[EDITORS' NOTE: This was a lead feature in June's edition of Sounders Monthly. This story has been updated.]
Last year, Jordy Delem almost quit soccer.
The 24-year-old Seattle Sounders defender, who has started seven matches this season and admirably filled in on a banged-up Sounders FC back line, nearly walked away from the sport in 2016.
Delem signed his first professional contract in 2015 with AC Aries-Avignon B in southern France, roughly 60 miles northwest of Marseille. AC Aries-Avignon competed in the Championnat de France Amateur, the fourth Division of French football, but following the ’15 campaign, the club president left and the team folded.
Distraught and disappointed, Delem returned home to Martinique unsure of his future.
“My mother told me, ‘No, Jordy, you must continue, continue,’” Delem said.
Delem grew up awed by French legend Zinedine Zidane and his club, Real Madrid, where Zidane spent the final five years of his illustrious career. Delem’s favorite team is still RC Lens, a small Ligue 2 side in northern France. His uncle played for Lens, and it was where Delem saw his first professional match.
There are no professional clubs in Martinique. Players compete on amateur teams and hold regular day jobs, playing soccer on the side. Nestled south of Dominica and north of St. Lucia, the Windward island is tiny; it’s six times the size of Washington, D.C., geographically and has roughly two-thirds the population of the city of Seattle. An overseas region of France that primarily speaks Antillean Creole, half the island is covered in mountains and the culture is a mixture of French and West Indies.
The list of recognizable Martiniquais footballers is not a long one. While some current players ply their trade in France and other small European leagues, half of the current national team still competes with amateur clubs on the island.
When Delem was 20 years old with Club Franciscain in Le François, a town on Martinique’s eastern coast, his team qualified for the Cup of France and earned the right to play against Ligue 1 side FC Nantes. It was the first professional club against which he had ever played. Club Franciscain lost, but no one on Delem’s team cared about the result. It was the first time a team from Martinique had played a match against a top French side.
“Martinique is a small island,” said Delem, who has 33 international appearances with the Martinique National Team. “When someone does something like [play overseas], it’s amazing. Your friends, your family, everyone follows you. Everyone knows and everyone is happy for you. They follow you every time and ask you so many questions. You are like a star in your country. You must keep your calm, stay focused.”
Delem started at center back and played all 90 minutes for Martinique on Saturday in their 2-0 win over Nicaragua in the first group stage match of the 2017 Gold Cup. The small country sits in first place in Group B by virtue of the United States and Panama’s 1-1 draw. Martinique will play the U.S. on Wednesday at 6 p.m. PT at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
After following his mother’s wishes to keep playing, Delem went to a local Major League Soccer Caribbean combine where scouts from the league evaluated talent. It was a yearly event put on by the Caribbean Football Union, a week-long session consisting of training exercises and games. He was one of the four best players in his age group and caught the eye of S2 Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson.
Playing his preferred position of center back at the combine, Delem won the majority of his duels and was technically sound passing and building from the back.
“His tactical ability was very keen for me,” Hendrickson said. “It was a no-brainer for me to try and get him here.”
Delem is almost aggressively nice. It’s noticeable the moment one greets him. Rarely not smiling, he goes out of his way to be respectful and kind, traits Hendrickson is not only accustomed to, but for which he searches.
“[Delem] is 100 percent Caribbean,” Hendrickson said. “He is very laid-back, very soft-spoken, he’s not a flashy guy. He’s a guy who wants to come in, do his work and work hard…You need those.”
Despite Hendrickson’s predilection toward Delem, his move to Seattle nearly didn’t happen. One of the Martinique players who was supposed to continue his trial in the United States had a problem with his passport and couldn’t go. Hendrickson called Delem and told him he wanted him to join S2. Delem wasn’t sure at first; he had still not yet decided if he wanted to continue playing. His cousin, Kévin Paresemain, was a former Sounders player from 2014-15 and persuaded Delem to go. Parsemain told him he would love the city and the fans, and it helped ease Delem’s mind.
“I went because I had nothing to lose,” Delem recalled. “So I came, and now I’m in America.” He smiled. “It was a bad team in France, but now I’m on a very good team.”
Delem’s transition from dissolved fourth-division French club to reigning MLS champion Seattle Sounders has been nothing short of fascinating. He is incredibly versatile, and while Hendrickson recruited him as a center back, he has also lined up as a ball-winning defensive midfielder and a playmaking attacking midfielder for Martinique. Sounders FC signed Delem from S2 this past offseason, and in his debut on March 31 vs. Atlanta United he started at right fullback, a position in which he had never extensively played before. He went 80 minutes and helped lead Seattle to its first clean sheet of the season.
“[Versatility] is one of my good qualities,” Delem said. “I think [Head Coach Brian Schmetzer] likes this too. Right back is not really my first position, but I am working to be better everywhere I play on the field. It’s just good to play on the First Team.”
Added Schmetzer: “Remember, he’s been put in not the most ideal situation because right back really isn’t his first position. It was difficult for him at first. He’s learned the right back position a little more. He’s gaining the confidence from the team by playing a little bit more with them.”
Delem’s development at S2 was crucial, as much off the field as on it. Playing with the second team allowed him time to adjust to an entirely new environment in a new country. He had taken English in school in Martinique, but he took more intensive English classes when he arrived in Seattle.
There were several Caribbean players on S2 last season, as well as some Cameroonians, which allowed Delem to speak his native French. By not being immediately thrown to the rigors and pressures of the First Team, Delem settled in and excelled, prompting Hendrickson to recommend him for a First Team promotion to Schmetzer and General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerway.
“When you’re an amateur and you go to be a professional, I grew up quickly because of football,” said Delem. “S2 was a good thing for me. When I came back home with the national team, they told me it was good progression.”
Added Hendrickson: “That’s what S2 is all about. You see the potential. They have a high ceiling. We’re not always going to get it right, but for the most part, we want to get nine out of 10, eight out of 10 right. He’s one of those guys we thought, 'Let’s bring him in, give him a year or so with S2, get him some games.'”
Delem has jelled with the First Team this season, too. He can speak French with Cameroonian and fellow 2017 S2-to-First-Team signing Nouhou, as well as assistant coach Djimi Traore. Delem can even translate English for Nouhou. Delem has also bonded with Trinidadian Joevin Jones and Jamaican Oniel Fisher, each of whom plays against Delem regularly internationally. They welcomed him and made him feel closer to the team.
Delem loves living in Seattle and playing for the Sounders and admires the way Osvaldo Alonso has spent his entire MLS tenure in the organization, competing at such a high level for so long. When Delem’s career eventually does end, he’s already prepared to tackle a different field. He has a college degree in finance from a university in Martinique and would be more than content to return there or to France and work for a bank.
For now, though, Delem is happy to represent his country, his teammates and the city of Seattle and see where his young, budding career can take him.
“He’s a fighter, he’s a hard-worker,” Hendrickson said of Delem. “Guys like that, when you have some talent, and then you put in that kind of effort, you’re always going to succeed. I expect great things for him in the years to come.”