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

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 29 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 in October, 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.”

Sunday: Story No. 8