Interview by: Kendra Lee
You were born in Jamaica. What do you remember about growing up there?
Oh, a lot! I come from a Chinese/Jamaican background so growing up there was a lot of school; it was all school, school, school, school. But during that time I was very sheltered, I didn’t want to go to certain areas, there were dangerous areas in Jamaica. But I just remember, when I really started getting into soccer. I played on the streets all the time and I played other sports like cricket, and I’d run a lot, and track and field was big. But I remember the first real time when I said, “Hey this is what I want to be” was the ’94 World Cup. I was 7 years old and I was on the streets playing and I was like “maybe I can be good at this!” I wasn’t good a first! I was one of the little kids but I was always very enthusiastic about it. And I didn’t really start getting better until I moved to the States around 11 years old.
Did you find the move difficult at that age?
Um, it could have been more difficult but my dad had actually gone to the University of Waterloo, he’s a computer science kinda guy. And then he did his Masters in the States, so I’d already been to the States on a couple of trips, like we went to Disney and stuff, so it wasn’t completely culture shock. And obviously we speak English in Jamaica, so it wasn’t too bad, but you’re kinda shy because you’re accent’s different. But I was 10 times ahead in school because our school was WAY more competitive in Jamaica, so that kind of helped me with making some friends.
So then did you get hooked up with a team in Florida?
Yeah, actually my dad became team manager for a team and a coach in Orlando. And I remember the first time that I went out I was like “These guys are decent. I gotta start practicing!” And it was only a rec level team, but I just remember that’s when I started really training. I would come home every day after training, and I would check books out from school. My dad always said, “Homework is work you do at home” so I had my schoolwork, and I had what he set for me, and then I would do my reading. I started checking out books like autobiographies about soccer players and stuff like that. And that’s when I started really really getting into it. Little by little I started getting better but I was very small. I didn’t really grow until I was in high school. I started getting really skillful and tricky and that was kinda my game but I was I was super small so I had to be like that. It wasn’t until I got to high school, when I was 16 that I just grew. I stared growing and I got faster than everyone else and taller than everyone and that’s when everything started clicking.
Then after high school, you attended college, also in Orlando. Was it on a soccer scholarship?
Yeah, it was a crazy process because at first I was going to go to an Ivy League school. My grades were phenomenal because obviously my parents were really big on that, but that didn’t turn out. But I ended up going to a small business school in Florida called Rollins College to study economics. They were very very good in soccer, like top ten, and I just felt like I was a good fit for the school. And at first I was like “Yeah, I’m free from home!” so I wasn’t really concentrated on soccer as much as I should have been! To be fair, at that time, there was no professional team near us; Orlando City wasn’t there yet; so I didn’t have that kind of like high level to look at and say, “If I work hard, I’ll be there”. So I just played and went to school. I had the talent but I didn’t really have a path. It was more like, finish school and then see what happens. But then towards the end of it, that’s when Orlando City became a team and I was like, “Well, I’ll never play for them.” It was this big thing, there was a big time coach Adrian Heath, and my confidence wasn’t at that level yet. I knew I was a good player but I didn’t know how that would translate (in that league). And so just randomly we were working out, and they picked out 12 of the top players in the state to go play. The coach came to that trial, and I was the only player he picked and he brought me to preseason. It was just random! So I went to pre-season and you know the rest!
It seems common in the United States for kids to go through the college system. How do you think that developed your game?
To be fair, I don’t think it prepares you well enough for the professional level. Obviously the rest of the world has the academy system and if you think about it, all these kids have that end goal inside, they know what they’re working towards, and they have a similar training pattern to the pro team. If you get that in your head from a younger level and you’re training with these big players every now and then, it’s going to prepare you better than when you go to college and you’re rushing to classes and you’re a “student athlete”, student first, then athlete. So it’s a lot different. And obviously the college teams, their hand are tied behind their backs about what kind of player they’re going to get because you need grades, you know what I mean? So you play a style of play that maybe is not the most technical and it doesn’t really prepare you, so it was definitely a big jump to the next level. And I had a top coach [in Adrian Heath] so it was an even bigger jump. He was very hard on me and it made my life hell sometimes but it was for the best and I reaped the benefits as the season went on.
What was the biggest adjustment you had to make?
Oh, the speed of play. And everyone will always say “the speed of play” because you have so much time on the ball in each level, and less and less as you go higher. So you have to know and think one or two plays ahead. A lot of professionals now, they know what to do and they’re just experienced enough, they just do it. When you’re younger and you come into the game you’re like, “Ok, what am I going to do?” and you just don’t really think about things that way. So everything in the stands looks so much easier like, “Oh he should have done this or that” but at the time you’re trying to think three steps ahead and you have less time to do it.
You played four seasons for Orlando City in the USL and there was a lot that happened in those seasons!
Yeah, we were regular season champions three out of the four years and playoff champions two times out of those four years. So we were the most successful team in North America, they were saying, for the first 100 games or something like this. It was the best team I’d ever played on. On any given night we would go in knowing we were going to win. This kind of mentality is very hard to find. It didn’t matter who we were playing against, we played against Premier League teams, MLS teams, whoever, we would go in and play to win. That was a very rare thing and it’s the kind of thing you end up chasing in your career.
And you also did very well individually.
Yeah, my rookie year was my year that I was learning but then at the end of that, that’s when I really started to get going. I just remember a conversation with the coach and our owner at the end of my rookie year and they were like “yeah, you had one decent year but to be a pro you have to be consistent and let’s see what you can do next year.” My second year was when I won the golden boot and all this stuff and that’s when it was a big deal, but you know when consistency is the standard, you just turn over and play. And we had some big seasons. And then obviously MLS came in and a lot of things happened in those times. After you play in a certain place for a while, you kind of think like “hmm, what’s out there?” and I think that kind of started getting in my head after my second year. I thought, “I’ve done well here, where else can I go?” Those kinds of things will sometimes help you, but a lot of times hurt you because you’re thinking bigger, you know what I mean?
What was something that inspired or motivated you while you were there?
Playing for Orlando was great because I went to school there, my family lives there, my younger brothers are in the academy, and they’re looking up to you. My younger brother just below me became PR for the club. And now he’s PR for the Portland Timbers. The family is really entrenched in that club so every time I stepped onto that field I was representing more than just the badge. Not just my family, but every kid that wants to be the one that comes up through that academy next time. And that was big. It’s a lot of pressure but that inspired me a lot and I still have a lot of love for the fans. I left on a good high. I was the leading goal scorer in the history of the club, I still am…I think Cyle Larin will probably break my record this year or Kevin Molino, he’ll break it in another game probably! I was proud of the way I left but obviously in another mind I’m like “man, what if I had stayed?” you know?
At the end of your time with Orlando they were moving up to MLS. How did you experience that transition?
Like I said, at that point, my mind was elsewhere. I wanted to go to Europe. I was like, “I’ve learned so much here, where else can I go?” And I made the riskiest decision in my career and I left at the end of that season. I was training with the Chicago Fire at the time and I had a connection in Denmark, and I thought, “Yes I’m willing to go and if I do well there, anything could happen.” So I was there, I was doing well, but monetarily it wouldn’t be the best. And during that time when I was in Denmark, everyone else here was in pre-season, so all these other teams started. Then it came to the point where I was not going to be there anymore because of just how things were going to work out. So then I had to come back and all these contracts were gone, and the MLS pre-season was gone, and everything was gone. So I was like, “What am I going to do?” At the time, I was talking to a few coaches, and Paul was one of them. He was trying to get me to go to where he was coaching which was Austin Aztex in the USL. I ended up choosing Arizona United because I had four ex-teammates that I played with in Orlando there. I was thinking, any way I can replicate that success, that’s gonna pull me there. Arizona was a young team, a young franchise club in it’s second year. A lot of things were newer and we couldn’t replicate some of the talent. So that’s when I was like, “huh, my next move has to be very well thought out. I can’t make any rash decisions.”
That make two clubs that you’ve joined that were new expansion teams. What have you noticed about the development of new teams?
To be fair there’s not a specific formula but if you’re ever going to have a formula for success for a team that’s new, you have to win. Winning brings the community together and then you get the fans. And people will say, “Oh, they’re fair weather fans” but who wants to support a team that’s not winning? At first, you don’t have any history and so winning is what really gets people in those seats and then once you get them there, then you can play attractive football or inspiring football to keep them there. So I think that’s what really was the key to Orlando’s success. Once you start winning then it’s easy for the front office to promote it. Orlando had the results we needed and then right when we needed to win another championship in front of 25,000, we won and that’s what got MLS interested. They were like “Oh if they can do that, we can hype around this team.” But without those wins, no way, you’re just another team in the league. And the same thing in Arizona, with a brand new franchise and everything. The first game there were 7,000 fans. They packed their stadium. But they lost. So the next game, 4,000 people came out. You have to keep winning and I think that’s the big thing. With new franchises you only get one chance to make a first impression. Yeah, you can lose the first few games but they need to make it so that every time you look in the newspaper you say, “Hey look that’s where you are in the standings maybe we should go out to a game.” The team can say “oh the city needs to support us” but you have to give them something to support.
