Nicole McClure: “I’m glad it happened the way it did. I was just focused on helping the team and that’s what exactly what I did.” (Photo courtesy of Nicole McClure)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

FRISCO, Texas — She might not have been born in Jamaica, but Nicole McClure is still a Jamaican at least two times over.

The daughter of Jamaican immigrants in the United States, the veteran goalkeeper was born, quite ironically, in Jamaica, Queens some 28 years ago on Nov. 16, 1989.

Which made the former East Meadow Shooting Stars goalkeeper qualified to join the Jamaican women’s national team and subsequently help the Reggae Girlz to become the first Caribbean team to qualify for the Women’s World Cup, which will be held in France next June and July.

It was the most earth-shattering news that emanated out the 2018 concacaf Women’s Championship at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, even after the defending world champion United States defended its title and Canada finished as runners-up.

“This means the world. I don’t know how to describe it,” McClure said by telephone from Sweden, where she plays professionally.

“It hits me in waves, if that makes sense. Sometimes I don’t realize what happened and other times I’m like, ‘Whoa, this really happened?’ It’s a surreal feeling, to say the least.”

McClure, who played in the Long Island Junior Soccer League for six years, hoped that the women’s team accomplishments — it made international headlines — will change the direction of female soccer in Jamaica. The team has been woefully underfunded for years and has been helped by donations from musician Cedella Marley, daughter of the late, great Reggae icon Bob Marley, for the past four years. “I’m a firm believer that every girl should have the opportunity to pursue her dreams, whether it’s football, music, business, whatever it is,” Marley told FIFA.com.

“Things are changing, as we speak, down in Jamaica,” McClure said.

One thing hasn’t changed. McClure has gotten plenty of questions about her nationality from her teammates, where she plays professionally in Sweden.

“I’ve heard that before. They’re like, wait, there’s a Jamaica, New York? Are you from Jamaica or are you from New York? That definitely confused my teammates here before I arrived,” she said with a chuckle. “I told them that there’s a town in New York called Jamaica. It’s in Queens. I think it’s a coincidence that my parents are from Jamaica as well, the country.”

When you’re a backup goalkeeper, you have to wait your turn, which is what McClure did during the competition. She played the full 90 minutes in Jamaica’s 9-0 win over Cuba in the group stage of the tournament, but really hadn’t made much of an impact — until it really mattered.

“I’ll be honest with you, it was tough not being part of the squad on the field for those four games, really five,” she said. “It was tough mentally, emotionally, all kinds of adverbs. It made me build character, as they say. I’m still a leader and I know I add value to the team. But I’m glad it happened the way it did. I was just focused on helping the team and that’s what exactly what I did.”

The Jamaicans were hardly favorites to reach the tournament’s semifinals. Many women’s soccer observers picked Canada and Costa Rica to qualify from Group B, but the Caribbean side had some other plans. After dropping a 2-0 decision to the Canadians in its opener, Jamaica rebounded with a stunning 1-0 triumph over Costa Rica and that Cuban result to finish 2-1-0. The squad lost to the eventual champion USA in the semifinals, 5-0 (the Americans outscored their foes in the tournament, 26-0).

In the third-place match Wednesday, Oct. 17, history was going to be made regardless who had prevailed. Panama, trying to emulate its men’s success — Los Canaleros reached the World Cup for the first time at Russia 2018, and of course, Jamaica.

The teams battled to a 1-1 draw in regulation. The Jamaicans grabbed a 2-1 lead in extratime, but the Panamanians equalized to force a penalty-kick shootout. As time was ticking down in the 120th minute, Jamaica technical director Hue Menzies and head coach Lorne Donaldson deployed a plan they had just in case it went into a tie-breaker. They pulled regular keeper Sydney Schneider, who was considered one of the best keepers of the competition, and replaced her with McClure.

“That was basically the plan, just stay ready because you never know what’s going to happen,” McClure said. “As soon as they scored that second goal, I knew i was going in. I took my coat off and started warming up. The coach actually did tell me that if it did come down to it, ‘Stay ready, you’re definitely to go in for the penalties.’ Yeah, I was ready. We did practice this a couple of days ago, the penalty shootout. I did really well so I guess they trusted my ability to handle it. So I was prepared for this moment. As a goalkeeper, you kind of live for these kind of moments. As weird as it sounds, those pressure moments where you can carry your team and lead them to greatness. It was an honor, really to be thrown in there.”

Menzies said he knew McClure was ready to help the team make some history.

“We planned it from day one that we were going to make that sub,” Menzies said. “We kept the sub. 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.”

Well, it took some time before McClure could make an impact in penalty kicks.

