It’s Time For Jamaica To Grow Up
5:39 PM EDT on July 10, 2023
It’s almost time for the 2023 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our team previews here.
Four years ago, Jamaica could be happy to simply be there. The "there" back then was France, the site of the 2019 women's World Cup, for which the Reggae Girlz had qualified in stunning fashion for the first time ever. Simply making it to France was victory enough, a crowning achievement for a national team that had gone from death—the program had been totally defunded and abandoned between the years of 2010 and 2014—to the height of life in just a few short years.
That 2019 team was young and wildly inexperienced. Chenyelu Asher, all of 26 years old, was the most-capped player with a whopping 23 appearances. The most represented league amongst the roster's players was the NCAA (six players were enrolled in American universities), and the team had as many high schoolers as players then competing in an elite women's soccer league (two of each, the latter being Cheyna Matthews and Mireya Grey of the NWSL). There was talent and promise, both of which were best embodied in the Tennessee Volunteers' star striker Khadija Shaw. But there were hardly any real expectations about what Jamaica could or should do in the tournament. Again, just being there was enough. They were eventually sent packing after the group stage, having lost all three matches by a combined score of 12-1, and yet I'm confident that the memories of the players and fans from that time are overwhelmingly positive.
Today's Jamaica women's national team finds itself in a different place. The Reggae Girlz are back in the World Cup, having once again qualified thanks to a third-place finish in the CONCACAF W Championship. This time, however, their mere presence alone should not alone constitute the story's happy ending. This time, Jamaica is good enough to consider getting to the World Cup as only the beginning.
Most of the justification for why Jamaica should aspire for something more than just reaching the sport's biggest stage can be found in Shaw. Four years ago she was a college student with loads of potential but without too many opportunities to prove her skills against the best of the best. Today, the Manchester City striker is inarguably among the very best of the best herself. (More on that in the next section.) And Shaw is not alone. The Jamaica roster now has about a dozen players who are either currently or have in the recent past tested themselves in the top divisions of France, the U.S., England, and Spain. Players like Levante's Trudi Carter, the Houston Dash's Havana Solaun, PSG's Allyson Swaby, and Fleury's Chantelle Swaby give Jamaica a strong core that is accustomed to holding their own against top-level opposition.
All of that is reason for optimism ahead of the World Cup. Here's the big reason for pessimism: Jamaica's group is a motherfucker. Alongside the Jamaicans in Group F are Panama, Brazil, and France. Panama looks to be the minnow of the group, but Brazil and France are, on paper, much, much stronger than Jamaica. And it's not like Jamaica's recent form is all that impressive, either. Since qualifying for the big show, the Reggae Girlz have lost friendlies against South Korea, Paraguay, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Australia, beating only Paraguay (a non–World Cup team that turned around and beat them in a rematch a couple days later) and second-division Sheffield United.
So while Jamaica should absolutely expect to improve upon their debut Cup four years ago, it's unlikely that the next step forward for them will see them walk into the knockout round. That's not to say an upset is impossible, nor that there is no progress to be had short of finishing the group stage in one of the top two spots. After all, Jamaica got trounced in all three games at the 2019 edition, and here they are again four years later, in a much better position than before. The goal for the Reggae Girlz, then, will be to make it so their performance in 2023 can help propel them to a point where, in 2027, they'll be in even better position. That might mean Jamaica only grows a couple inches this summer, but growth is growth.
Who Is Their Star?
Khadija Shaw reminds me a little bit of Peter Crouch. Like Crouch, Shaw is huge—5-foot-11 to be exact. Like Crouch, Shaw is far from the one-trick header-spammer you might imagine. She has soft feet that make her a supreme generator of space when she drops deep to help in possession, freeing up room in the center for Jamaica's speedsters on the wing to run into, and she scores goals of all different sorts. That being said, like Crouch, she is also really fucking good with her head. Watch this reel of 26 of her goals from this past season at Manchester City and check out how often and effortlessly she comes scything through the air to nod the ball into the net:
But if Shaw is like Crouch, it's a supercharged version, one much more powerful and far less shambling. While a good season for Crouch meant he'd beat the keeper once every third game on average, Shaw is the type to average a goal every single match. That's the feat she accomplished this year at City, scoring 31 times in 30 outings across all competitions. Her 20 strikes in 22 WSL matches had her finish a close second in the golden boot race to Rachel Daly, whose 22 goals tied the WSL single-season record. Despite spending only four seasons in the pros, Shaw already has one top-scorer award, earned with 22 goals in 20 games with Bordeaux back in 2021.
