The lowest-ranked teams in the CONCACAF zone, take their first steps on the road to Russia 2018 next week. The 14 lowest ranked teams in the zone meet in seven two-legged ties to determine who moves into the next round. The names may be unfamiliar, but the action is sure to be intense in this winner-take-all frenzy. For seven of the sides, these first steps toward Russia will also be their last.
The big game
Bahamas-Bermuda, Thomas A. Robinson Stadium, Nassau, 25 March
Bermuda coach Andrew Bascome is banking on youth to carry the day for his Gombey Warriors. Without any known stars in the team– the likes of Khano Smith and Shaun Goater long since retired – Bermuda has put together a team of so-called “young boys” from the local leagues, coupled with a handful of England-based pros and University scholar-athletes based in the States. Aiming to leave behind the speedy-winger and hulking target-man system of the past, Bascome and Co. are keen to play a more modern and expansive football this time around.
“We want to press high,” the coach told FIFA.com. “We have young players and fresh legs and we want to build something.” These are words that should have Bahamas’ coach Dion Godet a bit worried. With the first leg in Nassau, the Bahamians, 25 places below Bermuda in the World Ranking, will have pressure on their shoulders to start strong. The team is exclusively amateur and could suffer without a core of professionals to bring a dose of calm to the big occasion.
In other action
Barbados kick off the first game of the round at home in Bridgetown against the US Virgin Islands. The Barbadians are known for a physical, high-tempo brand of football while the hopeful Virgin Islanders experiment with a new, more technical approach. USVI have a spine of young schoolboys in the side, all hoping to make a name.
Nicaragua are one of only two Central American teams in the first round. Known more for their devotion to baseball, the Nicaraguans are aiming to come out of the shadows on the road to Russia 2018. They will send a young and largely untested squad out as the nation tries to recover from the effects of a recent match-fixing scandal that resulted in a number of lengthy suspensions for senior players. Nicaragua’s opponents, Anguilla, are full of hope and vigour despite being the lowest ranked team in the region – second-from-bottom globally.
St. Kitts and Nevis are fancied at home in Basseterre against Turks and Caicos Islands. Led by their captain and striker Atiba Harris, a veteran of Major League Soccer, St. Kitts and Nevis will have their hands full against the USA-based pair of Billy Forbes and Marc Fenelus, who play their club football for NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions.
Belize are the team to watch in the early rounds of CONCACAF action. The Central Americans have been on the up of late and qualified for the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2013. They will be heavy favourites to get a result at home against the Cayman Islands.
Rounding out the action, British Virgin Islands take on Dominica, while Montserrat, whose population is in steady decline since volcanic eruptions in 1995, meet Curacao, a team worth watching this time out. They are bolstered by the presence Patrick Kluivert as their head coach.
Player to Watch
St. Kitts and Nevis skipper Atiba Harris has more professional experience than most in the first round. The 30-year-old forward began his career in Spain’s lower leagues before moving to the United States, where he bounced around a fair bit. Harris lined up for six different teams in the American top flight and is currently in his second stint with FC Dallas. He packs pace and power in equal measure, but has been known to lose his cool on occasion. Harris is described by his coach as “the face of pro soccer in St. Kitts and Nevis.”
Do you know?
Curacao is the only Dutch-speaking side in action and the only team coached by a UEFA Champions League winner. Dutch legend Patrick Kluivert, whose mother was born on the island, signed a six-month contract with a promise of increased professionalism. More than half of the squad are expected to come from the Netherlands’ professional system.
0 –* the number of FIFA World Cup qualifiers that Anguilla, an island of under 14,000 people, have won since their first try in 2002. The Anguillans have only played eight qualifying games in their history, so it’s not as bad as it looks. Ranked second-from-bottom in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, there is nowhere for them to go but up.
What they said
“People might not know a lot of our names, but we’ve got some young boys that are very technical. I think we’re going to pull off a shock in this first leg and they’ll know some of our names then.” US Virgin Islands captain Dusty Good tells FIFA.com to expect a surprise when his islanders travel to Barbados.
CONCACAF first round (first legs) for Russia 2018
Barbados-US Virgin Islands*
23 March *
St. Kitts and Nevis-Turks and Caicos Islands
British Virgin Islands-Dominica
You can read 18 Frequently Asked Questions on the Russia 2018 preliminary competition in the related items*