Storm clouds ahead for USVI

The US Virgin Islands are made up mainly of St. Croix, Saint John and Saint Thomas; a virtual tropical paradise. However, despite the sunshine and ease at play on the USVI, there are dark, ominous clouds gathering on the horizon.

The national team of the Virgin Islands, an insular holding of the United States, is comprised exclusively of amateur, local-based players, and their reputation in the region's football is similar to that of Montserrat and their British neighbours and namesakes.

Their last three official games certainly ended in lopsided defeats for coach Carlton Freeman's men. These recent contests were first round qualifiers for the 2007 Caribbean Cup, played in 2006 and both ended in heavy losses: 6-1 to the Dominican Republic and a 6-0 to Bermuda. Both results, though, were preferable to the 11-0 hammering Jamaica inflicted in 2004.

"The old days are gone now," veteran defender Dwight Ferguson told FIFA.com. "We have improved in the last two years and have a greater degree of confidence."

If some of the players are oozing a new-found sense of optimism, the team's position of 202nd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is dangerously close to the bottom of the global charts, making USVI the second-worst team (statistically speaking) in North, Central America and the Caribbean.

Facing a one-off FIFA World Cup qualifier with comparatively powerful Grenada on 26 March, the Virgin Islanders are likely to be up against two of the best players in the Caribbean Zone. Grenada's FA recently confirmed the presence of Blackburn Rovers striker Jason Roberts for the contest while saying that USA-based Shalrie Joseph - a front-runner for Caribbean Player of the Year - "wants to play". The island nation's FA are only awaiting formal confirmation from the player and his club, New England Revolution.

While Grenada's Spice Boyz may not be major powers in world football, their handful of pros with overseas experience make them heavy, almost prohibitive, favourites. If the USVI's 13-0 loss to St. Kitts in the first round of qualifying for Germany 2006 is anything to go by, the 26th of this month may well prove an ominous date for the Virgin Islanders.

Ferguson's charge
One man who will be bearing the brunt of the Grenadians' professionalism and attacking prowess is Ferguson, the long serving centre-back, captain and all-time caps leader.

"We know that Grenada are a big team compared to us," he said. "They have some strong professional players and it will be important for us to keep them contained and mark them up man-to-man."

Ferguson, a burly defender, has been in the side since their first official game when they beat their British counterparts in 1998, the same year they joined FIFA. To this day it is still the USVI's only official victory, although they managed two draws against those same opponents last week.

"In the last few years we have made some steady improvements," the player added. "In the past we never really bothered much with youth development, but now a good number of talented youngsters on the islands are going over to train and play in tournaments in Trinidad."

Ferguson points to the new youth players as crucial to the side's chances up against Grenada and their top-flight professional duo. "I have been with the team from the beginning and I can tell you that in the past few years an influx of young talent has really seen us improve," the St. Thomas-based man added. "If Grenada take us lightly they will be in trouble.

"We have made enough improvements in the past few years to give them a game," he went on. "We are optimistic about our chances and it will not be an easy walkover for Grenada."