Two years removed from the tournament itself, few fans remember that the tiny island of Jamaica was an invited guest nation competing at Copa America 2015.
The oldest — and many believe the most fiercely contested — international football competition on Earth has long been dominated by perennial South American powers Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina (although without a title since 1993), and in recent years Chile. The role of a Jamaican national team in this setting is akin to that of the visiting team at a college football homecoming. Glad to have you. Prepare to lose. By a lot.
There was no upset on June 20, 2015 as heavily-favored Argentina defeated the Reggae Boyz 1-0 to advance to the quarterfinals of the tournament in a game that was supposed to serve as a celebration of the 100th appearance for Argentina by the world’s greatest player. Yet by night’s end, having witnessed Goliath’s inability to dominate David, more than a few observers were left with a single query.
Who is this defender that seems to have Lionel Messi in his pocket?
At the time Kemar Lawrence was 22 years old, starting left back for the New York Red Bulls. While some believed he was ticketed for Europe, “Taxi” as he is nicknamed, was a largely unknown entity throughout the soccer universe. He remains in MLS today.
Shep Messing and Steve Cangialosi break down a tight Red Bulls-Revolution tilt that saw New York gut out a come from behind home victory.
Fast forward to Saturday night at Red Bull Arena and a counterattack by one of the best transition teams in Major League Soccer. A ball played wide to New England striker Kei Kamara saw Lawrence in need to make up 15 yards in order to break up a scoring opportunity. To the delight of the holiday weekend crowd, he succeeds.
“He’s playing the best he’s ever played,” said head coach Jesse Marsch. “It’s just a series of consecutive games that he takes care of things defensively first, then find a way to be dangerous in attack and make some plays. It’s great to see.”
“I think for the last six weeks, Kemar has easily been our best player,” said Bradley Wright-Phillips, after scoring his sixth goal of the season and his 75th all-time in a brief MLS career that’s already seen him win the league’s Golden Boot as leading scorer twice. “He is very hard to deal with, and not just going forward.”
The game’s best defenders still like to factor into scoring, and Lawrence played a role in both goals of New York’s 2-1 victory over the Revolution. Earning the primary assist on Daniel Royer’s game-winning goal means that of Lawrence’s nine career MLS points, seven have been achieved on game-winning plays. He is an impact player a year removed from what can only be described as a disappointing 2016.
Lawrence didn’t register a single point last season, and the growing perception was that we’d seen the best of him. That would mean Messi simply had an off night at Copa America, and that the Red Bulls blew a chance to sell a player whose value abroad had long ago peaked.
Kemar Lawrence seals the three points for the Red Bulls after sliding the ball into the far post to give New York a 2-1 lead.
Lawrence plays a position that is not placed at a premium by too many observers of our league. A glance at MLS Best XI and All-Star teams through the years often reveal lineups that include three center backs, five midfielders and two forwards. It’s silly to believe that a team’s most potent weapon on any given night can’t come from the position made famous by the likes of Roberto Carlos, Paolo Maldini, and Philipp Lahm.
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Saturday’s victory was the Red Bulls’ sixth of the season, enabling the club to get back to .500, remain above the playoff line in the East, and restore its confidence with four Eastern Conference opponents on the schedule between now and July 5 (not including NYC in the U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round on June 14). You can count the number of players who’ve elevated their game from the 2016 first place finishers in the East on one hand.
Individually, it is Lawrence who’s provided the biggest bounce back.
The team will most definitely lose his services for games that coincide with the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer, as Lawrence is a virtual lock to be selected for the Jamaica side that competes in the tournament beginning July 9. He called his grandmother, Norma Seymour, who died earlier this year, “his best friend,” and is still coming to grips with the loss.
“He started out slow, had a couple of personal things he had to fight through with his family,” adds Marsch. “We’ve all here [at Red Bulls] had such a high belief in Kemar and his personality, and his talent. I’m really proud of him. I’m really happy for him. Hopefully, we won’t miss him too much this summer with Jamaica.”
Long forgotten is two years ago in which he earned a Group Stage Best XI nod in a tournament that featured the best South American born players in the world. A youth coach gave Lawrence his nickname and to this day he’s not sure why.
Today this “Taxi’s” meter is running. And it’s been a wonderful watch.