Caribbean footballers seem well-suited to MLS. There are few language barriers for them, and they are accustomed to a fast, physical style of play. Plus, they usually can find a support community in MLS cities, and they are following in the footsteps of several countrymen, many of whom had success in the North American Soccer League and stayed on.
But the experience of Jamaicans in the MLS recently indicates Caribbean players are going to bypass the league for Scandinavia. The pay is better for them in Scandinavia than in MLS; the leagues provide a better platform for a move to bigger clubs; and, crucially, they will receive regular playing time.
Teofore Bennett (Osters), Jermaine Hue (Mjallby), Luton Shelton (Helsingborg) and Khari Stephenson (GAIS Goteborg) have been with and/or been rejected by MLS teams in recent months. All have found acceptance in Sweden. If they continue to succeed, they will be seen by bigger clubs. And, making the move from Sweden to Great Britain or continental Europe often seems simpler than making a similar move from MLS.
U.S.-based agent Patrick McCabe, who represents several of the Jamaicans, uses the example of Atiba Hutchinson, a Canadian who was considered by several MLS teams. Hutchinson went to Osters, a midtable Swedish club, and progressed to Helsingborg, then to FC Copenhagen, which is playing in the Champions League. Copenhagen came shopping in the MLS, also, and took Jean Philippe Peguero on a $1 million transfer, one of the highest fees ever paid for a Haitian player.
Shelton was being closely observed by at least two MLS teams, then went to Helsingborg on a $200,000 transfer and is being paired at forward with Henrik Larsson.
Most others are going to Sweden on free transfers.
Bennett, 23, burst onto the scene with a goal against the U.S. in a pre-World Cup friendly. But no MLS teams were interested, so Bennett went to Osters and scored twice on his debut. Both Hue and Stephenson failed to find playing time with the Kansas City Wizards. Now, though, Stephenson is attracting interest from midlevel clubs in the Bundesliga and Premiership.
Andy Williams is among the few Jamaicans who have had any staying power in MLS. He moved from Kingston, Jamaica, to Kingston, R.I., to play for the University of Rhode Island, then joined the Columbus Crew at age 20. Williams is in his ninth MLS season, but as a successful Caribbean player in the league, he has been an exception.
Williams also has had to endure some difficult times, surviving in MLS because he was willing to absorb a major salary reduction in Chicago and also because he earned a work permit. Otherwise, as a foreign player, Williams would have been discarded. But he has been a strong point of reference for Real Salt Lake, and he displayed his class in the team's recent exhibition loss to Real Madrid.
Damani Ralph was a Jamaica-MLS success story, moving from the Chicago Fire to Rubin Kazan in Russia. Others, such as Wolde Harris and Tyrone Marshall, have made strong contributions to the MLS.
Meanwhile, Jamaica's national team has failed to capitalize on the success of its 1998 World Cup finals appearance, which launched the England careers of players such as Ricardo Gardner. The historic relationship between Britain and Jamaica seemed to promise opportunities for the Reggae Boyz, but that is not happening.
This is where Scandinavia fits in. Salaries are similar to what can be expected in the MLS -- from $70,000 to $150,000 -- not including benefits such as airline tickets, automobiles and housing, which are rarely available in MLS contracts. Plus, the Caribbean players seem to have a guaranteed place in the lineup; if not, they move to a more suitable club in the region. And this is a key for the Reggae Boyz to regain their status as a factor in CONCACAF play.
"The standard of play is not overwhelming, which is why good players can shine in these environments and make the jump to the continent or to a top Scandinavian club," McCabe said. "There is not enough data to show Jamaican players automatically rise up the ladder. It is more important now that these guys are playing games in a better environment. It doesn't make much sense to be playing in a better league if you are sitting on the bench, right?''
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.