HANOVER, N.J. – It was a year ago and Kemar Lawrence was on the field at Red Bull Arena, a couple hours before Jamaica played Serbia at the stadium. He was walking around the field and took a deep breath and looked up. Someone snapped a photo of it.
An hour later, Lawrence posted the photo on his Instagram account, with the caption, “First time in red bulls stadium, it felt like I belong in der.”
Months later, Lawrence signed with the league to play at the stadium where that photo was taken. Now he can call Red Bull Arena, a place he had never been before last summer, his home.
Before coming to New York to join the team, Lawrence admits to not knowing much about the Red Bulls or all that much about MLS. But now that he is here, he has set the league on fire. In fact, it might be hard to think of a better left back in the league over the opening dozen or so games of the 2015 MLS season than the 22-year old Jamaican. He's shown no signs of struggle in the leap up in competition from the Jamaican league. The acclimation has been smooth.
“It has been, it has been. I'm coping with that real well. It's really different than Jamaica, there are a whole lot of different players, different lifestyles. In Jamaica, it is mainly Jamaicans playing there. Here, there are players from all over the world coming here,” Lawrence told Metro. “The training facility, the field we play on, home and away, everything is different. It's a learning experience, I'm always ready to learn to get better.”
He then paused and sheepishly smiled:
“Plus I like playing on this field.”
The lush fields of the Red Bulls training facility are nice, but that doesn't explain how Lawrence has settled into a starting role so easily. Very often, foreign players coming into MLS have a tough time with the league at first. There is the style of play which is physical and fast. There's also the travel, as most aren't used to cross-continental flights.
But Lawrence has made a home for himself, even earning the starting job over incumbent left back Roy Miller, a World Cup player who has been the incumbent at left back since 2010. The key, he says, is a belief in God and the power of prayer, along with a spirit that his teammates and the coaching staff say is eager to learn. He's a devout Christian and is active in the team's chapel ministry.
It's that character and work ethic that is impressing people around the team, just as much as his natural ability.
He came to the Red Bulls off the recommendation of Damani Ralph, a former star in MLS and for Jamaica who is now an agent for Global Premier Management. Ralph knows the league and said he had a player who was on the rise and very coachable.
“[He] called us in early preseason and mentioned – it was part of we were talking Dane Richards a little bit and he said he had a left back we might be interested. I watched tape specifically of Kemar playing against Switzerland, Serbia and Egypt,” Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch said. “He didn't give anything away in any of those games. He didn't show the explosiveness that he's shown since he's been here. He's shown fearlessness and tactical awareness.”
Marsch noticed that “From Day 1, he asked all the right questions” as he wanted to make his mark early on.
The fans have taken to him as well. They call him 'Taxi' – a nickname he earned in Jamaica from a youth coach - and he admits he isn't exactly sure about the origins but he embraces it nonetheless. But fans had better enjoy Lawwrence while they can because he has the look and feel of someone who might be headed to Europe shortly.
If he can perform well in this summer's Gold Cup for Jamaica, it isn't far-fetched to think that an English team might just table an offer for Lawrence.
But here and now, he calls Red Bull Arena home. Then again, he was calling this team and this place home a year ago, even before he had an inkling that he would be the Red Bulls starting left back.
“It's surprising that the stuff you say, the stuff you think about actually happens when you pray about it! I think I said that it feels like home, that I want to be here. And it does,” Lawrence said. “I didn't know much about the team but it was the atmosphere, the stadium. I knew I wanted to be here.”
But if he continues to play this way, he may not be here much longer.