The first time Jordy Delem ever visited the United States, as a teenager and with his family, he gazed in awe at New York City's skyscrapers and was struck by a pervasive thought. I wish I could stay here.
For an island kid from the Martinique capital of Fort-de-France, few dreams could have been more outlandish. Yet less than six years later, thanks to his soccer talent and the helping hand of a benevolent coach -- albeit on the opposite coast from the Manhattan high-rises of his adolescent fantasies -- Delem landed in Seattle with a professional contract in tow.
Throughout this month's Gold Cup, teams of like-minded dreamers will show their skills in front of a continental spotlight, hoping to follow in Delem's footsteps. Most of them represent countries that are long shots for the knockout round but scouts will be plentiful during the group stages, too.
For regional heavyweights like Mexico and the U.S., Gold Cups can feel more like a nuisance than anything else. Playing the continental championship bi-annually rather than every four years has stripped the tournament of much of its novelty. With either El Tri or the USMNT having won all but one previous edition, predictability also creeps in.
For smaller nations sprinkled around the region, though, the Gold Cup has far greater significance. Players from places like French Guiana, Curacao and Martinique (which the U.S. faces in the group stage on July 12) view mere qualification as the culmination of some careers and jumping off points for others.
"It's kind of like our World Cup," said Ezra Hendrickson, Delem's former coach with Sounders 2 and a past St. Vincent and the Grenadines international. "In reality, the chances of a Martinique or a St. Vincent, the smaller islands like that, making it to the World Cup is really almost impossible.
"[The Gold Cup] is a good way of showcasing your players. A lot of the players in the Caribbean play locally, domestically, and they're just trying to get out. ... It can really be a good launching pad."
Hendrickson first spotted Delem in late 2015 at a combine sponsored by the Caribbean Football Union on the player's home island. Delem distinguished himself with a hunger for the ball obvious even among a group of prospects palpably desperate for a shot at the upcoming MLS combine. What was initially bad luck for Delem was good fortune for Hendrickson and the Sounders: His paperwork didn't get finished in time to allow him to take part in the combine, freeing up Seattle to offer him a spot on its minor league squad instead.
Hendrickson has become something of a patron saint for players from CONCACAF's most often-overlooked locales. S2's roster is dotted with young hopefuls like Javorn Stevens of Antigua and Denso Ulysses from Haiti. St. Vincent forward Oalex Anderson blazed the trail Delem would one day follow, using the USL as a springboard to Seattle's first team.
"Being from there, I know how difficult it is if you don't go to college in the U.S., as a Caribbean youngster trying to get to MLS," Hendrickson said. "You don't really get seen as much. ... So whatever I can do to help, to get them that exposure, I'm willing to do. I take pride in doing it -- specifically from my country, but from anywhere in the Caribbean."
There have been no shortage of islander success stories in MLS, from stand-out goalkeepers like Andre Blake and Donovan Ricketts to Jamaican forward Jeff Cunningham, who still sits second beyond only Landon Donovan on the league's all-time scoring list even years after his own retirement.
"I just want to be that catalyst that brings in young Caribbean players to the organization," Hendrickson said. "We've had our share of Caribbean players who have come through MLS and done well. Why not look there? Caribbean players are cheaper players, they're easy to acquire and they're right next door. Anything I can do to get these guys exposure, I'm all for it."
By qualifying for the Gold Cup, the participating Caribbean players have already done more for themselves than even Hendrickson's best efforts can often achieve.
Delem is an unproven entity in MLS circles. Though he has made 11 league appearances for the Sounders so far this season, including seven starts despite often playing out of position at right-back, he is still very much a role model for the majority of his Martinique teammates. Delem's national team squad boasts a handful of guys plying their trade in the French second division but most of them are what Delem was just a few years ago: Regulars in the semi-pro domestic league, hopeful of so much as a passing glance from a club team further up the food chain.
Delem is well-regarded within the Sounders' locker room, respected for his work ethic and willingness to fill whatever hole might have opened up that week. Though English is his second language, he's been diligent in his studies and already is conversational.
"Seattle is raining all the time," Delem notes, accurately, but otherwise, he is happy here.
A heavy Caribbean influence among the group has helped ease his transition. Starting left-back Joevin Jones is from Trinidad & Tobago, while rotation defender Oniel Fisher will represent Jamaica at the Gold Cup; the transplants cling to each other tightly. They're regulars at restaurants like Taste of the Caribbean not far from Seattle's bustling downtown, where Fisher's signed, framed jersey hangs proudly next to posters of Usain Bolt and Bob Marley.
It might not seem like much from the outside, on the fringe of a roster living far from home and in a league still fighting for relevance of its own. But to many of his countrymen, Delem is living the dream. His circumstance is all that many of the Gold Cup participants will ask for in the coming weeks: So much as a shot at a USL or, god forbid, an MLS roster, to turn fleeting glimpses of skyscrapers into their own realities.
"It's not easy, but I think I have a good mentality," Delem said. "I just hope that now I can to do the best job, to stay."