With a part-time head coach, Jamaica was among the nine teams of the 32 at the 2023 Women's World Cup to go undefeated in group play. Coach Lorne Donaldson's day job is Executive Director of Coaching/President of youth club Real Colorado, whose alums include U.S. internationals Sophia Smith and Mallory (née Pugh) Swanson.
Donaldson has lived in the USA since leaving Jamaica in 1979, when he came to play for Denver’s Metropolitan State University. Girls did not play competitive soccer when Donaldson was growing up on the island and in 2008, the Jamaican federation cited a lack of funds for scrapping its women’s national team program.
Donaldson got involved with Jamaican women's soccer as U-17 head coach — and U-20 and full national team assistant — in 2015 during the program's revival thanks to the support of Cedella Marley, the daughter of reggae star Bob Marley. The Jamaican federation (JFA) had also enlisted Hue Menzies, the director of the Central Florida Kraze Krush who moved to the USA from Jamaica at age 16, as technical director. Menzies and Donaldson recruited dual nationals in the USA to boost Jamaica's women's program and it qualified for its first Women's World Cup, in 2019 in France, where Donaldson served as Menzies' assistant and Jamaica exited with three group-stage losses.
After Donaldson took over as head coach, Jamaica qualified for the 2023 Women's World Cup while finishing third to the winner USA and second-place Canada at the 2022 Concacaf W Championship.
This summer Down Under, Jamaica made history by: in its opening game earning its first point at a Women's World Cup with a scoreless tie against France; in its second game with its first win, 1-0, over Panama; and in its third game by knocking out Brazil with a 0-0 tie and reaching the knockout stage.
Before arriving in Australia, the Reggae Girlz released a statement expressing their "utmost disappointment" with the JFA, citing unpaid compensation, and poor accommodation, transportation and training conditions.
We asked Donaldson about Jamaica's historic World Cup, the USA's performance, and the era of American youth soccer since U.S. Soccer ended its Development Academy, including financial challenges.SOCCER AMERICA: How was the 2023 Women’s World Cup for you?
LORNE DONALDSON: It was fun, to say the least. It was good.
Very disappointed with Colombia game. [a 1-0 loss in the round of 16]. We thought we could have gotten more out of it, but we just didn't play well offensively.
But our players were very, very happy because everybody doubted them.
SA: What was the key to success and how did the performance compare to your pre-tournament expectations?
LORNE DONALDSON: Our expectations were different from everybody else. We expected to go in there and do some stuff that people didn't expect.
Looking at the teams we were playing, we knew to get to the second round we had to get a result in the first game — not losing the game.
SA: In the opener, you faced France, No. 5 in the FIFA World Rankings. [Jamaica came to the tournament at No. 43] …
LORNE DONALDSON: So our mindset from day one — because we played the least games going in of all the teams that made it to the World Cup — was to be well-organized defensively.
So we got ourself organized when had a 10-day camp in Jamaica from June 10 to June 21. We took some days off, and met up again in Amsterdam.
We had a couple players who weren't even playing club football. So the training sessions became very important to them.
SA: How important was it that about half your players play in European leagues?
LORNE DONALDSON: That was big. They set the tone in training.
We had young players — college players, high school players — and then we have the players who in play Europe.
Players like Drew Spence and goalkeeper Rebecca Spencer [both at Tottenham Hotspur] were like, “Hey, listen, we’re going to work hard to get something out of this training.”
Up top we have Khadija “Bunny” Shaw [Manchester City], and one of the things we had to make sure of was to defend from the front, not just from the back.
And we went with the confidence that we can get something out of the games. I don't think it was a surprise to our players that we did.
SA: Did you and the players get a sense during the World Cup of what the reaction was like in Jamaica?
LORNE DONALDSON: Yes. We heard about what was going on in Jamaica. Parties going on, early-morning parties. People were up watching games after the France game.
The reaction was unbelievable. It was an unbelievable feeling to me, because I know not a big part of Jamaican population embraces women's football.
The euphoria in Jamaica and among the diaspora all over the world came after the France game.
We couldn't believe that our Jamaican people were now so supportive of female football. It was a good feeling, and I still think it's still going on. People are still talking about it.
SA: Do you think that will have an impact as far as team being better the supported by the federation?
LORNE DONALDSON: Who knows, man? I mean we've expected it before. We said it might happen for the last World Cup. We said it when we went to the men’s World Cup.
But I think our government saw what happened and has embraced it. The brand is so big right now.
