It can be hard to tell hopeful bluster from the truth. “We’re going to shock a lot of people,” is the kind of thing you hear a lot at the fat end of the Caribbean football pyramid. But Dusty Good, captain of the US Virgin Islands, was as good as his word. “We’ve come a long way,” he told FIFA.com before a surprise win over Barbados in 2018 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying on Sunday.
“A lot has changed here on the islands,” added Good, who moved in his late teens from his native California to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. “When I first got here the soccer was very physical,” he said from his home, a paradise in the heart of the Caribbean. “You saw a lot of hard tackles and rough play.”
Good’s introduction to football in the US Virgin Islands, which also includes St. Croix and St. John, gives insight into just how much things have changed. Wearing a Liverpool replica jersey in a local grocery store, a man stacking fruit asked Good if he liked to play. The answer was a firm yes. He was soon lining up for local amateur powers Positive Vibes. Good stood out on the bumpy pitches and an invitation to join the national team didn’t take long. “What national team?” he asked, a smile in his voice. “I didn’t even know we had one until I was asked to play.”
A lack of organisation combined with crude tactics and no real leadership made USVI one of the whipping boys in the lower reaches of the Caribbean region. