TUCSON, Ariz. – Ryan Johnson and Donovan Ricketts fly south on Sunday. When they land, half a continent away in the heart of Mexico, they hope to find a brand new Jamaica.
That’s the message the Timbers’ two Reggae Boyz veterans trumpeted on Friday night after a preseason friendly vs. Sporting KC (Portland lost, 1-0). Johnson, a forward, and Ricketts, the long-time Jamaican No. 1, both have their eyes firmly set upon the showdown with Mexico at the Estadio Azteca, and hope to use the World Cup qualifying opener as a chance to put the “embarrassment” of December’s Digicel Caribbean Cup flameout behind them.
“It was just … unprofessional. The way the games were approached, the way the whole tournament was approached,” Johnson said before trailing off, his frustration readily apparent. “We have guys that hold themselves at a higher standard. Just having that is going to be a completely different environment for this Jamaican team.”
Johnson was part of the Jamaican squad that crashed and burned in the Caribbean Cup group stage, finishing bottom of Group B with one draw, two losses and just one goal scored in three games against Martinique, Cuba and French Guiana.
It’s a modern low point for the Reggae Boyz, who’ve been one of the dominant powers in the Caribbean for the better part of two decades. It also means they’ve missed out on this summer’s Gold Cup, and that’s prompted head coach Theodore Whitmore to make a near-total roster overhaul ahead of Wednesday's game vs. El Tri.
“Playing in Mexico is tough,” Ricketts explained. “Playing with a team that’s newly constructed – I think we’ll have about two training sessions together – makes it even tougher. But we’re Jamaican. We learn to adapt to situations, and I think we’ll do OK.”
In addition to Johnson and Ricketts, Houston Dynamo defender Jermaine Taylor is also in camp for the trip to Mexico City. Those are the only three MLS players who got the call.
Most of the new blood comes from England, with Jermaine Beckford – recently of Everton in the English Premier League, but now plying his trade a level down in the Championship for Huddersfield Town – probably the most familiar name. Dane Richards, who moved from the Whitecaps to Burnley this winter, is also in the squad.
“I wish these guys were here earlier, just so we could get accustomed to playing together and get to know each other,” Johnson offered. "But that’s just the way it is sometimes."
Yet even with the short turnaround between “nice to meet you” and the first whistle at the toughest venue in CONCACAF, Johnson is confident.
“It’s a mentality thing," he said. "It’s a different team, a complete different mindset, and number one, it’s the quality. The quality’s going to be better.”
And it’ll have to be. As Ricketts put it, “It’s Mexico. It’s a very tough task – you prepare 10 months, it’s [still] going to be tough playing at high altitude at the Azteca. It’s the best game to start and get it out of the way.”
And in the process, it'll give the “new” Jamaica a chance to make December’s failure just a memory.
FULL JAMAICA NATIONAL TEAM ROSTER
Goalkeepers (3): Donovan Ricketts (Portland Timbers), Dwayne Miller (Syrianska/Sweden), Duwayne Kerr (Strommen/Norway)
Defenders (6): Alvas Powell (Portmore United FC/Jamaica), Nyron Nosworthy (Watford/England), Damion Stewart (Notts County/England), Adrian Mariappa (Reading/England), Demar Phillips (Aalesunds/Norway), Jermaine Taylor (Houston Dynamo)
Midfielders (9): Andre Lewis (Cavalier SC/Jamaica), Joel McAnuff (Reading/England), Jermaine Johnson (Sheffield Wednesday/England), Tremaine Stewart (Aalesunds/ Norway), Rudolph Austin (Leeds United/England) Marvin Elliot (Bristol City/England), Jason Morrison (Aalesunds/Norway), Jermaine Hue (Harbour View/Jamaica), Omar Daley (Motherwell/Scotland)
Forwards (5): Garath McCleary (Reading/England), Jermaine Beckford (Huddersfield Town/England), Theo Robinson (Derby County/England), Ryan Johnson (Portland Timbers), Dane Richards (Burnley/England)