In the job for only three months, Bermuda coach Keith Tucker has already had his fair share of troubles. Missing star man Khano Smith for the first leg at home in Hamilton last month, he could only muster a 1-1 draw with the Cayman Islands in a game the Gombey Warriors were expected to win easily.
He has since parted company with his assistant coach and found his tactics criticised in the national media. The coach now needs a win on the road in Grand Cayman on 26 March to avoid an ignominious early exit from qualifying for Bermuda.
Ever the old pro, Tucker is not fazed.
"This is one of the greatest moments in the history of Bermudan football," the boss told FIFA.com in a recent interview, hardly reflecting the gloom that followed the Cayman draw. "We are playing a new kind of soccer and moving forward every day in very positive ways."
The practical goal for the Bermudans is to at least match the CONCACAF semi-final round appearance in the run-up to USA 1994. But the 55-year-old Tucker, head coach at Howard University in Washington DC for 26 seasons, is also passionate about transforming the British overseas territory of Bermuda into a Caribbean haven for a modern brand of possession-based football.
"In the past Bermudan soccer was like a hot potato," the former international joked. "You'd have guys rushing at pace up the flanks and hammering high balls into the box. There was a lack of control and my plan, my vision, is for the country to adopt a more possession-based approach and a more controlled brand of soccer. This is the only way to improve."
Even the draw with the Caymans last month, which sparked a firestorm of criticism on the island chain of just over 60,000, isn't something the coach is unduly worried about.
"We completely dominated that game," he remarked about the 1-1 draw in which his side conceded a sloppy equaliser four minutes from time. "We were desperately unlucky not to score five or six goals, but in the end we were made to pay for our lack of finishing."
Aside from a profligacy in front of goal, the former Bermuda
international sees a silver lining in the performance.
"We hadn't had too much time to develop our new style at that point, but even so the improvements from past Bermudan teams were obvious for everyone to see," Tucker said, seemingly unperturbed by his side's subsequent friendly loss to Major League Soccer's New England Revolution. "And in the month or so since that game, we have made even more progress. It's not about a system or putting the players in shackles, it's about getting them to think the game and feel it."
One man who thinks, feels and plays the game best as a rare foreign professional in the side is Khano Smith of the MLS' Boston-based Revolution. The speedy winger, who can also play as a striker, is back to full fitness after missing the first leg and Tucker is expecting big things from the former Dandy Town Hornets man.
"I have about five or six University and semi-professional players from the States in my team, but Khano brings a level of composure and professionalism that you can't underestimate," said the boss. "As a striker he lays the ball off brilliantly and can measure a pass like no one else in the side."
Since the retirement of Shaun Goater, Smith has taken over the mantle as Bermuda's highest-profile footballer. It is hoped his budding partnership with John Barry Nusum, of US indoor side Philadelphia KiXX, will bring the goals in the crucial second leg later this month.
"Nusom is going to have some fun playing alongside Khano (Smith)," the coach said. "Any striker would love to play with him because he just makes so many chances with his reading of the game. I think I could even score a few goals out there playing next to Khano!"
Coach Tucker famously led the Bison of Howard University to a NCAA championship match in 1988, and knows how important an inspirational leader can be on the pitch. Then goalkeeper Shaka Hislop, who went on to play for Newcastle United and West Ham, was his talisman as he beat Bruce Arena's fable University of Virginia en route to the grand final.
A win against the Caymans would book a date for Bermuda and Tucker with his former goalkeeper's national team, the Soca Warriors of Trinidad and Tobago.
"Trinidad always produce great players and it would be a real treat for us to play against them," the coach said. "First we need to get things right against the Caymans, but after that we'll begin to dream about bigger things."