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2019 FIFA Women's World Cup

How 19-year-old Sydney Schneider earned her spot on the Reggae Girlz

Jamaica’s 23-player World Cup roster embodies the country’s ‘Out of Many One People’ motto

Lorne Donaldson can see talent from a mile away.

When you’ve been in the game for as long as he has — as a player, coach and soccer executive — that, inevitably, becomes your modus operandi.

As one of the assistant coaches for the Jamaica Football Federation (JFF) senior women’s team, known to the world as the Reggae Girlz, Donaldson, 63, always has a keen eye for players who could one day lead the country to a World Cup, a feat no Caribbean women’s team has accomplished in the history of the prestigious tournament.

At the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) Showcase, a gathering place for some of the best youth teams, in Seattle in June 2015, Donaldson struck up a conversation with fellow coach Greg Wieboldt, who’d made the trek from New Jersey with his U15 girls team.

Donaldson, who was there with his own U17 girls team, cut straight to the chase: “I said to Greg … ‘Hey, Greg, by any chance do you have any Jamaican players on your team?’ And he said, ‘Let me think about it.’ And he starts thinking and then says, ‘Where’s my goalkeeper? I believe she has Jamaican heritage. There she is over there.’ ”

In the distance, Donaldson saw two goalkeepers going through their prematch warm-up and made his way down to the field.

“So I see two keepers warming up,” said Donaldson, who came onto the soccer scene as a 17-year-old with the Jamaican national team in the late ’70s, “one who could be black and a second keeper who is clearly more white than black. So I walk up to the one and I said, ‘Hey, I heard you’re from Jamaica … that you have Jamaica roots in you,’ and she looked at me like I had 10 heads. So I went back to Greg and said, ‘I thought you said your keeper was Jamaican?’ and he said, ‘She is … you spoke to the wrong keeper. That’s Sydney over there.’ ”

Donaldson took a second look, this time with intention, and saw a tall and slender teenager with brown hair, brown eyes and white skin. She hardly looked Jamaican, let alone a Reggae Girl — at least the one Donaldson unconsciously had in his mind.

“It was a mistake, it was an honest mistake,” Donaldson told The Undefeated, sounding like someone still reeling from having been punk’d. “The joke was on me.”

Within the national team among coaches, the story has followed Donaldson, and likely always will.

“We always have a laugh about that,” said Reggae Girlz goalkeepers coach Hubert Busby, who is also an associate women’s head coach at Jacksonville University in Florida. “And even though we know there’s many different shades and many different spectrums in our culture — the Jamaica motto, after all, is ‘Out of Many One People’ — it was still lost on us. It was just kind of funny.”

Sydney Schneider (center) and her Jamaica teammates during the Caribbean Zone 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship qualification in Kingston, Jamaica, on Aug. 27, 2018.

Courtesy Alacran Foundation

‘She Fits the Prototype … ’

It didn’t take coaches long to see that there was more to 5-foot-11 Sydney Schneider than meets the eye. There was a rawness in the teenager, whose grandparents on her mother’s side were born in Jamaica.

“She’s incredibly athletic,” explained Busby. “She fits the prototype of what you would want in a goalkeeper: athletic, rangy, good in the air. She’s all arms and legs — very difficult to beat because she takes up so much area once she’s extended. She’s a fantastic shot-stopper, and she’s improved her foot skills to be able to play out of the back, which obviously are the demands of the modern game.”

As plans were set in motion to build a team good enough to qualify for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, coaches felt Schneider looked the part. And, while the offer to join Jamaica’s national team during the Caribbean Football Union Under-17 qualifiers in 2015 might’ve seemed like a no-brainer to everyone around her, Schneider was lukewarm, at best, on the idea.

Then a junior at South Brunswick High School in New Jersey, where she earned All-County and All-Division honors three times and amassed a 51-24-2 career record for coach Beth Barrio, Schneider hadn’t wrapped her mind around playing soccer in college — she feared she wasn’t good enough. Then, here comes a coach she’d never met with an offer to try out for a national team?

Schneider freaked out.

“My teammates were committing to colleges and I hadn’t committed, and it was stressful seeing everyone getting committed,” Schneider said. “I didn’t know where I wanted to go to school, and I was just stressing out and feeling like I’m not going to have enough time to do school and soccer. So I was like, ‘Let me put school first,’ because everyone says junior year is your biggest year; it’s when you do your SATs and your ACTs.

