Darren Mattocks celebration
Bob Frid/Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Mattocks looks back before taking on world's best

On June 20, Darren Mattocks will go toe-to-toe with arguably the best soccer player alive.

Before he lines up opposite to Lionel Messi and some of the world's other top players at the 2015 Copa América this month, he reflects on some pivotal moments in his path to the mountaintop of his career and his thoughts on matching up with the Argentinian icon.

The year is 2002. In the coastal city of Portmore, Jamaica, a 12-year old Mattocks is about to take to the pitch under the scorching Caribbean sun. Groomed into the sport on the street, it’s his first time to play organized ball. While he laces his boots, his brother punches in at work so little Darren can play the game he loves.

Darren Mattocks: “My bigger brother Damian introduced me to playing soccer. He was really good when he was growing up. He didn’t have the opportunities that I was exposed to. At that time, he was the only breadwinner so he had to work. He could not focus on soccer. I grew up playing with my friends on the street. That’s where I get my love for the game.”

Six years later, Mattocks is coming of age at Bridgeport High School. En route to shattering all-time school records with 54 goals and 25 assists, dreams are starting to form for the striker. In the stands, a young coach fresh from a seven-hour flight from the Midwest scribbles notes on his pad. He knew he had found his ticket to a national championship.

DM: “[Current Portland Timbers FC head coach] Caleb Porter came to Jamaica and saw me play. Right away, he knew there was something special in me. I’m grateful he came all the way to Jamaica. That was his first time in Jamaica. I got a scholarship to Akron.”

It is in Northeast Ohio where Mattocks would make a name for himself. As a freshman, the 5-foot-10 forward would lead the Zips to the NCAA College Cup title. After finishing third in Division I in scoring with 18 goals in 25 appearances, Mattocks would be named MAC Newcomer of the Year in 2010. 

DM: “Akron was the best program in the country. You saw that when we won championships. My time at Akron was fantastic to play with a talented team. Winning a championship was everything.“

It’s January 2012 in Kansas City, Missouri. More importantly, it’s a day of hope for 19 MLS franchises. Realistically, only a select few will reap instant rewards. Commissioner Don Garber takes the stage, a sealed envelope in hand.  “With the second pick of the first round of the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, Vancouver Whitecaps FC select…”

DM: “It’s an exciting moment for any young player to get drafted. My promise to Vancouver was I was going to do what I did in Akron – stay sharp, stay hungry, score a lot of goals and be electric on the pitch.”

Mattocks scores club's first-ever MLS playoff goal

After scoring nine goals and becoming the first rookie to win the Domenic Mobilio Golden Boot as the club’s top scorer, Mattocks was named Whitecaps FC “Most Promising Player” and topped MLSSoccer.com’s “24 Under 24” list. He also started the team’s first-ever MLS playoff match and, going up against the likes of Landon Donovan and David Beckham, scored his side’s consolation goal as Whitecaps FC lost to eventual MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy.

Fast-forward to 2015. On this early spring evening in Utah, the ‘Caps are missing the services of captain Pedro Morales. Winless in their previous seven trips to Rio Tinto, the Blue and White look for someone to steer them to victory. At 24, Mattocks is suddenly one of the longer-tenured players on the club. One who has gone through the hills and valleys of a professional career, the four-year veteran heads in the game-winner in the 80th minute to silence the Real Salt Lake faithful.

DM: “It feels great to win. That’s the best feeling, to get three points on the road in a place you’ve never won before. I’ve been here four years now. You definitely take things into consideration of what you’ve learned in the past and how you can help that still going forward. I would definitely say that as time goes by, you learn a bit more.”

That brings us to here and now. This time, mature beyond his years, he faces a challenge that he has dreamed of back when he was in Portmore, before he arrived in Vancouver with a promise that he has since kept.

DM: “From when I was seven, watching Jamaica compete in France in 1998, the first time we made the World Cup, I always aspired to play for my country. It’s a great experience, not too many people get to do it. It’s something I’ve looked forward to ever since I was growing up. It’s a big tournament and you’re going to be playing against some of the world’s best. You want to see where you stack up against Messi and those guys.”

Undoubtedly, a different foe, but his mindset remains the same. The same as when he was in Portmore, giving his family hope while his brother gave him opportunities. The same as a Zip that delivered a title for the coach who discovered him. And the same as a bright-eyed Whitecaps FC rookie full of potential.

DM: “It’s going to be fun. It’s definitely a challenge I’m looking forward to. Obviously, we see Messi play every week. Nobody can probably stop him. I’m not going to say I’m going to try and stop Messi, but I’m definitely going to try and compete against him and try to win the game. Honestly, my goal is to just keep scoring. I’ve been scoring for Jamaica for the last seven or eight games, consistently. That’s definitely a goal of mine, to get three or four goals in the tournament and see where that takes me.”

Mattocks and The Reggae Boyz open the 2015 Copa América versus Uruguay on Saturday. They take on Paraguay on June 16 before the much-anticipated tilt against Messi and Argentina on June 20.

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