Jamal Jack had a typical 20-something decision to make: chase a dream and its uncertainty or settle with security.
Jack picked risk and committed to his passion - soccer - a choice that has benefited the Colorado Springs Switchbacks some eight years and more than 3,000 miles later.
“No disrespect to the other centerbacks we’ve had throughout these first three years, but for me, he’s the best one,” Switchbacks coach Steve Trittschuh said Thursday.
Jack’s decision was made in his native Tobago, a small Caribbean island northeast of its more populated partner, Trinidad, which is just off the coast of Venezuela.
He balanced a construction job through an uncle with his preferred craft when time permitted in his hometown of Charlottesville, a picturesque fishing village of roughly 2,000 people.
“It has a lot of togetherness,” Jack said. “Once you come to the village, it’s love right away. People open the door for you. It’s like that.”
While comfortable at home, he found he could only get so far with one foot in both fields.
“I told him I want to do what I love best, which is soccer,” Jack said.
With the help of a local coach who took a liking to his strong and aggressive play, the 6-foot-3 Jack moved to Trinidad for numerous stints in the TT Pro League, Trinidad and Tobago’s top league, before stops in Guyana and El Salvador.
Last year, Jack made his first official move stateside, starting 28 matches for Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC. With the Switchbacks focused on building an improved back four in the offseason, he became a priority.
“Watching him last year in Pittsburgh, I thought ‘He’s someone that I really want,’” Trittschuh said. “When his name came around, I jumped on him.”
Jack has delivered, starting the first eight matches at center back and playing all 720 minutes. He leads the team in clearances (40), blocks (7) and tackles (17) while marking opponent’s best aerial threat on set pieces. He also scored his first goal with the club in a 4-0 win at Reno when he headed in a Josh Suggs' corner.
The team has allowed six goals, none off set pieces or restarts, including three clean sheets split between two goalkeepers.
“Hopefully we can keep that defense nice and sound back there because he’s a big part of it I think,” Trittschuh said.
Jack has two appearances for the Trinidad and Tobago national team, most recently in 2015, but was in Pittsburgh when the Soca Warriors helped eliminate the United States from World Cup qualification with a 2-1 win in October. While Trittschuh mentioned a hope that the sturdy defender could return to international play, that’s not Jack’s focus.
“If I get called, I will represent my country, but my goal is to just keep going forward, keep building,” the 30-year-old said. “Every day keeping getting better, you never know who is there looking.”
While he can’t take too many risks in his current gig on the last line of defense, it wasn’t new to Jack. As a kid, he would tell his mom he was headed to his grandmother’s or the library when he happened to end up at the local playing grounds.
“The soccer field is kinda far from where I was living. So my grandmother, she’s living just exactly by the soccer field,” Jack said.
“I kept doing it over and over, and I turned out to be a soccer player for 10 years.”
Switchbacks add another Rapids loanee
With Luke Vercollone set to miss Saturday’s game at Orange County due to suspension and JJ Tambe not expected to play with an injury, the timing was right for the Switchbacks to add a second Colorado Rapids loanee.
Midfielder Sam Hamilton, the 15th overall pick of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft out of University of Denver, likely will make his debut Saturday, a week after forward Niki Jackson made his Switchback debut on a loan from Colorado’s MLS club.
Switchbacks coach Steve Trittschuh characterized Hamilton as a “ball-winner” who could help against Orange County’s quality midfield.
“It’s kinda to take Luke’s place in the middle, but he’s more of a defensive player,” Trittschuh said. “I wanted to bring him in, because their middle, I think that’s the strongest part of their team. If we can put him, Schweitz (Jordan Schweitzer) and Jordan (Burt) in there, then hopefully we can solidify that and attack.”
Schweitzer and Hamilton, an Evergreen native, were teammates in the Pioneer midfield as recently as 2016. Hamilton’s addition could see Schweitzer move into the more forward role that Vercollone has held at points this season.
“He’ll bring the same thing, I think, that Luke can do. I know he’s excited about doing that too.”
Orange County saw a four-game win streak where it outscored opponents 12-0, end Wednesday with a 2-0 loss at Rio Grande Valley. Saturday’s hosts sit second in the Western Conference with 13 points through seven matches. The Switchbacks are seventh with 10 points through eight games.
Hamilton appeared in three matches for the Rapids a year ago before spending much of the season with Phoenix Rising FC where he started in nine of 14 appearances. He scored once and completed a team-best 87.7 percent of his passes. Pascal Eboussi is expected to fill Tambe’s spot next to Jamal Jack at center back.
Hunter honored a second time
For the second time this season, Switchbacks defender Taylor Hunter landed on the USL Team of the Week.
Hunter started and played all 90 minutes at right back in Saturday’s 0-0 draw, intercepting eight passes and winning eight of 13 duels.
Splitting time between center and right back, Hunter has started all eight matches and has played all 720 minutes.