Tevin Slater is a big fish in a small pond. Star striker on the island cluster of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, he answers interviewers politely, but concisely. His voice is soft and it takes coaxing to get more than a 'Yes' or 'No' from the 21-year-old. One gets the sense that he’d rather be out on the pitch, chasing long balls through the channels, or on the water with a rod and reel, melting into an endlessness of sea.
“Scoring goals and catching fish are kind of the same feeling,” Slater told FIFA.com, perking up when talk turns to the rocks and coves that ring his home island of St. Vincent, where he grew up on the outskirts of the capital city Kingstown. “It makes you smile,” added the youngster, a fisherman by trade.
“There’s no guarantees out on the water or out on the pitch,” said Slater, who is top scorer in CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. “But when they come, the goals or the fish, it’s a nice feeling.”
There are slow days for Slater on the waves, but his goal haul of late is fit for a fleet. He scored five in Vincey Heat’s four qualifiers to date, including a late equaliser against Guyana and a crucial goal, minutes from time against Aruba, to send SVG to the group stages for the fifth time in their history.
Cricket first, football forever
Slater packs tremendous pace into a compact frame. His balance is impeccable and, despite his leanness, he’s not easily knocked off the ball. In his tiny home village of St Clare, he started out playing cricket. Chasing errant hits from the oval, he stumbled upon older boys playing football. He was hooked right away and developed quickly. “It became my passion,” he admitted. “Playing with the older guys made me get better, tougher, faster.”
The striker does seem to have an extra gear. He lives on the shoulder of the last defender. When he talks of stalking the channels and finding holes, his voice goes up an octave. Something inside him ignites. “I love to chase the ball,” said Slater, voted St. Vincent and the Grenadines top player for 2014, the year he debuted for the national team. His haul of eight goals in 11 caps ranks among the best scoring returns in world football.
“I’ll chase a through ball even if it’s going too far,” added Slater, who shuns the limelight, happier in quiet moments. “I try to break at just the right moment. If I don’t have the ball, I want it and I’m going to try to take it.”
St. Vincent and the Grenadines have faced modest competition so far. Up next is an away date against USA, a side in wobbly shape but still, by any measure, a big fish. They are among the top teams in the region and competitive worldwide. The biggest accomplishment for St. Vincent, a country with a population of barely over 100,000, is an appearance at the 1996 Gold Cup, where they lost all their games, didn’t score a goal, and finished ninth out of nine.
The Stars and Stripes, coached by Jurgen Klinsmann, have reached the last seven World Cups. They are five-time CONCACAF champions. The gap in funding, talent, population, professional fitness and international experience is huge. “It’s a challenge for us,” admitted Slater, currently on loan in Antigua from hometown side Camdonia Chelsea SC, tucked away in the industrial port outside Kingstown. “Against the Americans we can show that we can play football down here on the islands,” he said. “We have that chance.”
In the shop window
There’s something else on Slater’s mind, something a bit more pragmatic: a professional contract, a career beyond the bounty of the sea. “It only takes one person to see you and a great opportunity might open up,” he said. Ezra ‘EZ’ Hendrickson is proof of that; the lanky defender from Layou, near Slater’s home on South Leeward, spent nine seasons in MLS, winning two titles with LA Galaxy. “It’s my dream to play professional football,” Slater said, a passion in his voice that only comes with football talk or fish tales.
He won’t get drawn into speculation about his side’s chances against the Americans, but the numbers point to a weak link in defence. The Vincey Heat have conceded eight goals in their four games, almost as many as they’ve scored. “Down here, we’re all about attack,” Slater said. "We have a strong tradition of forward-thinking football and some might say we attack too much.”
Only the top two finishers from each group move on to the final six-team Hexagonal, a level the islanders have never reached before and one that represents an impossible dream. “We’re here," Slater said defiantly, knowing challenges against Caribbean powers Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala also lurk in Group C. “We earned the right.”
Slater goes quiet again as the conversation winds down. Friday’s meeting with the mighty Americans isn’t far away. “We’re not afraid,” he said bravely of the contest on the road in land-locked St. Louis, a city a world away from Kingstown’s Cricket Ground, where, from the right angle, you can see an infinity of ocean.