“And I didn’t think about playing soccer after college, and I was kind of on the side of not [accepting the offer] because if I didn’t want to play after college, why would I do something so advanced? It was kind of unreal. I was like, ‘There’s no way that little me is good enough to play for a country.’ That’s honestly what I was thinking when I first got [the offer], and that also kind of freaked me out.”

Schneider’s mother, Andrea Kapinos, was hardly the sympathetic ear she may have hoped for during her emotional time of crisis. Born and raised in Massachusetts, with a Jamaican-born dad from St. Ann’s Bay (in the parish of St. Ann) and a Jamaican mom from Irish Town (in St. Andrew), Kapinos gave her daughter a dose of tough love.

“When she was like, ‘I’m not sure if I’m gonna be good enough,’ I’d respond and say, ‘Guess what — go anyway. If you weren’t really good enough, they wouldn’t have asked you.’ ” – Sydney’s mother, Andrea Kapinos

“It’s just her M.O. — she’s very set into a routine,” explained Kapinos, who teaches fifth grade at Brooks Crossing Elementary School in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey. “She likes to know A, B and C, and this was going to be something that broke her routine. When she was like, ‘I’m not sure if I’m gonna be good enough,’ I’d respond and say, ‘Guess what — go anyway. If you weren’t really good enough, they wouldn’t have asked you.’

“Then she was like, ‘I’m not sure if I’ll know anyone.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you didn’t know anybody when you started this new team. You didn’t know anybody when you jumped from that team.’ And it was me just kind of encouraging her and saying, ‘Yeah, you’re right, you won’t know anybody, but you’re social, you’ll make friends. You have a coach. They’ll tell you what you need to do. You’re coachable.’ ”

The pep talk — it was more like a come-to-Jesus — calmed Schneider’s nerves, and when a second call from Jamaica came (this time to join the squad’s run-up to the CONCACAF Under-17 Championship in Grenada in 2016), she said yes.

“She was a little bit shy when she came in,” said Donaldson, who is currently the head coach of the Jamaican U20 women’s national team and also the executive director of coaching for Real Colorado in Denver. “Obviously, nobody knew anything about her, but we’d talked her up and she came in for the first tournament and was very good, and we moved on to the CONCACAF round. She started believing in herself that she could actually do this. From there, it was all about confidence in herself, her believing that one day she’s going to be a national team goalkeeper.”

Busby agreed. “She was 16 playing in ECNL, and we all coach in that league,” he explained. “She’s come through the ranks at an early age, and obviously she’s gone from U17s through 18s and 20s, and now literally within three years, she’s now on the senior team. So it’s quite remarkable for her to make that jump within the last few years.”

For Jamaica’s Reggae Girlz, it’s been a wild and historic ride to becoming the first Caribbean nation to qualify for a FIFA Women’s World Cup. Many of the players shown here will make up the country’s 23-player roster that will play its first game in France on June 9 and face World Cup favorite Brazil.

Courtesy Jamaica Football Federation

‘These girls have galvanized the country …’

The Sydney Schneider who second-guessed herself at every turn has blossomed into a player Jamaican coaches have poised for a long run — even after the FIFA World Cup, which begins June 7 in Paris. Now 19 and a junior majoring in exercise science at University of North Carolina, Wilmington — where she started all 19 games as a freshman, stopping 74.1 percent of the shots she faced — Jamaican coaches weren’t bashful in speeding her development.

The gamer in her responded.

Her performance in a CONCACAF Women’s Championship third-place playoff against Costa Rica in October removed all doubt, certainly in her mind, that she could be Jamaica’s No. 1. The pivotal 1-0 win over one of the tournament favorites earned her Player of the Match honors.

Still, the veteran coaching crew also understood that there’s still time for Schneider to grow and develop into a world-class shot-stopper. During that third-place match, when the Reggae Girlz found themselves tied with Panama and heading to a penalty shootout, manager Hue Menzies swapped goalkeepers in the final minute of extra time, pulling Schneider for veteran Nicole McClure, who made her Reggae Girlz debut in 2009 when Schneider was 10. The tactical move paid off, as the 28-year-old McClure stopped two penalty kicks while Jamaica’s attackers converted on all four of their penalty kicks to secure the historic victory.

That coaches removed Schneider from that game was hardly a demotion, or a lack of faith in her abilities. It was a reminder that the journey to greatness is a marathon, not a sprint.

Menzies said the move was hardly a knee-jerk reaction. “We planned it that we were going to make that sub,” the coach said. “We knew that if it comes to this point, Nicole is going to step up quick, a lot quicker than Schneider. She has a good instinct. You can see it in her eyes when she’s on the bench. She knew it’s her time, Nicole’s time.”

