Posted on June 3, 2011 by Michael Lewis
Dane Richards certainly has been enjoying life in the fast lane over the past several years.
It has helped give the midfielder a college education, a chance to play professionally and an opportunity to play for the Jamaican National Team.
That fast lane activity has nothing to do with the 27-year-old’s off-the-field life, but what he accomplishes between the lines on a soccer field.
“In Jamaica, most likely everybody is fast,” the soft-spoken Richards said.
But perhaps not as fast as Richards.
Speed can be a funny thing. It can make coaches, fan and media drool. But if an attacking player cannot take advantage of it, whether it is beating his man down the flank to score or setting up a teammate, it is wasted.
Speed is only as good as a players’ decision making, with which Richards had struggled. It seemed he went right when he should have gone left, zigged, when he should have zagged. That is, until late last summer, when he struck for five goals and added three assists in the Red Bulls’ final seven regular-season matches.
The change in Richards’s play? Confidence, pure confidence.
“That’s one of the biggest things I’ve seen when it comes to Dane,” said San Jose Earthquakes midfielder-forward Ryan Johnson, a Jamaican teammate. “He’s confident of what he can do. He knows what he can do. The players around him are giving him that confidence for New York. He’s definitely feeding in it. He’s only going to get better. He’s still young.”
Richards is considered one of Jamaica’s weapons entering the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Richards and the Reggae Boyz start the Group B competition on Monday against Grenada at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
Richards’ star was on the rise since he joined the New York Red Bulls as a second-round MLS draft choice in 2007. After former Austrian international Markus Schopp went down with an early-season injury, Richards was given an opportunity to start and develop.
He has understood how one level of soccer has led to another.
He was taken sight unseen by San Jacinto Junior College in Houston.
“My friends went to the junior college there and told the coach about me,” Richards said. “The coach hadn’t seen me. He just gambled. It paid off.”
That gamble turned into junior college player of the year honors in 2004.
“In Jamaica, when you get a scholarship abroad, it’s really a big deal,” Richards added.
That led to an opportunity to play at Clemson University. Coach Trevor Adair saw Richards’ potential in the pros as a right-sided midfielder and played him there to prepare the 5-7, 153-lb. Richards for life after college. He earned second team All-American honors while scoring 23 goals, setting up 17 others in 42 games.
“The coaches always told me, ‘Stay disciplined, keep working hard. You have the tools. You need to refine them. You’ve got the tools to definitely to play professionally,’ ” Richards said. “I just listened to them. I tried to get stronger at the gym. I tried to work on my technique, work on my speed and stay disciplined.”
He got his opportunity when then Red Bulls coach Bruce Arena picked him in the second round of the MLS SuperDraft in 2007.
“I got a call from John Harkes,” he said of Harkes, the ESPN announcer who was then the Red Bulls’ assistant coach. “They liked what they saw and they were definitely looking at me. I said OK. I will keep working hard. Once the New York team talked to me I definitely wanted to come here because I have a lot of friends here. I said, even if i don’t go first round, I still want to go to New York.”
Richards started to feel comfortable about himself early that season.
“I didn’t feel that I had made but I was feeling more confident,” he said. “You feel like you can do anything. It was the first or second home game against Dallas. I set up Dave van den Bergh for a goal. I think it was my first assist. I burst past [his man]. I said, ‘Whoa! I think I can do it. That really built my confidence.”
In 2008, Richards turned heads in the MLS playoffs, particularly in the Red Bulls’ stunning 3-0 upset of the two-time defending MLS Cup champion Houston Dynamo. Richards scored a goal and set up another. The Red Bulls reached MLS Cup, but lost to the Columbus Crew, 3-1.
“Every time I step onto the filed, I just want to do my best,” he said. “I really . . . stepped up that game. They say big players step up for the big games. I’m not a big player yet. New York has been struggling trying to get past the first round. I just said it was do or die. If we didn’t do it, we would go come and I didn’t want to go back to Jamaica so early.”
Before the first game of the Houston series, Richards seemed to have put one of his fast feet into his mouth.
