Dane Richards vs. the Columbus Crew in the 2008 MLS Cup. (Keith Furman/FrontRowSoccer.com)

Since February is Black History Month, FrontRowSoccer.com will post one story a day about soccer players of color from the United States and the rest of the world. This multi-part series we will feature players from Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, U.S. Virgin Islands, Ghana, Bermuda, Brazil, Trinidad & Tobago and the United States. Today, we feature former Red Bulls midfielder Dane Richards. This story originally was posted at BigAppleSoccer.com March 18, 2009.

By Michael Lewis

SEATTLE — Dane Richards certainly has been enjoying life in the fast lane over the past several years.

It has helped give the midfielder a college education, a chance to play professionally and an opportunity to play for the Jamaican national team.

That fast lane activity has nothing to do with the 25-year-old’s off-the-field life, but what he accomplishes between the lines on a soccer field.

“In Jamaica, most likely everybody is fast,” the soft-spoken Richards said.

But perhaps not as fast as Richards.

Richards’ star has been on the rise since he joined the New York Red Bulls as a second-round MLS draft choice in 2007. After former Austrian international Markus Schopp went down with an early-season injury, Richards was given an opportunity to start and develop.

He understands that one level of soccer has led to another.

He was taken sight unseen by San Jacinto Junior College in Houston.

“My friends went to the junior college there and told the coach about me,” Richards said. “The coach hadn’t seen me. He just gambled. It paid off.”

That gamble turned into junior college player of the year honors in 2004.

“In Jamaica, when you get a scholarship abroad, it’s really a big deal,” Richards added.

That led to an opportunity to play at Clemson University. Coach Trevor Adair saw Richards’ potential in the pros as a right-sided midfielder and played him there to prepare the 5-7, 153-lb. Richards for life after college. He earned second team All-American honors while scoring 23 goals, setting up 17 others in 42 games.

“The coaches always told me, ‘Stay disciplined, keep working hard. You have the tools. You need to refine them. You’ve got the tools to definitely to play professionally,’ ” Richards said. “I just listened to them. I tried to get stronger at the gym. I tried to work on my technique, work on my speed and stay disciplined.”

He got his opportunity when then Red Bulls coach Bruce Arena picked him in the second round of the MLS SuperDraft in 2007.

“I got a call from John Harkes,” he said of Harkes, then the Red Bulls’ assistant coach. “They liked what they saw, and they were definitely looking at me. I said OK. I will keep working hard. Once the New York team talked to me I definitely wanted to come here because I have a lot of friends here. I said, even if i don’t go first round, I still want to go to New York.”

Richards started to feel comfortable about himself early that season.

“I didn’t feel that I had made but I was feeling more confident,” he said. “You feel like you can do anything. It was the first or second home game against Dallas. I set up Dave van den Bergh for a goal. I think it was my first assist. I burst past [his man]. I said, ‘Whoa! I think I can do it. That really built my confidence.”

Last year Richards turned heads in the MLS playoffs, particularly in the Red Bulls’ stunning 3-0 upset of the two-time defending MLS Cup champion Houston Dynamo. Richards scored a goal and set up another. The Red Bulls reached MLS Cup, but lost to the Columbus Crew, 3-1.

“Every time I step onto the field, I just want to do my best,” he said. “I really . . . stepped up that game. They say big players step up for the big games. I’m not a big player yet. New York has been struggling trying to get past the first round. I just said it was do or die. If we didn’t do it, we would go come and I didn’t want to go back to Jamaica so early.”

Before the first game of the Houston series, Richards seemed to have put one of his fast feet into his mouth.

“I remember giving a statement. I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I was going to run their left back into the ground. Every game I want to run the left back into the ground. They [Houston] interpreted it wrong. You could see in the first game every five seconds the whistle had to blow, the game was so heated. They were talking trash on the field. They proved me wrong.

“In the second game I had to back up my words. They took it a bad way. In that game I just stepped it up, was aggressive and got behind the left back. I did it a couple of times and created some chances.”

So, not surprisingly, Richards’ goal this season is to be more consistent. “That’s what I have to work on now, just be consistent. Just improve each and every game and create every game,” he said.

“You can only can get better. You can’t go down. You can only go up each and every year. I can’t believe its my third season already. It’s going to get better. I climbed the stairs, and I was at the door. The Columbus Crew pushed me out. So, I’m just going to try to go all the way this year.”

Richards said he was inspired by the Reggae Boyz in 1998, when Jamaica qualified for its first and only world Cup.

“I watched the guys on TV and one day I really wanted to do that,” he said. “The other day I was talking to one of my friends. When I went to high school, we usually watched David Beckham on TV. Now I am playing against those guys. It’s unbelievable.”

Richards said he was awed early on playing with the likes of former U.S. international captain Claudio Reyna and one-time Colombian international Juan Pablo Angel on the Red Bulls.

“But I am over it now,” he said. “I have a job to do and I have to stay focused.”

Richards had hoped to be playing in the final Concacaf World Cup qualifying round, but Jamaica failed to reach the next level.

“It was a heart-breaker,” he said. “The first three games were our downfall. We did not get any quality results in the first three games. The second round, we won three games, but that wasn’t good enough.”

So, Jamaica has its sights set on the Concacaf Gold Cup this July.

“After we didn’t qualify, our main focus was to win the Caribbean Cup, which we did already and make it to the Gold Cup. We have to prepare. psychologically, we have to get over the World Cup and try to do our best in the Gold Cup. I know we have strong teams in the U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica. We’re going to try to do our best. It’s our last chance.”

Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Guardian.com. Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at Amazon.com.