Clearly, Shaw is no slouch. She possesses legitimate game-breaking talent, does the most important thing in the sport, and specializes in doing that thing in a way that is particularly hard to stop. Jamaica will never be out of a match as long as there is enough time to hoof a couple crosses up at Shaw's altitude.
Tell Me About A Cool Youngster
Last time around, Shaw was the up-and-coming college phenom on Jamaica's World Cup roster looking to announce herself on a bigger platform. This time, that role is filled by Jody Brown.
It's fitting that Jamaica, the land of the sprinter, builds its soccer strategy around the overpowering speed of its wide players. Brown is probably the hottest torch of the bunch. The 21-year-old Florida State Seminole's speed is almost cartoonish. When a teammate lumps the ball forward and Brown starts pumping her legs to race onto it, you can practically hear the "Meep meep!" as she goes by. Like, look at this:
Because she's so fast, Brown often finds herself face to face with the keeper, where she has the patience and powerful right foot to either smack in an uncontested shot or slide in a cross for what are often tap-ins. Brown's runs in behind, coupled with Shaw's link-up play and aerial prowess, give Jamaica a pair of complementary weapons that can put a hurting on any opposing defense.
Who Is Their Enemy?
As a budding CONCACAF power, Jamaica has to compete against the twin juggernauts of the United States and Cana—who am I kidding. Jamaica's enemy isn't on the pitch, it's their own federation. The Jamaican Football Federation has for years under-funded and -supported women's team. Even now, after the team has proven its worth by qualifying for back-to-back World Cups—which, for what it's worth, the comparatively well-funded Reggae Boyz have only done once, in 1998—the JFF has still been jerking around the players.
Just last month, members of the national team released a public statement calling out the JFF for its shoddy support and broken promises. It reads in part:
On multiple occasions, we have sat down with the federation to respectfully express concerns resulting from subpar planning, transportation, accommodations, training conditions, compensation, communication, nutrition, and accessibility to proper resources. We have also showed up repeatedly without receiving contractually agreed upon compensation. We were told that our requests and concerns would be resolved in a timely manner. Unfortunately, that time has expired and once again our questions go unanswered and our concerns unresolved.
There does not appear to have been any major improvements since the release of the statement. In fact, one player's mother has resorted to starting a Gofundme to help cover some of the World Cup expenses of Jamaica's players, coaches, and support staff. It may be time for the national team to grow up on the pitch, but for that to happen, the JFF will have to grow up in a much more significant way.
National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool
Cedella Marley, the eldest daughter of Bob and Rita Marley, deserves to have folk-hero status because of what she's done for the Jamaica women's national team. She is the one who, after happening upon the news that the Jamaica federation had disbanded the senior women's team for going on four years, almost single-handedly started the process that revived the team in 2014. Then, when Jamaica eliminated the team's funding again in 2016, it was Marley who once again took charge, brought the team back to life, found the team a new manager, and helped raise funds to sustain the team throughout its eventually successful campaign to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. That qualification, this one, the improved career trajectory of many of the Jamaican players—all of it bears the fingerprints of Cedella Marley.
Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition
My feelings about seafood are on the record, so let's skip over ackee and saltfish here. Instead, let's go with jerk chicken. Jerk chicken is so good that I wish I could stop writing this preview right now and go scramble down to get some at The Islands in Prospect Heights, which is unfortunately now much further away from me than it once was.
What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?
I think Jamaica would count this tournament a success as long as it improves upon the last one. They really should beat Panama, score a couple goals, show off the talent of their stars, and avoid a blowout loss to either Brazil or France.