Flint Hill's Marlo Sweatman, also the captain of the Jamaica U-20 national team. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Marlo Sweatman learned the game of soccer on the well-manicured fields of Northern Virginia, not the hard-scrabble pitches that dot the Caribbean Island where her mother spent her first 21 years.

But the Flint Hill senior has never complained about the field conditions in Jamaica, shrugging off the strange bounces and occasional dust clouds. Instead, playing with the Jamaican under-20 women’s national team has taught Sweatman to appreciate the synthetic surface at her Oakton private school, just another necessary adjustment in her unconventional international career.

“It’s definitely different — a lot less grass and a lot more rocks,” Sweatman said of the field at the University of West Indies where the junior Reggae Girlz do most of their training. “I’m used to playing [on] turf every game here. I step on that field, and it’s nothing compared to our worst grass field.”

When Sweatman arrived in Kingston to try out for the team in April 2010, her time in the soccer-hungry country had been limited to a single family vacation. Representing her mother’s homeland, Sweatman has become a starting center midfielder and team captain for Jamaica’s under-20 women’s team.

After representing the country in U-20 Women’s World Cup qualifying, the Florida State recruit is a major part of its youth movement in women’s soccer, a development plan aimed at delivering the small island nation of fewer than 3 million people its first Women’s World Cup berth.

“It’s been a good eye-opener for Marlo,” Ed Sweatman said of his daughter’s international experience, which has also included trips with the team to Cuba, Panama and the Dominican Republic. “Most people have an impression of the Caribbean Islands as all fun in the sun, but there are obviously people dealing with the same issues we have up here and even worse. She’s made connections that will stick with her forever.”

International attention

Almost three years ago, Ed Sweatman, a recruiter for the Virginia National Guard, sent his daughter’s international career in motion with a phone call to Jamaica Football Federation headquarters.

He helped Marlo apply for dual citizenship and then flew to the country’s capital of Kingston to hand deliver the necessary paperwork when bureaucracy caused the process to drag for months. The family has paid for several of Marlo’s international flights to take some of the financial burden off the country’s soccer federation, but Ed Sweatman said the travel costs have been no more than zig-zagging the country with a top-level club team.

Vin Blaine, Jamaica’s national director for women’s teams, has been working to grow the national youth program, hoping to spark improvement from the bottom up. Though he said he’d like to have tryouts in the United States and Canada some day, he doesn’t have the resources for much international scouting. The handful of foreign-based players currently in the country’s program came to him.

Though the U-20 roster was already set at the time, Blaine invited the 5-foot-9 midfielder down for a tryout and soon created a spot for Sweatman.

Sweatman had to adjust to the Jamaican playing style. Rather than the possession-based game favored by high-level teams in the United States, she learned to look for the explosive play, sending long balls from the center down the wings for the team’s speedy forwards to run on to.

By the end of her second camp, Sweatman was named a team captain, along with Trudi Carter — a native of the island who had been in the national program for several years. Sweatman has acted as a spokeswoman for the junior Reggae Girlz, drawing a measure of local fame when she was interviewed on Jamaican television prior to World Cup qualifying.

“I had no doubt she could help us,” Blaine said in a phone interview. “It was a good fit from her first camp. She plays like she’s been here for years.”

Forging a connection

Beverley Sweatman has always done her best to maintain a link to her home country, often cooking up flavorful island cuisine such as jerk chicken and fried plantains for her family. She had long entertained her four children with tales of her youth, from her school days in Kingston to idyllic summers spent with her grandmother in the country parish of St. Mary when snack time meant picking ripe mangos and bananas right off the tree.

The Sweatmans visited the island once around Christmas about 10 years ago, but the cost of travel for six made that pilgrimage a special treat rather than a regular occurrence. When the youngest child, Marlo, found her way back to Jamaica through soccer, Beverley made sure to arrange a special trip to St. Mary after one camp, so Marlo could meet several uncles and cousins for the first time and see the country in a way most tourists will never experience.

Beverley finally saw her daughter take the field in a Jamaica uniform in March during World Cup qualifying in Panama. The Reggae Girlz went 0-2-1 and were eliminated from contention for a berth in the world tournament, which the United States won in September.

“We had the [Jamaican] flag flying and shaking like crazy,” Beverley Sweatman said. “It was very exciting. A dream came true.”

Choosing a flag

Marlo Sweatman might soon have to make a choice that will impact her international future. In June, she participated in team camp with the United States U-18 national team at the Olympic Training Center in California. The invitation came after a coach saw her playing with Jamaica.

In the spring, Sweatman plans to attend camp in Jamaica as the team begins preparation for the U-20 Caribbean Cup, but she should know by January if she will be asked back to play with the U.S. U-20 team at its next camp.

Sweatman, who turns 18 in December, has a full year left to play at the U-20 level, but the next step in the Jamaican system is the senior national team, and Blaine said the midfielder has the potential to make the jump. Generally, FIFA does not permit players to switch the country they represent once they’ve been capped at the highest level.

Sweatman chose to play collegiately for the Seminoles, in part, because of the program’s history of allowing players flexibility to compete internationally. She dreams of playing in the World Cup, which would be much more likely playing for the United States, but with her standing in the U.S. program far from certain, she’s also proud to continue to represent Jamaica.

She’s grown comfortable in her mother’s homeland, and the teammates who were once strangers are now among her best friends. She stays in touch with the Jamaican-based players through text messaging, sometimes sending care packages with candy and D.C. souvenirs.

“With Jamaica, I know I’m already a key player,” Sweatman said. “With the U.S., I’d be just another player. . . . I never even considered playing with [Jamaica] until it happened, and now [the other players] pretty much treat me like family. They’re like my older sisters.”