The 'Great Wall of Jamaica' finally came down, but strong bricks remain

The Reggae Girlz conceded their first goal of the 2023 World Cup and were subsequently knocked out by Colombia. What comes next?

“It’s been a good ride,” Jamaica head coach Lorne Donaldson said, with a warm smile, as he closed out his remarks to the media following his team’s 1-0 defeat to Colombia.

The World Cup pitches in Australia will miss Donaldson’s team. The press rooms will be sad to see his honesty and charm depart the tournament too. With no hesitation at all, it’s easy to say that Jamaica left an indelible mark on the 2023 World Cup.

History-makers, record breakers. The first-ever Caribbean nation to make the knockout round of a World Cup will never be forgotten. Statistically, they have been one of the best defences we have seen in recent history.

“A the end of the day, if you really look back at the bigger picture, it’s a really big achievement for the country,” co-captain and centreback Allyson Swaby told ESPN. “I'm so gutted for the result but I'm so proud of the girls…unfortunately, I don’t think we were as efficient up top as we wanted to be.”

After a 1-0 defeat in Melbourne, Jamaica will be on a flight home on Wednesday and Colombia will meet England on Saturday, in Sydney. Despite oozing belief and proving the doubters wrong on the way to the Round of 16, the Reggae Girlz’s World Cup fairytale is over.

Catalina Usme’s winning goal in the second half was the first, last, and only goal that the Caribbean nation conceded in the competition.

After 322 minutes of imperious defending, there was a breach in the ‘Great Wall of Jamaica’ (as the local Jamaican press had dubbed the back-four and goalkeeper).

On the goal, Usme is like an assassin at the back post. You don’t know she’s there, until it’s too late. Quiet and deadly. Her first touch, that sets the ball into the space, is immaculate and the finish was equally crisp.

"This was a collective work,” Usme told the media post-match. “When we had that switch of play, I thought this is the moment. I wanted to keep a cool head. I was thinking, just make the most of this…those moments in the box when you feel the pressure, I love those moments.”

The Colombia goal came from a combination of their youngest and oldest players. 18-year-old Ana Maria Guzman - extraordinarily making her second-ever national team appearance - plays the ball across, and then the 33-year-old Usme does the rest.

Having been so dependable from crosses in wide areas, it was a shame, in some ways, to see Jamaica be exposed from a big switch lofted-through ball over the top of left full back Deneisha Blackwood. The fact the move begins from a throw in is even more uncharacteristic from this stingy group.

Guzman’s cross was one of three successful crosses the Colombians had in the match. A success rate of 17%. Even for an area of the pitch that Jamaica mostly had the advantage, Colombia was decisive when it broke through. Las Chicas Ponderosas managed three shots from those three successful crosses; one ending up in the net, another came of the post and one more went wide.

Tactically, Donaldson explained that he didn’t think there was anything between the two teams on the night. But in terms of executing in key moments on the ball, Colombia edged it.

“I think technically, they were just better than us tonight…I give them credit, you know, they were ready to play. I think we were ready to play but you know, they were just better on a night like this,” he said.

Letting in one goal isn’t a nightmare scenario. To hold the attacking trio of Usme, Mayra Ramirez and Linda Caicedo to 0.9 xG is no mean feat. If anything the Jamaican backline did their job. At least, for the most part.

For the first time since a 3-0 friendly defeat against Australia in February 2023, Becky Spencer had to go and fish the ball out of the Jamaican net.

Even at the end of their World Cup journey, the sentiment surrounding this team is one of new beginnings and a bright future. The ‘Great Wall of Jamaica’ may have cracked, but it is built on a strong foundation to rebuild from.

“The sun is going to come up tomorrow, so we have to be ready to go and just get on with your life. You know, I’m going to tell them: “Magnificent job.” Nobody expected this. It’s something to build on, what we started. So let’s see what happens in the next tournament,” said Donaldson.

Three out of four of Jamaica’s backline (Blackwood, A. Swaby, Chantelle Swaby) were playing in their second-ever World Cup. That trio will carry that invaluable experience on. And at the next World Cup, they’ll all still be in the prime of their defensive careers at 30, 30 and 29 respectively.

Alongside those players, that have been a consistent backbone of this team for a few years now, there’s also the veteran goalkeeper Spencer, 32, who has been a galvanizing presence on and off the pitch.

The Jamaica goalkeeper has the best post-shot xG +/- of any shot-stopper in Australia & New Zealand (+2.8) (per FBREF).  She also has the second-highest save percentage (95%).

The currently club-less Tiernny Wiltshire, 25, as excelled as a full back. Starting three out of four matches, it would be shocking to see her not seal a contract with a team in a top professional league by the end of August.

Of course, it is the young players that Donaldson has brought to this tournament that might be the most exciting aspect of Jamaica’s future.

17-year-old Solai Washington was given minutes off the bench in every single group match. Whether at full back or in a more advanced role, the left-footed winger from Atlanta, GA, looked unafraid going up against huge nations like France and Brazil. She was to throw a shoulder into challenges, and take opposition players on freely.

Notre Dame University’s Kiki Van Zanten made her first start for her country on the right of the midfield against Colombia. While the University of Tennessee’s Kameron Simmonds, who was used three times off the bench, is a burgeoning talent in the frontline.

Jamaica’s starting XI against Colombia | FIFA, Getty

For Jamaica, the “the next tournament,” as Donaldson said, is just around the corner. These players will need to bring the momentum created in Australia this summer into their Olympic qualifier against Canada on the 26th of September in Toronto.

Not long after that, the Reggae Girlz will begin preparations for the first-ever women’s Gold Cup. The 12-team tournament will feature four nations from South America including Colombia. What a rematch that could be.

The two biggest remaining questions facing this team is how long will Donaldson be leading the group, and when will the federation step up and provide them with the necessary resources to reach their potential?

Donaldson confirmed today that he would remain in charge of Jamaica through the Olympic qualifier against Canada. But after that? It is unclear. Looking at the improvements he has made in just 15 months with the national team, his departure would be a sizable loss.

“We got to figure that out and see what we want to do. I mean, maybe, I don't know. I have had a good run. So after the September game…I mean, I would like to [stay on as Jamaica head coach], it's my country. I think that we need to sit down and sort some stuff out,” Donaldson elaborated.

In terms of the federation putting more investment into the program, that future is equally murky.

Jamaica played no warm up matches before this World Cup. And the players candidly accused the federation of “subpar planning, transportation, accommodations, training conditions, compensation, communication, nutrition, and accessibility to proper resources.”

The Reggae Girlz achieved new heights without the considerable support from the JFF. From a GoFundMe to a World Cup Round of 16 appearance, the credit should be on benefactor Cedella Marley, the coach, his staff and the players.

In many ways this feels like just the beginning of what Jamaica can achieve with Donaldson and this group of players. Hopefully, they are not once again left with insufficient support heading into 2024. Otherwise we’ll never know how high and how wide the ‘Great Wall of Jamaica’ can be built.