By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (June 7, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Every World Cup Qualifying campaign has a Cinderella team. The glass slipper is usually worn by a small nation that overcomes long-shot odds for the chance to compete for a spot in the finals. This year, that honor goes to Caribbean side Antigua and Barbuda, one of the smallest countries remaining in contention for a spot in Brazil ‘14. These tiny protagonists will take on the United States this Friday (7pm ET - ESPN) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL in the first game of the Semifinal Round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying.
With a population of just 80,000 (for a sobering comparison, Raymond James has a capacity of 66,000), the twin-island nation dominated the Second Round qualifying, finishing atop the Group F standings ahead of favorites Haiti as well as Curacao and the US Virgin Islands. The team outscored its three opponents 28-5, including a 10-1 victory over the US Virgin Islands this past October. Antigua and Barbuda also managed the greatest goal difference of +23, better than any of the 18 teams that competed in that round (including Canada). The biggest surprise came in November when Antigua and Barbuda defeated Haiti 1-0 on a Kerry Skeeple goal in the 83rd minute to reach the semifinal round. The goal and game remains the biggest in the country’s history.
Head coach Tom Curtis said despite the Cinderella status bestowed on the team, he is not ready to play up their chances against the United States. As always, Curtis said his team will fight for points.
“I am optimistic that we can compete with one of the best squads in the world,” he said. “I am very positive of that. I know the squad of players we’ve put together will represent Antigua and Barbuda to the best of their ability. They will fight as hard as they can. They will make the Antiguan people proud. That’s all we can ask for.”
Off the field, the Antigua and Barbuda Football Association sees this match as a chance for a spotlight to shine on them like it did in the recent past for other Caribbean nations that later reached the World Cup finals such as Jamaica in 1998 and Trinidad & Tobago in 2006. General Secretary Gordon Derrick said overcoming Haiti and playing against the USA will give his nation unprecedented publicity.
“This round of qualifying is where the real football in our region is played," he said. "All the television companies across the world are going to start tuning in. The marketing value for us will be phenomenal. We would never be able to afford to pay for such a thing.”
The Benna Boys’ roster includes eight players who are based in England. The players have spent the past 10 days training at the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, FL. The England-based players, who joined the team last week, include defenders Marvin McCoy (Wycombe Wanderers), midfielder Mickele Leigertwood (Reading) and striker Dexter Blackstock (Nottingham Forest).
Curtis also serves as coach of Antigua Barracuda, a USL Pro club founded in 2010. While club and country usually involves conflicts, Antigua and Barbuda owes a lot of its recent success to that club. Although the team failed to make the playoffs last season, the Barracudas have given many local players the chance to play competitive games on a weekly basis. Of the 25 players in camp, 17 hail from the Barracudas. That chemistry and familiarity will make the team a cohesive unit and that has been noticeable over the past few months.
“We need to really put a lot of pressure on them and make them feel like they’re going to be in a really difficult game,” US goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
Curtis likes a 4-4-2 formation and uses the wings to move the ball and rely on the counterattack. The USA needs to avoid that trap with an organized backline and a midfield that pushes up. The US attack should have little problem against Antigua and Barbuda’s defense with Barracudas shot-stopper Molvin James expected to get the start.
“We are satisfied with the balance. It is something that we obviously took account of in terms of position,” Curtis said. “Also, we brought in some experienced players from overseas who have experience playing in front of some really big crowds and some big games. We are hoping that their background and experience can rub off on some of the younger, locally-based players and not just for this game but for games that Antigua will be involved in for the future.”
The Americans will be facing a team ranked 105th by FIFA before a pro-US crowd. The USA is 1-1-1 in its last three friendlies, where it routed Scotland (5-1), was defeated by Brazil (4-1) and played Canada to a draw (0-0). The inconsistent results are just part of coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s push to piece together the best lineup he can before playing games that really count.
“We need to continue to push ourselves – from one game to another – to make sure we start things off with getting six points,” Klinsmann said.
Klinsmann also said the friendlies of the past year were meant to get his team playing as a unit, but have done little in simulating what the team will face in Qualifying. No matter how easy a game may appear on paper, Klinsmann knows the USA will need to avoid taking any opponent in the region for granted.
“I don’t think you can simulate Antigua and Barbuda because we have watched their games and have scouted them,” he said. “It is difficult to simulate their approach and style of play. It will be a tricky game. They will give us trouble. We know that.”
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