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Alarm bells sounding for Everton

Everton
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Ralph ready to make international grade

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- The last time the U.S. National Team flew to Jamaica for a World Cup qualifying match, Damani Ralph was about to enter his junior year at the University of Connecticut.

On that scorcher of an afternoon in June of 2001, which saw the Reggae Boyz tie the U.S. 0-0 at a time when the Americans were storming through the final round of qualifying, the then 21-year-old Ralph sat in the stands and cheered on his home team.

Little did he know that day that many of the same players he was supporting would be teammates of his a few years later, including those he'll likely join in the starting lineup against the U.S. on Wednesday evening at National Stadium in Kingston.

"This is a dream of mine," said the Kingston native on Tuesday evening as he looked around the park unofficially called The Office. "I watched a lot of games here as a kid. I was a really big fan. Playing here for the National Team was always one of my main goals in life, and now something I'm so proud to achieve."

While Ralph is expected to start up front next to Nottingham Forest standout Marlon King when Jamaica takes the field against the U.S. on Wednesday, he's still somewhat of a neophyte to the international game.

With only five caps to his credit, and no goals to speak of, he's in the midst of proving that he belongs at this level. It's obviously the next step after bursting on the scene last year with 11 goals and 6 assists for the Chicago Fire en route to earning MLS Rookie of the Year honors.

"This is the next level for me to achieve at," said Ralph. "I'm young in my career, and I've done well for myself and have made an impact as a professional so far. I want to now do the same in international play. Hopefully, it starts here and it starts now."

To do that, he'll have to face a U.S. side that he knows all about after being in MLS for the past year-and-a-half. In fact, he's been telling all of his teammates about how some of the better players play and what to look for on Wednesday night.

"I've told them all who are the dangerous ones," said Ralph. "But it's really no secret. With the U.S., the ones to really keep an eye on are Beasley, Donovan and, of course, Reyna, the captain. I've told our defenders that they have to stay close to Beasley and Donovan because they can change the game in an instant if they have space."

Of course, that's the same thing his Chicago Fire teammate Chris Armas and former teammates Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra are probably telling defenders such as Steve Cherundolo and Greg Vanney who play overseas and have only seen Ralph on television.

Ralph's speed is his main weapon, but he is most well-known for the way he creates chances out of nothing. At 6-0, 170 pounds, he also poses a physical threat, which is something close friend and Jamaican teammate Fabian Taylor points out as an added dimension to his game.

"Damani is just so strong on the field that it's so hard for defenders to play him," said Taylor. "He's powerful and he uses his body well."

Ralph also can unleash rockets with both feet, and has a unique ability to change directions on a dime even in the midst of a streaking run to turn botched passes and poor crosses into goals. It's something that Jamaica's new manager Sebastian Lazaroni has heard a lot about since taking the job earlier this summer.

"Damani Ralph is the youngest of all our Major League Soccer players," said Lazaroni, who admitted he hadn't seen many Chicago Fire matches on television. "I'm just getting to know him now, but he's in a very great moment of his career."

One that would be made extra special with a strong performance against the United States.

Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com