There may have been some growing pains, but Darren Mattocks has figured out the recipe for success in MLS: Mom’s jerk chicken.
Back in March, just two months after joining the Vancouver Whitecaps as the second overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, Mattocks was preparing one of his favorite chicken dishes on the stove when he incurred what sources called a “bizarre” and “mysterious” cooking injury that kept him out of the lineup for all but one minute of his team’s first nine games.
WATCH: Mattocks finishes from Camilo
It left the 21-year-old Jamaican striker with burns to his arm and shoulder, and landed him in the hospital. Naturally, Mattocks got a visit from his mother.
She has since moved in with the youngest of her four children and taken over the kitchen duties.
“Having my mom around is really amazing,” Mattocks told MLSsoccer.com before last Friday’s 2-1 win over RSL. “She’s taking care of the kitchen and I can just focus on playing soccer. I’m staying out of the kitchen and on the field.”
It's been a good arrangement. Mattocks has stayed on the field, and is well in the Rookie of the Year race as his team battles for postseason positioning in the stacked Western Conference.
Mattocks is in sensational form, tallying seven goals in his past 13 games, showing the league just how potent an attacker he is and justifying Vancouver’s recent decisions to trade strikers Sébastien Le Toux and Eric Hassli.
“Darren does a great job getting in behind teams and we see that as important in the way we play,” Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie said. “Sébastien was playing as a wide right player for us, not a striker. So, it made sense to get a natural wide player in Dane. Then with Eric, we got a good offer from Toronto, so it made sense for us, given his [Designated Player] dollars, to make that trade as well.
“The only reason [Darren] wasn’t playing earlier was because he wasn’t available,” Rennie continued. “Right from the start we knew what we were missing. I don’t think other people did, but we knew we were missing a really key part of our team with his pace and his movement.”
Now we all know, thanks to 'the leap.'
“Even we were shocked how high he was able to jump and how long he stayed in the air,” Rennie said about Mattocks’ basketball-like posterizing of Toronto’s Logan Emory on July 11, when the Whitecaps rookie elevated over the defender to head home an injury-time equalizer past oncoming goalkeeper Milos Kocic in the dying moments of a game at BMO Field.
WATCH: Mattocks climbs over Kocic
That goal was so sensational that Toronto’s dramatic winner moments later was almost lost as an afterthought.
“It’s the kind of thing shown all over world and people still can’t believe just what he was able to do,” Rennie continued. “That one play showed the raw athletic power, which we all know he has.”
Now, the powers that be are starting to take notice. Mattocks, who was invited to his first camp with the Jamaican national team three years ago after graduating from high school, has earned his second call up for his country's international friendly against El Salvador in Washington on Wednesday.
If everything is falling into place for Mattocks now, much of it has to do with his decision to enter the American college system. From a young age, people chirp in the ears of talented Jamaican players, telling them they have what it takes to make it as a pro and urging them to try their luck in Europe.
Instead of possibly bouncing around from trial to trial with European clubs, Mattocks enrolled at the University of Akron, scored 39 goals in two seasons, and won a College Cup under current US Under-23 national team head coach Caleb Porter — one of American soccer’s best at molding college stars into professionals.
“I was definitely getting that advice, to go to Europe,” Mattocks said. “But for me, I don’t think it was a difficult decision. At the end of the day, I weighed the pros and cons for each and most definitely decided that college would be the better route to take in terms of getting the best out of my soccer. I needed to get a bit sharper and learn before going pro. Now I’m applying what I learned at Akron and doing it for Vancouver.”
WATCH: Mattocks burns Portland
Mattocks has won over at least one admirer: Jamaican national team captain Shavar Thomas, a 10-year MLS vet, who, like an increasing number of Jamaican players, utilized the American education system to help realize his dream of becoming a pro soccer player.
“When Darren made his move to college, that was tremendous,” said Thomas, who accepted a scholarship to Hotchkiss, an elite prep high school in northwest Connecticut, before enjoying an All-America career at UConn.
Thinking back on his first meeting with Mattocks at national team camp a couple of years ago, before Mattocks left for the States, Thomas knew he saw a future star.
“He just needed someone to harness that talent and show him the way,” said Thomas, who currently plays for the Montreal Impact. “He was hard-working and handled himself well. I’m excited to see what he has to offer this week. Most young players right now in Jamaica aren’t looking to go to college and then MLS. They’re looking for Europe. For him to make this step and come get education to become a pro, I take my hat off to him.”