Johnson: Current squad may be Jamaica's best ever

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Jamaica enter the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup on a high, coming off a Caribbean Cup win, loaded with experienced talent and currently boasting the third-highest FIFA ranking of any CONCACAF team.

According to San Jose Earthquakes forward Ryan Johnson, these Reggae Boyz are perhaps the best ever – even better than the sentimental favorites from 1998 who were part of Jamaica’s lone World Cup appearance.

“There were some great players [on that ’98 team], but I feel like we have just as good players now,” he told MLSsoccer.com last week. “The mentality of our players now [is] all about working hard and for each other. ... Jamaica has the opportunity to go really far with this group of players that we have now."

That ’98 team, which captured hearts in becoming the first English-speaking Caribbean nation to reach a World Cup, was the Reggae Boyz’ first real experiment in fielding players of Jamaican descent born abroad thanks to the research and scouting of Brazilian manager Renê Simões.

That’s not the case anymore, says Jamaican-born but Boston-raised Johnson, who notes that the squad has improved by more domestic talent going abroad to hone their skills on big stages.

“Jamaicans are everywhere now,” he said, citing the nine players on the Gold Cup squad who play in Europe and another nine, including himself, who call MLS home. “We have a lot of players that are comfortable in any kind of situation.”

That has created an unprecedented professionalism in Jamaica camp, Johnson says, one that which has turned the Reggae Boyz into a dangerous team that can improve on previous Gold Cup performances. Jamaica reached the quarterfinals twice, in 2003 and ’05, but failed to reach the ’07 edition and couldn’t get out of the group stage two summers ago.

This time around, Jamaica have been drawn into a rough Group B alongside fellow Caribbean side Grenada and Central American neighbors Guatemala and Honduras. The Reggae Boyz open their campaign against Grenada on June 6 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

Johnson thinks the key is winning that opening match, which will relieve some of the pressure of heading into Jamaica’s second and third group-stage game. And from there, he says, they can go further than they’ve ever gone at the Gold Cup.

Exactly how far? All the way.

“I think we can win every game that we play,” he said. “We just have to have the discipline and the maturity. If we have the maturity to play the way we know how to play, it’s going to be very hard to stop us.”