Soccer's last line of defense
When the Portland Timbers traded goalkeeper Troy Perkins to the Montreal Impact for Donovan Ricketts last August, it drew a collective head tilt from the soccer community.
Perkins was four years younger than Ricketts and had been a bright spot for the Timbers in an otherwise dismal season.
Although he had yet to take over as Portlands coach, Caleb Porter saw something in Ricketts that he wanted. Aside from Ricketts physical attributes 6-4, 210 pounds and an enormous wingspan Porter eyed a confidence and poise in the Jamaican that he wanted for his club.
There are different types of goalkeepers in terms of their styles and their presence, Porter says. One of the biggest reasons that Gavin and I talked about adding Donovan to this team is we knew he would bring a confidence and a presence in the goal.
When the game gets tight, and when you get in pressure situations, you want a goalkeeper who exudes confidence, and he does.
With where we are in our evolution, we needed that. We needed a guy in goal who is going to give the guys in front of them confidence and shows his experience.
Thus far, it appears that Porter and Wilkinson have backed the right horse. As the Timbers (8-2-9, 33 points) head into Saturdays road match against the Philadelphia Union, Ricketts has made 57 saves while conceding 16 goals.
Perkins has made 58 saves, but has also allowed 29 goals. Ricketts has eight shutouts this season tied for the most in MLS while Perkins has four shutouts.
Ricketts says his job is to channel the likes of Mr. Clean and the Brawny Man of paper towel fame.
Im there as the cleaner, Ricketts says. If anything goes bad, Im there to clean up and give us a chance to always get a point or to win games.
Ricketts was a long-time goalkeeper for the Jamaican national team and made the MLS All-Star games in 2009 and 2010. But it was hard to imagine that at age 36 he would be playing this well.
Ricketts smiles when asked if he has surprised even himself with his 2013 performance.
If I say yes, that would be an embarrassment, he says. From when youre young, you dream to be the best you can be. Sometimes you set the mark so high its hard to supersede it. But this season, health-wise, Im good. Im just trying to keep pushing boundaries, keep doing my best.
If you stay healthy and you practice right, you can go as long as you want. If you have injuries and youre not doing well, people start questioning you, and you start questioning yourself.
You never know. But Im doing well right now. Ill try to keep my body right.
In his novel Butterfly Winter, magical realist baseball writer W.P. Kinsella writes about twins playing catch in their mothers womb. Ricketts tells a similar story about his own gestation period.
I was a soccer player from in the womb, he says. My dad was a soccer player, all my brothers played soccer. It was in my genes.
Once he came out of the womb, though, Ricketts was not allowed to put all of his energy into soccer. He says that his childhood in Montego Bay was a mix of soccer and books.
I had a balanced childhood, he says. My mom wanted academics, and my dad wanted sports. So I couldnt just do one. I had to do both.
I went to the college in Jamaica, and I was playing for the national team at the same time.
Early on, Ricketts had a notion that he could be a striker. That was put to rest when he was cut from the 12-year-old team.
Watching his brother play, and undoubtedly sulking about what appeared to be the end of his soccer career, Ricketts was given an opportunity.
Would you like to play goalkeeper? the coach asked.
Ricketts accepted the offer.
And thus began an international career that has seen him earn 92 caps for Jamaicas national squad, the Reggae Boyz.
I was forced to go to goalie, he says. But it looks as if I had a natural talent for that.
His career with the Reggae Boyz has taken him around the world, and Ricketts says he does not miss his homeland too much while living in Portland. In fact, he says that the Keep Portland Weird culture is perfectly suited to him.
Ive been all over the world, he says. For me, being away from Jamaica, its nothing new. Being in Portland, a city thats quiet and laid-back and encourages people to be as weird as they want, its a perfect fit for me.
If he continues playing so well, the Timbers would undoubtedly love to allow Ricketts to finish his career in Portland. But how much longer his career lasts is anyones guess. It also appears to be of little concern to Ricketts.
Things are going well right now, he says. And Im a man who lives in the moment.