“I remember giving a statement. I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I was going to run their left back into the ground. Every game I want to run the left back into the ground. They [Houston] interpreted it wrong. You could see in the first game every five seconds the whistle had to blow, the game was so heated. They were talking trash on the field. They proved me wrong.
“In the second game I had to back up my words. They took it a bad way. In that game I just stepped it up, was aggressive and got behind the left back. I did it a couple of times and created some chances.”
Despite that game, inconsistent play hampered Richards’ progress.
He would tease the fans with a wonderful goal or game. Then disappear and do nothing for several matches in a row. Then he would excite people again as he followed the same cycle — until last year.
Whether it was the opportunity to play on the same field as former French international Thierry Henry, getting set up with pin-point passes or the maturing of a player, Richards became the dominant Red Bull the final two months of the season.
“The team was playing well. It just came over to me,” Richards said. “I was doing my role on the team and getting feedback from my teammates. I was feeling real confident. I just want to be consistent right now with that.”
Richards’ devastating performances continued for the Reggae Boyz in the Digicel Caribbean Cup, a qualifying arm for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. He scored five international goals from August through December.
“Personally, it was fulfilling,” he said. “It was a good run. With no silverware during the year, it was nice to go there as a team and get some silverware. I am looking forward to the Gold Cup.”
“He was always talented and had the tools,” added Jamaican international teammate and defender Shavar Thomas of Sporting Kansas City. “Now with all the coaches he has been under, Bruce Arena, now Hans Backe, he is harnessing that talent and trying to put him in the right direction… Dane is getting better. He has all of the tools to be a very good player.”
Richards entered the new season much more comfortable with himself. “Yeah, yeah, I am definitely more confident,” he said at Red Bulls indoor training at the Superdome in Waldwick, N.J. earlier this week. “I just want to gain some fitness right now and concentrate on where I left off last year.”
While Richards’ numbers haven’t sparkled, he has become a consistent force on the right flank for the Red Bulls, although he has been know to be denied on occasion.
San Jose Earthquakes defender and Reggae Boyz teammate Khari Stephenson offered this little secret on how to stop Richards.
“Dane, he likes to run on to the ball,” he said. “He’s not the best at taking it at people. He’ll take it and run around them. So if you can position yourself properly — he has quick feet and he’ll run by you — try to be in a good position or try to stay close to him so he can’t get around you. They’ll always play balls behind him. I think that’s how I would apporach it.
“Here’s another one. Try to keep his back to the ball. Don’t let him look up and get a chance to run behind you because you won’t catch him.”
Stephenson then laughed.
A writer then commented, “When he’s on your team, it’s OK?
“Exactly, exactly,” he said.
Richards said he was inspired by the Reggae Boyz in 1998, when Jamaica qualified for its first and only world Cup.
“I watched the guys on TV and one day I really wanted to do that,” he said. “The other day I was talking to one of my friends. When I went to high school we usually watched David Beckham on TV. Now I am playing against those guys. It’s unbelievable.”
Richards said he was awed early on playing with the likes of former U.S. international captain Claudio Reyna and one-time Colombian international Juan Pablo Angel on the Red Bulls.
“But I am over it now,” he said. “I have a job to do and I have to stay focused.”
Richards had hoped to be playing in the final 2010 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying round, but Jamaica failed to reach the next level.
“It was a heart-breaker,” he said. “The first three games were our downfall. We did not get any quality results in the first three games. The second round, we won three games, but that wasn’t good enough.”
So, Richards and Jamaica have their sights set on doing some damage in the Gold Cup.
“We have a great team playing together for the last two years,” he said. “We won the Caribbean Cup. It motivated us for the Gold Cup, so hopefully we can just go there and make a good account of ourselves. If we play well, stay focused and disciplined, I’m sure we can get through the zone and the first round and anything can happen with them.”
<strong>Photo: Dane Richards has three gears: fast, faster and fastest. Andy Mead/YCJ</strong>
Categories: Caribbean, Gold Cup, Grenada, Jamaica
Tags: Bruce Arena, CONCACAF Gold Cup, Dane Richards, Digicel Caribbean Cup, Khari Stephenson, Reggae Boyz, Ryan Johnson, Shavar Thomas, World Cup qualifying