photo courtesy of UConn Athletics
By JOSE M. ROMERO
The pull of his home in Jamaica is strong, but as time passes and Andre Blake grows more accustomed to the college town of Storrs, Conn., the homesickness fades away.
Besides, Blake, a sophomore goalkeeper for the UConn Huskies, has plenty of other things to think about: winning games for his team, doing well in academics, playing professionally and one day going back to Jamaica to work with youth.
Blake has 11 shutouts in goal for UConn (13-2-1), which plays its regular-season finale this weekend against Providence. The Huskies are No. 3 in the SBI college soccer rankings and considered one of a small number of teams who are legitimate NCAA title contenders.
A big reason for UConn’s ranking is the presence of Blake, the best goalkeeper in the nation and a player who has already caught the eye of MLS scouts.
Those scouts will surely converge on the the Big East tournament, where Blake and the Huskies will start on a post-season that could be filled with silverware.
“We have a bunch of talented players,” Blake said. “I think we have a great chance. This year we have a pretty tough team, we just have to try and figure out what has been stopping us from being successful (in the past) and being a good team and winning nothing.”
UConn scouted Blake in Jamaica in his last year of high school, then the coaching staff traveled to the island to see him and signed him.
The UConn staff has traveled abroad in search of players and coach Ray Reid has been very satisfied with Blake, who is a two-year starter.
“He’s been outstanding,” Reid said. “He’s a great guy.”
Blake, 21, had the grades and soccer ability to get to the U.S. college ranks, and is glad he is able to continue playing at a high level. The best players in Jamaica get a shot to play in the country’s top professional league out of high school, but if that doesn’t work out, hope is lost for many.
“If you’re not good enough, then after school, if you can’t afford to go to college, then I guess you just try to get a job, minimum wage, which is pretty hard to do,” Blake said, “or just stay home and do nothing.”
Blake has no regrets about his decision to leave Jamaica, explaining that life is difficult where he’s from. But he promises to return one day and share his experiences with kids.
“I’d always want to go back to Jamaica and encourage the youths that have talent to just do their academics and work hard and they could one day be in my position,” Blake said. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of stuff but… I have a talent which can change my life, so that’s my motivation every day, to one day be able to go back to where I’m from and people there can see that actually good things can come from there.”
Last year at this time, Blake battled homesickness and missed his family immensely. A year later, he realized he hasn’t mentioned that since getting back to Storrs for preseason training.
“In the end, I always want to be a pro soccer player, and if you want to be a pro soccer player then obviously I’m not going to be playing in Jamaica,” he said, “so I have to get used to being away from my family and dealing with obstacles like those when they come my way.”
Jamaica is a factory for quality soccer players and has provided MLS with plenty of talent. Goalkeeper isn’t a position with a lot of international tradition with regard to the Caribbean nation, but Blake noted that the Portland Timbers’ Donovan Ricketts has been successful in MLS and the two national team keepers are playing in Sweden and Norway.
He sees himself wearing the yellow of his national team one day.
“Everyone would want to play for their country, but I mean, not being a part of that right now is not a big deal for me because I know once I work hard and do whatever I have to do, then everything else will take care of itself and fall into place,” Blake said.
Blake has started following MLS, though he wasn’t aware of it until he got to the U.S. Still, his goal is to play in Europe one day, to be one of the best goalkeepers ever from Jamaica.
But college comes first for now. He’s thinking about majoring in communications and his favorite class is drama, in which he is learning about directing, producing and writing plays.
“I’m not going to say I have a definite plan right now, because honestly I don’t,” Blake said. “So I’m just waiting, because in life you just have to make the right decision. Sometimes you don’t, but then you have to learn from your mistakes.
“Trying to win a national championship,” he added. “So whatever happens and how I feel after the season, I’ll make that decision as to whether I stay or I’ll go.”
Though goalkeepers aren’t always high-priority targets for the MLS Generation adidas program, Blake’s play has made him a strong candidate for a contract offer when the season ends. He already projects as a first-round talent if he chooses to enter the 2013 MLS Draft, but he has yet to make the decision in turning pro.
Reid would prefer Blake sticks around a little while longer.
“Hope so,” he said. “It’s up to him. I think he wants to be here.”
Having a teammate from where he grew up, center back Sergio Campbell, might help. Blake has known Campbell for 10 years and offered input when the coaches asked Blake what he thought of Campbell, who was Blake’s high school teammate.
“I just gave them an honest opinion,” Blake said. “He made the decision to come here and he has no regret about it.”