Maybe support will come from the diaspora, but I think it has a start in Jamaica. Maybe we'll get more support like what Cedella Marley has done for the women.
Support from people with an interest in the country and its football.
Jamaican-American defender Allyson Swaby, who scored the gamewinner against Panama, transferred from the NWSL's Angel City FC to AC Milan following the Reggae Girlz's 2023 Women's World Cup run.
SA: What’s in your national team coaching future? The USA is looking for a new women’s head coach. Is that something that you would consider?
LORNE DONALDSON: Everybody knows there's a million qualified coaches all over the world who can do the U.S. stuff.
I am just focused on Jamaica until my contract is up on the last day of September.
We have a chance to qualify for the Olympics. We play Canada in Jamaica on the 22nd of September and play them in Canada on the 26th.
Hopefully, we can turn around and make it to the Olympics.
I’m not sure if we're going to have a talk in Jamaica before that. Whatever happens after that, I am willing to listen.
SA: Were you surprised the USA exited so early from this summer’s World Cup?
LORNE DONALDSON: Yeah, I was surprised they exited a little early considering the caliber of players and coaching staff and technical staff and all the stuff that the U.S. has.
I think everybody was surprised.
But it's just one of those things. I mean, Germany exited early, Canada exited early. Maybe it's one of those things that some of the smaller teams are moving up.
In regards to the U.S., obviously I am sure the coaches and players were doing their best but sometimes stuff happens. Now you sit back and reflect on how did it happen?
We have a lot great players in this country. Not just good players, but great players.
SA: You’ve known Sophia Smith [age 22] since she arrived at Real Colorado at age 12. What did you think about her World Cup performance?
LORNE DONALDSON: I think it’s not just Sophie. It's an overall performance.
I don't think her World Cup was the greatest World Cup. She's disappointed. Everybody's disappointed.
Knowing Sophie, she's going to bounce back and she's going to lead this country to a World Cup. She's that type of person. I think most likely now she's over it. She’s moving on because that's a part of sports, right? Even for the best in the world, bad things happen.
SA: The USA has not performed well at the U-17 and U-20 Women’s World Cups while this World Cup revealed a correlation between youth world championship success and nations doing well at the senior level. Does the USA need to reflect on that?
LORNE DONALDSON: That's a good question because I have always said that we have the young players to do well, but we never seem to do well for whatever reason. I don't know if it's style of play or the selection process.
Look at Spain, they won last U-17 World Cups [2018-2022] and the U-20 World Cup [2022, and finished runner-up to Japan in 2018.]
I think whoever is in charge of youth soccer in this country, we have to take a serious look at it — from coaches to the players and everything. And come up with a system or something that will mold right into the senior team, because it has to be some kind of continuity, whether it's style of play or technical staffing or whatever it is.
It has to mesh together, the U-17, U-20s and the full national team. They all have to work hand in hand to try to figure it out.
I was always disappointed, because we [Real Colorado] always had kids who were playing on these U.S. youth teams and I could never understand why we can't be better.
SA: What do you think about the state of girls youth soccer in this new era since since U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy folded in 2020?
LORNE DONALDSON: In terms of player development, I think development can still be achieved. We have to teach the young players and look systematically as a country what we want to do.
If we need to produce better technical players or better tactical players — whatever we need to produce — the top clubs, the top coaches have to lend our expertise to some of this kind of stuff.
Once upon a time, we talked about, “we have the best athletes," but other countries have great athletes who can play soccer.
Maybe now we can stop talking about that and make sure that our athletes are also soccer players. Because I hate the words, ‘She's athletic’ or ‘He's athletic.’
I want to hear, “They're a great technical, tactical soccer player, and they happen to be very fast, or big, or strong or whatever.”
I just think we gotta now make sure that going forward they have the basics and fundamentals of the game. Trap the ball, pass the ball, and shoot the ball. We have to be good at that.
SA: My take on it watching the women’s teams of countries like Spain, Colombia or Portugal, once they started supporting girls soccer, their women's national teams played with the best attributes their countries are known for, which very much included high technical skills. Whereas in the USA, the overbearing coaching influence has come from the British and Northern Europeans, who traditionally haven't had ball skills as much of their soccer culture as South American or Southern European countries. …
LORNE DONALDSON: I think that could be a factor. The Brazilians are very technical. The Spanish are very technical.
We have to look at what kids are learning at a young age. Because here’s what’s going on:
We're spending a lot of time on coaching education, but there are a lot of great coaches out there who can teach young players, but they don’t have the time or money to go and take all these courses.
So they can't get into club system and work, even if they're great technical coaches. There's a lot of those coaches around, but they're not working as much as they used to be in the past.
And I think we're missing this aspect. A lot of time they’re from another country, whether they're Spanish or African or whatever, and they want to teach the technical aspect of the game.
I think a lot of these coaches, they're being weeded out by the system. We want people to be licensed, but there’s an over-emphasis on that stuff right now. And we have to look at that and see exactly where we want to go with it.
Are we going to lose by being not as technical as we need to be?
SA: That developing ball skills and soccer savvy is a better long-term youth soccer coaching approach than getting wins is a notion that’s been advocated for a long time now in the USA. But you think it’s still a problem?
LORNE DONALDSON: We need to get back to the pure fundamental technique — dribbling and doing that stuff with the ball and encourage it. I don't think we're encouraging it.
Everybody can't be that. I don't want my center back to be running with the ball 40 yards every time, but we gotta start encouraging that aspect of the game.
I'm out there watching games and I see a very skillful player, but we're not encouraging that part of their development.
SA: The U.S. player who had the best 2023 Women’s World Cup was Naomi Girma. Her earliest soccer experiences came playing pick-up style soccer in the Bay Area Ethiopian community. She joined elite club soccer relatively late and I would venture she transitioned smoothly and excelled thanks to the ball skills she developed in less formal soccer.
LORNE DONALDSON: To just go out and play a lot of soccer that is not that organized — she just developed her own instincts and skills. It shows she doesn’t play like the regular center backs that we have. She can hit it with both feet and she's very comfortable in all situations and she doesn't get rattled.
We need more of this type not coming through. We can’t ‘make it,’ but we can encourage it. We can decide, let's look for more of this kind of stuff.
SA: At Real Colorado, do you try to simulate the kind free play from which kids develop instincts and skills that are hard if not impossible to coach?
LORNE DONALDSON: Yeah, we try to encourage that, whether it’s futsal or sometimes telling the coaches, just let them play. Don’t even coach.
We believe in the freedom to let kid express themselves and we encourage them.
In Colorado, we don't the biggest population and a world of the best athletes. But we produce some decent players.
SA: Back to how the youth soccer landscape has changed in the past three years, one of the things I’ve been hearing is that there’s been spike in youth coaching pay …
LORNE DONALDSON: Yeah, it is a massive bump. We struggle with it right now that in Colorado. The price of coaching youth teams has gone up a lot.
There's so many of clubs, ECNL and Girls Academy. Clubs are saying, come over and we’ll give you 10 grand more or five grand more. We have clubs in our area that do that. We can't afford to do it.
It's more than double within the last two years. So you're paying a hundred percent more than what a coach had made in the last two or three years.
SA: There’s more competition between youth clubs than before?
LORNE DONALDSON: There's a lot of competition for players and if somebody coaches a team, and they have a good 2009 [birth-year team] or 2010s, another club approaches the coach and says, “I'm gonna pay you $15,000 more if you can move your team over to my club.”
It's disturbing to me. Your club spends time developing players, somebody offers the coach more, and all the kids are gone. To some clubs it happens to a lot.
At our club, under my stewardship, that's going to be accepted. If a kid wants to come over, that's fine. But we're not going to pay a coach to bring your team.
But that's going on a lot.
SA: We’re starting to see some elite girl players skipping college to go pro and the NWSL has created a U-18 entry mechanism to allow teams to directly sign teenagers to pro contracts, bypassing college as well as the draft. Can we expect a growing trend of girls lured to the pros at younger ages and what impact might that have?
LORNE DONALDSON: It's happening a lot. Actually in this present World Cup, European teams are waving the banner and said, come join us.
We have young Jamaica players that are hearing, “Hey, come join us. You don't need to go to college.”
Once that happened with the European clubs, the U.S. had to compete. As the international competition got stiffer, you knew NWSL clubs were going to go that way. And the U.S. is also basically saying the same thing: they don't think college is effective.
I happen to be different with that. I think college is still a good source, if we do it the right way. There's some great college coaches who are doing great stuff.
A lot of players all over the world still went to college and play pro. It’s going to come down to what a kid really needs.
But I see NWSL clubs right now — it's going on all over the USA — looking at 2010 players. You have 13-year-old players being scouted as we speak. And the NWSL will keep track of them for the next four or five years.
Is it good? Is it bad? It's good for competition. But is it good for the game? I don't know.
We'll see where that goes.
Photos: Alex Grimm-FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images, Aitor Alcalde-FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images, Brad Smith/ISI Photos, Real Colorado.