KINGSTON Jamaica – The Reggae Boyz find themselves at a crossroads as they prepare to complete a torrid stint of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers with Tuesday's testing visit to Honduras, and their choice could help determine the course of the wider Hexagonal race.
Stuck in last place with only two points at the halfway point of their schedule, Jamaica face a steep climb to return to genuine contention for qualification. That has led some to suggest that it's high time to reboot, whether that means a coaching change, a squad makeover or both.
“Sack The Coaches!” blared one headline in one of the nation's largest newspapers, using the words of former Reggae Boyz manager Geoffrey Maxwell, who now coaches domestically in the Red Stripe Premier League, to say what was already on the lips of many with regards to national team coach Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore. Some insiders even expect the Jamaica Football Federation to review his position as early as this week, upon return from Tegucigalpa.
Others, like Reggae Boy turned Real Salt Lake coach Andy Williams, emphasize the need to turn focus ahead and begin grooming a younger generation for the 2018 cycle by providing opportunities for greener recruits in the final five games of the Hex.
For the rest of these qualifiers they shouldn't play anyone over the age of 24 from here on out. Start building a foundation— Andy Williams (@bommadog) June 8, 2013
The drumbeat in favor of increased opportunities for Darren Mattocks grew louder this week, after the exciting, but at times erratic, Vancouver striker saw just 27 minutes of play over two matches against Mexico and the USA.
“He cares. We all care,” said Johnson, discussing his coach's anguished reactions to the defeat. “We feel sometimes that we're on our own sometimes because there's so much criticism and people thinking they know what's best for the team and this and that. People just need to trust the coach and whatever he says, goes. If we succeed, then we succeed. If we don't, we don't.
“But there's just too much people with their opinions that have never been in this situation, never been a professional athlete in their lives.”
Whitmore has been in charge since 2009 and has led a sweeping overseas talent search over the past year. The process seems to have raised the overall level of ability at his disposal, but may have come at the cost of team cohesion heading into a strenuous Hex experience.
“This is not easy. USA is not a team you just walk over,” said Johnson. “The first time we beat them was just [nine] months ago, last year – that was the first time in history, no [Jamaican] team has ever beaten them and we have, we accomplished that.
“People seem to forget sometimes that we're a young team and just trying to get our identity. The lineups aren't always consistent, it's very different a lot. We're just trying to gel as quickly as we can on the field, with strangers, basically.”
Players and coaches have lamented the severely limited time windows in which that process has been able to take place and the Portland Timbers target man believes there is reason for optimism despite the standings' bleak reality.
“That's something we have to deal with as international players. We all come in as individuals and we have to try to gel as quickly as possible,” said Johnson after Friday's 2-1 defeat to the US. “And that's the job of the team, the organization, to get these guys to gel as quickly as possible in just days, basically, before these games. It's not always going to be pretty, but the effort has to be there and the effort was there from a lot of the guys tonight, I thought.”
Inevitably taking roster slots from familiar and well-loved domestic players, Whitmore's imports have aggravated a segment of the home fanbase and at this point Hexagonal victories may be the only achievements that will calm those flames.
Yet as one Kingston-based journalist noted to MLSsoccer.com after the result, “People forget, they don't have to win the group – they were never going to win the group. They just need fourth” – which offers a berth in a two-legged qualifying playoff with New Zealand. Whitmore's current group looks equally as talented as the Trinidad & Tobago squad which snuck into the 2006 World Cup via that route, though any such thoughts require Jamaica to start winning immediately and often.
There are pros and cons to all the options at the disposal of the JFF, an organization which has been quick to jettison managers in the past. And their Hexagonal counterparts will be watching, to see if the Reggae Boyz become an easier-looking opponent down the stretch this fall.
“We can beat teams like Honduras, we can beat Panama, we can beat Costa Rica,” said Johnson. “That's what our focus is going into these next games. If people aren't with us, then they're not with us, but we're going to stick together.”