“My only love is Jamaica,” striker Ryan Johnson told FIFA.com ahead of the Reggae Boyz’ qualifying double-header against USA on 7 and 11 September. Born in the Jamaican capital of Kingston, Johnson moved with his family to the United States when he was still too young to kick a football.
Johnson played in the local leagues in the Boston area as a youngster before heading to University in Oregon on the USA’s west coast, and one would think the Toronto FC marksman might have mixed emotions lining up for his birth nation against his long-time home. “I grew up in a Jamaican household in the US from the age of two,” he said, leaving no doubt about where his loyalties lie. “Playing for Jamaica is beyond a dream come true.”
Technically available to play for USA, Johnson, with six goals this season for his Canada-based Major League Soccer outfit, clearly identifies himself as Jamaican. “Watching them [Jamaica] play on TV was the most exciting thing for me growing up,” he said, thinking back to the time the Boyz made history by reaching the FIFA World Cup™ finals in France in 1998. “Now, here I am playing for Jamaica in qualifying.”
Familiar foe in first cap
The 27-year-old forward is devastating in the air and packs lots of pace. He earned his first call-up for Jamaica in 2006, under then-coach Bora Milutinovic, for a friendly against, curiously enough, USA. Since then, Johnson has amassed 19 caps for the country of his birth and scored eight goals, including the winner in a recent qualifying victory against Guatemala.
Watching them [Jamaica] play on TV was the most exciting thing for me growing up.
Johnson’s current national team coach, Theodore Whitmore, was one of the feted heroes of that fabled 1998 Jamaica side, and he rates his striker among one of the most hard-working and consistent players in the team. Johnson, in turn, credits Whitmore with making Jamaica into a power in the CONCACAF zone once again, after years of stagnation.
“He’s got us unified,” Johnson said about his coach and childhood idol, who took over the post in June of 2009 and has since seen the team crowned Caribbean champions, reach the quarter-finals of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup and head in the right direction up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. “The coach has had the majority of this team playing together for three years now, so we know each other’s tendencies,” Johnson added. “He’s got all our respect, so when he [Whitmore] speaks, we listen.”
MLS-based Boyz eager to shine
Johnson is not the only connection to the USA in this Jamaican side, either. Whitmore has dropped a number of aging stars in recent years, choosing to dip into the ranks of Major League Soccer for Jamaicans who play their club football week in and week out in the USA’s top flight. Of the 23 Jamaican players selected for the two games against the Stars and Stripes, eight are affiliated with MLS clubs. “MLS is a tough league,” said Johnson. “The level of competition is high and there’s a lot of travel involved. The MLS players in the Jamaican team know each other well and that helps with cohesion.”
A striker with a vast array of tricks and flicks, Johnson is a journeyman who has played at University level, in the USA’s lower professional leagues and even the indoor five-a-side leagues played in American arenas, before finally establishing himself at San Jose Earthquakes and now in Toronto. “We [The Jamaicans who play in MLS] also know the US players’ strengths and weaknesses, because we play them every week,” Johnson added, noting that a drab goalless draw against minnows Antigua and Barbuda in their last qualifier was a “disappointing result.”
Jamaica are tangled with the star-studded Americans on four points at the top of Group A. With the top two teams in each of the three sections going through to the final hexagonal round of CONCACAF qualifying for Brazil 2014, Johnson knows the two games against the US are crucial. And his confidence of getting results off the group favourites, especially in the first game in Kingston, is brazenly high. “We have to go into the USA matches aiming to win,” said Johnson. “I’m confident in the quality of this current Jamaican team, and we have a lot of ways to break down this USA team with speed, technique, lots of ability and lots of experience too."