Omar Holness gets to play in the league of his idols

Omar Holness, Real Salt Lake’s first pick at the 2016 SuperDraft, discovered MLS while growing up in Jamaica watching the U.S. national team and wondering, “Where are all these great players coming from?”

On TV, he watched mostly the English Premier League and admired above all Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool star who joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2015.

“I grew up wanting to be like Steven Gerrard,” said Holness a few minutes after RSL picked him with the No. 5 overall pick. “How incredible is it that I might play against my idol!”

Omar Holness (left). Photo: Andy Mead (MLS).

But Holness had another idol. The USA being Jamaica’s main regional rival, he paid close attention to its national team and next to Gerrard admired Landon Donovan.

“I always wanted to be a player like Gerrard or Donovan,” Holness said.

Holness’ play so far, which includes captaining the 2011 Jamaica U-17 World Cup team, resembles Gerrard more than Donovan in that he’s more of a box-to-box midfielder.

“Work hard and organize,” is how Holness describes his game. If Holness can adjust to the pro game, he’s just what Real Salt Lake needs.

"Holness was the guy we wanted -- point-blank -- and we got him," said RSL general manager Craig Waibel.

After the 2015 season, two midfielders moved south. Luis Gil moved to Queretaro and Luis Silva to Tigres. And veteran Kyle Beckerman turns 34 in April.

RSL missed the 2015 playoffs after seven straight appearances and the 2016 SuperDraft marked the first time since 2008 that Real Salt Lake had a top five draft pick. That year it picked Tony Beltran, who played 15 games his rookie year and has played more than 200 MLS games.

A sign that Holness is capable of making a quick transition to the pros is how highly he’s regarded by the Jamaican national team program. He was part of the 2015 Gold Cup runner-up team after starring on the Jamaica U-20s.

It was while playing on the U-20s that Holness caught the eye of UNC coach Carlos Somoano. Playing college ball had been what Holness’ mother Suzanna Holness had hoped for Omar and her older son, Nickolai, who played at the University of Tampa.

“They were soccer-mad,” Suzanna said. “What did they break in the house playing soccer? Make a list. Believe me. We decided we’re just going to have basic things because anything they could find they would kick.

“But there was a balance. Education was very important and we were aware that in the USA a boy could pursue a soccer career and get an education.”

After three seasons at UNC, Omar signed an MLS Generation adidas contract, which offers players a stipend toward the completion of their college education.

Omar's organized soccer started at elementary school, when the coach put him on the bench while still a kindergartener and gave him playing time off and on. He later played on Nickolai’s team at Real Mona FC even though he was two years younger.

“He was always in the starting 11,” said Nickolai Holness. “Omar at a young age, he cried a lot. But he definitely performed excellently and he eventually got tougher.”

Now comes the next transition.

“I know the pro game will be a bigger challenge and much faster,” said Omar. “But I’m confident.”

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