For the better part of Dane Richards’ first three seasons in Major League Soccer, most of his reviews carried a similar tune. He was lightning quick, but lacked patience. He’d do amazing things with the ball and then lose it with the simplest touch. The easy things eluded him while he made the tough tasks look easy. Now though, age 27, the wide man has found his rhythm and is targeting success for the star-studded New York Red Bulls and his ever-improving Jamaican national team.

“He had to wait a long little while,” Jamaica coach and former playing hero Theodore Whitmore chuckled to in a recent interview, describing Richards’ five-year wait from his first cap in 2002 - when he was still an 18-year-old amateur playing University football in the USA - to his re-inclusion in the national set-up in 2007. “But he’s become a man and he deserves everything that’s coming his way. He’s a big part of our team now.”  

I am sure we can improve even more, and build on the changes we made in the team. I am hungry to get back playing.

Richards is eagerly awaiting the new MLS season

Richards, who grew up in a crowded house with five sisters in Montego Bay, has burgeoned into one of Jamaica’s finest players. He top-scored with three goals and looked every inch the best player at last year’s Caribbean Cup in Martinique where he won his second title with Jamaica in a row. “We’ve been working together as a team for the last three years or so,” Richards said of the Jamaican side that will head to the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer with unusually high hopes. “We have a core of experienced players who are leading the way and a crop of younger guys who are learning their way.

“We are used to each others’ style of play,” he continued to, looking ahead with confidence, aiming to “go all the way” at this year’s CONCACAF showpiece in the familiar venue of the USA. “Jamaica is rebuilding and I think this team can do big things,” he said, hoping to improve on the Gold Cup showing in 2009 where the Reggae Boyz, complete with overseas stars Ricardo Fuller and Ricardo Gardner, went out in the first round.

Stars lead the way
The reasons for a player’s turnaround aren’t always easy to pinpoint – sometimes it all just comes together. But Richards, for one, can point directly to the cause of his revival last season. “Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez changed everything,” he says with a laugh, referring to club side New York Red Bulls’ huge-money overseas signings last year. “I learned things from these guys. The things you see them do, their professionalism and experience. You can’t ignore that,” said Richards, pointing out the cause of his amazing late-season form last year.

With Thierry Henry ahead of him poking holes up the flank and Marquez’s long-range passing, Richards became a new man. “They made me strive for bigger things,” Richards added, before addressing the surprising failure of his Red Bulls – so packed with talent – to reach past the quarter-final stage of the 2010 MLS play-offs. “Last year wasn’t the huge disappointment people said it was. In the seasons before we were a disaster, but last year was a huge turnaround for us as a team. We won the Eastern Conference, but we just ran out of gas in the play-offs.”

On the topic of momentum, Richards is eager to continue his progress in the coming year for both club and country. “I am sure we can improve even more, and build on the changes we made in the team. I am hungry to get back playing,” said Richards, keen to pull his Red Bulls jersey back on for Hans Backe’s club when the 2011 campaign begins later this month. “I want to win MLS Cup so bad and I want to pick up my game.”

Coach Whitmore also hopes young Richards is able to pick it up and continues to learn from masters Henry and Marquez in the Big Apple. Jamaica are aiming for bigger things, perhaps a place at the next FIFA Confederations Cup (on offer for the winner of the CONCACAF showpiece) and then a return to the FIFA World Cup™, a tournament the Reggae Boyz have qualified for only once in their history. “For the Red Bulls we have a lot of leaders and I need to do more of the listening, but when I play for my country I have to be a leader,” he concluded quietly, “and I am to be.”