What influenced you to come to Ottawa and play for the Fury? Did you have any connections here?
To be fair, I didn’t…trust fall! I had no clue about anything about Ottawa! I didn’t follow the team at all. All I knew was, they were a good team and they made it to the finals and that was all that I had in my head. And then Paul took over the job, and I told you I was talking to him before out of Austin, and he said, “This is what I’m trying to build here, this is where I see you in that, and I believe in you.” And sometimes those are the words you need to hear as a player. And honestly there were other things that I was looking at. I’d never been to Canada, and I was never like “Oh, I need to play in Canada.” I got here in February and that was like a culture shock in itself! But I wasn’t even thinking about that, I was thinking, “They made it to the finals, we can build on this.” And I told you, I’m still chasing that winning feeling, and obviously I wanted to go back to a level that I thought I was and where people saw me. So I thought it would be a good opportunity and I just jumped in!
Coming from the USL have you seen a major difference in playing level or style between the USL and the NASL?
Well, at one point in 2013 I went on loan to San Antonio Scorpions so I’d played in the NASL before. I don’t think it was that different. If anything the NASL has a lot more experienced players, whereas the USL has a lot of younger players who are just coming up. There are huge gaps in the team in the USL compared with here. The average age is probably about 28, whereas on a USL team it will be 23. So a lot of teams will be more technical in the NASL as a whole. The style of play, it’s slower, as far as people not crushing each other in the NASL, but it’s faster thinking wise because they’re older players. With younger players they tend to be a little more frantic and they’re more obsessed with their physical attributes more than their technical. So it’s just different. And in the USL, there’s big clubs and bigger budgets just like anywhere else, and then there’s smaller clubs with a smaller budget and if you’re in the smaller club it’s a whole different experience. You might be traveling in a bus when another club will fly everywhere. So a lot of people will say it’s tough and that the travelling is hard on them. And the scheduling back in the day in the USL was very rough! The USL is such a big league. We had to play two games in one weekend. You travel and if there’s two teams in the same area, you’re not going to go back and forth because you play 18 teams. You don’t have time. Nowadays there’s conferences and the scheduling is less demanding. In the NASL it’s always a more relaxed schedule with one game a week, sometimes two. And when there’s two everyone’s all like “Oh, wow! Two!” and a little while ago we had three! So that’s probably the biggest difference.
Are there any differences you see in the soccer culture between the United States and Canada?
First of all, the USA, soccer wise, is still behind [the rest of the world]; less than it was 5 years ago, but at the same time it’s ahead of here because of the youth structure. The USA started building their youth structure a little bit ahead of Canada. So because you have that grassroots kids like my younger brothers or me have better coaches at a younger age. And that’s really where I see the difference is. Unless you’re playing for the Whitecaps, Toronto FC, or Montreal, you’re not getting the necessary coaching. So as a whole the culture is a little behind in that aspect. You can play soccer in so many different places in the US with more funding than in Canada. You have hockey in place of that here. And even the weather, you can’t train all year round and that hurts you whereas the US National team, even the youth, they just go to Florida or California or Texas and it’s just normal to play outdoors year round. And that’s big. Because of that, your kids aren’t playing as much as other kids are playing. But it’s coming up close.
You’ve ended up playing your whole career in North America, and we’re hearing that more and more from younger players, that they want to play in Canada and the US.
And that’s because the leagues and soccer in North America has grown so much. Look at MLS now. They’re pulling the biggest of stars now and just that interest alone for them to come in, like Giovinco on TFC, for him to be there is huge for the league. And so young players are saying now “hm, I can play with Drogba and that can make me into a better player.”
What are the goals for the Fury for the rest of the season?
Well, it’s been a tough season. We’ve changed a lot and tried a lot of things based on the personnel of the team so I guess we’re just trying to, and starting to play a different way than we thought we would play at the start. So I mean, it’s been very interesting, one of the most interesting seasons. It seems like a transformation. Because a lot of coaches, if they know a certain system, they play a certain way and that’s how they’re going to play. But I think we’ve very much changed as the season’s gone on, trying to find that feeling for everyone. And I feel like the last few games we’ve won, it’s a very good vibe but we’ve got a lot of ground to make up if we want to make the playoffs so it’s going to be interesting!