Added Busby, a former goalkeeper himself who had a 13-year playing career, spending time with the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto Lynx and Montreal Impact in Canada and with the Detroit Wheels of the United Soccer League, as well as overseas in England, Portugal and the Netherlands: “The top countries in the world don’t say they have a No. 1, 2 or 3. Look at the USA — their third-choice goalkeeper, Adrianna Franch, was voted the Goalkeeper of the Year in the women’s pro league. Think about that for a minute.”

The Girlz’ run-up to this summer’s FIFA World Cup comes two decades after Jamaica’s men’s team, the Reggae Boyz, made their own mark by qualifying for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, also held in France. Busby, like the rest of Jamaica, takes great pride in both teams’ journeys and believes there’s more noise to make, even though the 53rd-ranked Girlz find themselves in a tough Group C alongside sixth-ranked Australia, Brazil (10th) and Italy (16th). The Girlz open play in France on June 9 against tournament favorite Brazil.

“On a different level, these girls have galvanized the country,” said Busby, whose overseas playing career was starting during the Boyz’ World Cup run. “I was able to see the Reggae Boyz, and it was amazing for me, but on a different level, these girls have really united the country. The story we are creating now is a narrative that the men never really had.

“You never really understood Bunny Shaw’s story. You never understood Sydney’s story. You never understood the stories of the trials and tribulations of [17-year-old forward] Jody Brown, where she came from, how she’s on the world stage at age 15. We can thank social media for that. These women have the ability to not only inspire young women and girls in Jamaica but Jamaican Canadians, Jamaican Americans, Jamaican girls in Britain, and it’s been really remarkable to see from our perspective as coaches.”

This Girlz power movement is one that Cedella Marley, daughter of reggae icon Bob Marley, has been championing since 2014, when she initiated a movement to revive the Reggae Girlz program, which had been disbanded by the JFF in 2008 because of a lack of funding and, some might say, interest in girls playing soccer.

“It was a long time coming,” the energetic CEO of the Bob Marley Group of Companies told The Undefeated. “It was something that I always wanted to happen for our girls because I knew they wanted it. And to just see it happen, it’s scary, but still it’s rewarding. People tell the girls, ‘You go to France and you do your best, because you’ve already won.’ I hate that cliché s—. ‘No, you [haven’t] already won. You gotta go there and represent.’ ”

Jamaica goalkeeper Sydney Schneider makes a save during the first half of a soccer match at the CONCACAF Women’s World Cup qualifying tournament in Frisco, Texas, on Oct. 14, 2018.

AP Photo/Andy Jacobsohn

‘I think everybody’s a Jamaican’

The Reggae Girlz’ 23-player World Cup roster embodies the country’s “Out of Many One People” motto, and Schneider’s lineage — her father, Ernie, is German — hardly makes her an outlier. Twelve of the 23 were born in America, and eight were born in Jamaica and three in Canada — but all claim Jamaican heritage by either their parents or grandparents, all linked up as bona fide “Yardies” from different pathways.

“The truth of the fact is that we don’t come from nowhere, but we come from everywhere,” Marley echoed. “I think everybody’s a Jamaican, I really do. When you look at the Chinese Jamaicans, the Syrian Jamaicans, I mean, there’s a ton of us. You see the girls coming out of the little countryside that mommy and daddy don’t even know to play ball. But now they’re like, ‘This is what I really think I want to do.’ ”

Added Busby: “We’re getting an influx of Jamaican players across the diaspora who are saying, ‘Hey, I’ve grown up being Jamaican.’ ”

For Schneider’s mom, it’s especially satisfying to see that her daughter isn’t being defined solely by color — and that her Jamaican-ness is part of her narrative.

“I’m light-skinned, too, so I’ve dealt with it all my life,” explained Kapinos, who used to take Mother’s Day trips with Schneider to visit relatives in Jamaica. “They called me ‘yella’ and ‘paleface.’ I’ve dealt with that all my life, and Sydney has grown up with cousins and aunts who are a range of complexions. I think she was nervous about everything, maybe about the dialect, the patois, and all that. It’s the goalkeeper in her. She’s got a lot going on in her head, and we had a little playful banter about that. Goalkeepers are a little wacky.”

Everybody can smile now, and that includes Schneider and all of Jamaica. But perhaps no smile will be bigger than the one on the face of Lorne Donaldson, whose massive miss could end up saving the day on the world’s biggest stage.

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.