One Lov(e): Lovel Palmer's journey from Jamaica to Houston to Portland
For Lovel Palmer, the return to Houston this Sunday (ROOT Sports, Galavision, 750 AM The Game, La Pantera 940 AM) is a chance to show his last club that he is enjoying his football again. Palmer played every minute of the first 17 Dynamo games this season. Then after suspension for a red card, he lost his place in the lineup.
“I’m not the type of person to go into a coach’s office and say ‘Why am I not playing? I need to play,’ and stuff like that,” said Palmer this week after practice. “Whenever I practice or play, that does the talking for me.”
After a few games on the bench it was suddenly all about to change.
“Mike Chabala came in in the morning and said ‘Hey Lov, word on the street is we’re going to Portland in a trade,’” remembers Palmer. “And I’m like ‘You’re crazy!’ Being traded was the last thing on my mind.”
The deal was done by the time Houston played Bolton Wanderers in a friendly on July 20. Palmer saw Chabala driving away from the stadium before the game, and found he had no kit laid out by his locker. A text message from head coach Dominic Kinnear invited him in for a chat, and that was that.
Shortly after catching up with the Timbers in Columbus, head coach John Spencer put him in the lineup at right back for the Crew road game. He told Palmer he could make a difference if he helped organize the team and concentrated on playing some good soccer. Despite the loss, Palmer was impressed with the Timbers’ play that day. Since the classic win against the LA Galaxy, he’s feeling not just settled but very optimistic.
“I feel like I’m home, my soccer is alive again. I’m glad the trade happened,” he says.
WATCH: 90 with Lovel Palmer
Palmer is lean and rangy at 5’10”. He’s a serious and dedicated athlete but also a good sport – he had no problem showing off his abs at a bachelor auction fundraiser while at the Dynamo in May 2011.
He speaks thoughtfully with a mild Jamaican accent and his small, inland hometown of Mandeville is two hours from both bustling Kingston and touristy Montego Bay.
“Growing up in the country in Jamaica it’s either that you are going to be a bookworm or an athlete, it’s not really much to do,” he says of his island home. It was his older brother who started him down the soccer path.
“I used to stay home and watch TV and play cricket with my friends – I was a bowler, fast – and [my brother] Theodore invited me to play a pick-up game,” said Palmer. “I realized it was fun. Not just playing, but after the game and everyone talking about what they just did.”
That remains the essence of Palmer’s approach today. He sees soccer as a social game. It’s a team game, and one that requires discussion.
He still follows Tottenham Hotspur and all the European Champions League games – but always with a pragmatic eye.
“I try to watch as much soccer as possible, not really for the goals or the flair but to see the guys who play in my position.”
Hence when he played central midfield he would track Chelsea’s Frank Lampard and Michael Essien. “I’d see how they organize their team, how they move in relation to the ball. Now that I’m playing right back I’ll have to start watching right backs. You can only learn and get better.”
His brother helped talk him onto a trip to the Norway Cup, a huge Under 14 tournament, with Essex Valley All Stars. He became the captain and they finished in the round of 16 out of 160 teams.
From there he started playing for his high school. The Jamaican National Premier League’s Harbor View Football Club was scouting kids to take to the Romeo and Juliet Under 16 tournament in Rome, and he went the same year as a young Lionel Messi.
“I went back to . . . my little community and started taking the game a bit more seriously,” he said.
He then called the Harbor View coach and asked to join their academy. He commuted to Kingston weekends and stayed with his sister, an Olympian and the current 100M hurdles world champion, Brigitte Foster-Hyltonand her husband.
“I told her, ‘Hey sis, I just want to stay with you, I’ll just be quiet, I won’t be in your way, I really want this opportunity.’”
By age 19 he was Harbor View’s captain and played with them until he was 25. After an unsuccessful trial in Norway, he joined the Houston Dynamo for a two week try out in Orlando, FL, where he met John Spencer.
“He really encouraged me, he said ‘Do this it’ll make your game a better game,’” remembers Palmer. He was advised to organize his teammates.
“When you’re playing there is very little you can do by playing but you can do so much by putting guys in the right position,” he said. “It makes your work easier when the team’s in good shape.”
He signed for the Dynamo in April 2010 and played 26 of the season’s 30 games.
Leaving Houston admittedly put him outside his comfort zone, as he had just bonded with fellow Jamaican Houston players and roommates Jermaine Taylor and Je-Vaughn Watson.
“But there comes a time when a man has to do what he has to do, and move outside the comfort zone, so I’m OK,” said Palmer. “The positive is Coach John wanted me and I’m going somewhere I’ll be loved and cherished.”
Palmer likes walking to Portland’s waterfront, to the food carts, and to work. Adapting to a new city is not a problem. “It’s my job. Mommy and daddy weren’t always there, I’m accustomed to being on my own. I miss friends in Houston but I have to learn to make new friends here.”
Moreover, playing in front of the Timbers Army has been a delight.
“That crowd is next to none, it’s the best fans I’ve played in front all my career and I’ve been playing professional for 10 years,” said an enthusiastic Palmer. “Even with the [Jamaican] national team I don’t think I’ve been in an environment where I wanted to play so much. The game is over and you wish it were 10 minutes longer.”
He says the Timbers fans that went to San Jose last week impressed too. “I thought for a second we were playing at JELD-WEN . . . When you have people cheering for you in good times and bad times, you just want to keep them happy.”