thomas with Jamaica.

Photo Credit: 
MexSport

WASHINGTON — Even in the prime of its “golden generation,” the talented group that carried the national team to its first and only FIFA World Cup appearance at France 1998, Jamaica never looked likely to challenge the supremacy of CONCACAF’s “big two” of Mexico and the United States.

But the performances at this year’s Gold Cup squad have given the Reggae Boyz new hope of climbing into the region’s elite, as a long list of Jamaican players in top-flight leagues overseas blend savvy and professionalism with the island nation’s more established qualities of strength, speed and spontaneity.

Some have called this the most talented Jamaican team ever constructed — and comparisons to the beloved ’98 group are understandable. But Shavar Thomas took another view entirely when he discussed his side’s recent revival after their Saturday training session at RFK Stadium, where they will face the US in the Gold Cup quarterfinals on Sunday (3 pm ET, Fox Soccer).

“I can say the ones in the past were way more talented than us right now,” said the Sporting Kansas City defender and MLS veteran. “But we have a thing that we’ve been doing since 2009 where everyone focuses as a team. This is a team atmosphere and everybody works for the team. That’s what’s been going so well for us.”

Thomas revealed that a string of humbling setbacks — failure to qualify for the 2007 Gold Cup, an underwhelming showing in the tournament’s 2009 edition and the inability to even reach the final, hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in 2006 and 2010 — prompted those in and around the program to take stock.

Mindful of some Caribbean players’ traditional tendency to prioritize club over country, Jamaican players vowed to ratchet up their commitment to the national side.

“We have professional guys who play overseas at big clubs but a lot of times when they got here, the focus was not the same as they would do at their clubs," said Thomas. "And that’s a major difference [this year]. Since the last Gold Cup in 2009, we said, ‘We have too much talent not to advance.’ And we said that we have to do this as a team, as a group. And that’s what’s been working so far.”

About a decade ago, the national team dropped in the FIFA world rankings far enough that Jamaican players lost easy access to opportunities in the English Premier League due to complex work visa strictures. Yet an increasing number of them looked to Major League Soccer and smaller European leagues, where they have prospered. Jamaica called more players in from MLS (eight) than any other Gold Cup participant.

“The fact is that doors are being opened now for our players to go abroad to ply their trade, which is good,” noted assistant coach Warren Barrett on Saturday. “We have a number of players who play here in the US, we have a number of players in Europe. So that has really broadened their horizons for the national team, and also the professional environment and attitude that they find themselves in.

“Week in and week out, they play in very strong, competitive leagues, so at the end of the day, that enhances our national team.”

Jamaica have played like a regional power in their 3-0 start to the Gold Cup, three strong displays which, when compared to the struggles of fellow Caribbean countries like Grenada, make it easy to forget just how small “Jamrock,” with its population of 2.8 million, really is on soccer’s world stage. Now the Reggae Boyz hope to make overachievement the norm, starting with Sunday’s quarterfinal.

“We’ve been playing well, but on the other end, we know that all the hard work that we put in to get to this stage means nothing,” said Barrett. “So tomorrow is do-or-die. We know one team has to go forward and one team has to go home. But we are prepared to go on.”