It was a noisy locker room at Jeld-Wen Field after the Real Salt Lake victory in the Western Conference Finals. RSL had just pulled off a 1-0 victory in one of the more hostile places to play in the league for visitors. The Timbers Army are known for their passion, and for taunting visiting players by dangling keys, sending a message for them to leave. The victory was very rewarding and the locker room was full of celebration: plenty of smiles and laughter, thumping music, and Olmes Garcia and Joao Plata were singing and dancing to the beat.
However, no single RSL player was reveling in the moment more than Lovel Palmer. The Jamaican defender had spent two unsuccessful seasons with the Timbers, after being traded from the Houston Dynamo in the summer of 2011. The experience was miserable to the point where Palmer told Keepin’ It Real that “about a year or two ago I was thinking about quitting the game because I wasn’t having fun anymore.”
However, in the post game euphoria those thoughts were far from Palmer’s mind. Instead, he was very focused on gratitude for how he had arrived at that moment.
“It’s one of the greatest feelings,” said Palmer above the rhythm of the pulsing sounds enveloping the locker room. “What better way to say thanks to Jason Kreis and his staff than to come here and win in the Western Conference Finals. I didn’t have the best time here [in Portland]. To be honest, I’ve dreamed about this day. I wanted to be on the pitch when Real Salt Lake beat the Portland Timbers and I got that wish.”
Palmer came out of the ranks of Harbour View FC, perhaps Jamaica’s most noted club. He made his debut in MLS with Houston where he was an instant starter for Dom Kinnear’s squad, and everything appeared headed in the right direction. He made his impact there as a midfielder, but that was all uprooted when he was shipped off to Portland the following year. He never seemed to settle in there as the Timbers tried to use him in a variety of ways.
When he became available in the off-season, RSL snatched him up via the re-entry draft. “When we went into the process of trying to pick him up, we were looking for a veteran outside back that has the experience obviously and could help us in any need necessary,” explained assistant coach CJ Brown. “He obviously knew that we had two starters already right from the back but he was versatile. He could play left and right, and he could play defensive mid or whatever we need.”
Palmer credits the entire RSL coaching staff, and Brown in particular for giving him a new lease on life. “CJ – he talks to me a lot,” explained Palmer after a recent training session. “We talk about the games that we’ve played before, and we talk about the games coming up, and what he wants me to do.”
However, the tutoring from Brown hasn’t been purely tactical, in fact it goes much deeper than that. “I think that was a plus for me this season – having him in my corner. He’s restored my confidence just making me feel like ‘you’re a really good player’. ‘I’ve seen you play for other teams. I’ve seen what you’ve done and know what you can do. Just keep doing that plus what we’re asking you to do.’”
The versatile Jamaican saw time in 17 matches this season for Salt Lake. Of those, 14 were starts, including two down the stretch when he saw time ahead of regular starter Tony Beltran. Those appearances helped prep him for the playoffs according to Brown. “There were times, especially at the end of the season, where we felt maybe we needed to shake things up a little bit,” said Brown. “And we did, and it got Lovel Palmer some good minutes and now he’s obviously ready for the finals.”
Palmer feels like although he’s a veteran in this league, he’s been able to stretch his play this season, and again credits Brown for that. “I’ve definitely grown as a player. I think its things that I’ve had in me before but you just wanted that one person to say ‘You’ve got it. Bring it out.’ He saw it, and he kept asking for it and asking for it. Finally I just broke out of my shell.”
Lovel couldn’t be peaking at a better time. He’s likely to make Coach Jason Kreis’s decision very difficult in the MLS Cup Finals as Chris Wingert may be fit for duty. However, Palmer feels like he’s playing better than ever before and that will make it a tough call for Kreis.
“I said it to a couple of my friends that I feel like I’m playing the best soccer of my entire career,” commented the athletic outside back. “It’s funny – I’m 29 and you actually feel like you’re at your peak right now.”
In addition to the coaching staff, Palmer credits the family-like atmosphere as another key to his success. “I’m from Jamaica,” stated Palmer. “I don’t have my friends and family here. But every single guy, every single day we come to practice. We talk, we laugh. We talk about each others culture. We make fun of each other. And we build each other up. We hang out after the games, and after training – like me, Cole Grossman, John Stertzer – we play video games a lot. We hang out a lot.”
Although many players have referenced the culture, few if any really understand what is so special about the environment that the club has created in Salt Lake, and the impact it has on the success of individual players and the team. “You’d have to be in it to understand what it’s really about,” he explained.
Regardless, it’s clear that the combination of coaching, confidence and a family atmosphere has had a profound effect on this player. That all came to light in the midst of a noisy locker room full of post-game celebration. And Palmer is undoubtedly looking to keep the success rolling in Kansas City. After all, he has a new lease on life.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better team, a better bunch of guys, or a better coaching staff. I’ve found my love for the game again.”
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