Both teams converted their attempts in the first two rounds — the Panama players put theirs to the left-hand side of the goal — before McClure produced some magic.

“Here in Sweden, we see quite a bit of penalties,” she said with a laugh. “I kind of got some practice over the last couple of months. It’s weird, right? It kind of prepared me for Wednesday night.”

McClure was asked what her secret was.

“I don’t mind giving away my secrets. It’s not a big deal,” she said. “What I look for is their body language,” she said. i don’t mind giving away my secrets. I notice most of the time the right footers will hit it to my left. I kind of guessed wrong for the first one. I just changed my approach because I figured they were also reading because I was diving to my left for the first two. So, the third one, I was a little bit more patient and didn’t move until the shot was taken. And the same with fourth.”

The 5-8 goalkeeper made a two-handed save on both tries, first on Lineth Cedeno and then on Kenia Rangel.

“I felt great.” McClure said. “To be honest, after that first one, I said to myself, save the next one and we win and sure enough, that’s what happened. I was super focused. My confidence was super high and I was just ready for the task at hand. I was more patient than the first three shots for the fourth one. That was just pure reaction. I said to myself, ‘Save it and that’s it.’ ”

Christina Chang and Dominique Bond-Flasza buried their attempts and the Jamaicans had an historical moment to celebrate.

“I knew that we won, but it didn’t really sink in,” McClure said. “It was kind of weird. I didn’t know how to describe it. My teammates started running towards me. Oh, OK, I guess it’s real now, we won. i mean normally, i would have been animated than i was. it was like an outer body experience, really. It was wild, really. After they got off of me from the ground, then it really sunk in. The emotions kind of hit like, going to the World Cup. I started getting a little bit more emotional. Tears started rolling down. It was wild.”

It was with the Shooting Stars that McClure perfected her knack of stopping penalties. One special save stands out — at a Disney soccer tournament semifinal in Orlando, Fla. in 2006.

“That was awesome,” she said. I remember a woman was on the sideline and she was talking to one our parents. The opposition’s parent said, ‘My daughter always scores penalties,’ ” she said. “And the dad on our side says, ‘Well, my keeper always saves penalties.’ And sure enough I actually saved it and then we won. It was awesome. I think it was 5-4 or something like that. I’ll never forget that day.”

It was just one of several highlights with the Shooting Stars. She joined East Meadow after playing with Auburndale in Queens for four years. Both teams are in the LISJL.

“Oh, it was awesome,” she said. “It was definitely my favorite team hands down. … It was great. The girls were the best. Just a bunch of characters. We had so much fun. I will cherish those memories forever.”

She went on to college, attending the University of Hawaii for two years before transferring to the University of Florida. She then continued to pursue her passion, playing professionally in seven countries. That included Iceland (UMF Selfoss in 2012 and HK-Vikingur in 2013), Switzerland (FC Neunkirch in 2013), Norway (Klepp Elite in 2015), Israel (Ramat Hasharon in 2015-16), France (ETG Ambilly in 2016-17), Croatia (Split in 2017) and most recently in Sweden (Ostersunds DFF in 2014 and now Sundsvall DFF).

When she returned to her team, Sundsvall DFF, which plays in the Swedish second division, her teammates surprised her with a locker room celebration. As she walked into the locker room last Friday, Bob Marley music was blasting in the background while her teammates applauded. They gave her flowers and a “real cool cake,” that said, “Congratulations, Nicole,” in Swedish, which included a black, green and gold Jamaican flag.

“It was really, really sweet,” McClure said. “They’re great, awesome. They all knew. I received a ton of messages after the game, saying congratulations; ‘can’t wait to see you and best wishes.’ ”

In case you were wondering, McClure said the cake “was like a vanilla, raspberry deliciousness.”

McClure is scheduled to return home for the winter break this week, although she plans to keep fit for the spring season and any potential call-ups by the team.

While Oct. 17 forever will be a red-letter date in Jamaican women’s soccer history, McClure and her teammates are looking ahead to some other special days.

One is Dec. 8, when the Women’s World Cup draw will take place and will set the schedule.

The other is June 7, which is the kickoff of the competition, which runs through July 7. McClure wasn’t taking anything for granted.

“June 7 feels like its miles away, but really it’s like next week,” she said. “It’s indescribable to know that on June 7 that things are going to change again. Even tomorrow things are going to change. and those things are changing as we speak, down in Jamaica. It’s an honor really. I’m just taking it one day at a time. I’m staying humble, you know, because anything could happen between now until then. But yeah, June 7 is the day. I don’t know who we’re going to face. I don’t even know where we’re going to play yet — which part of France. I’m ready for it. If I get called up again, I’m ready.”

So McClure can realize another dream and perhaps stop some penalty kicks as well.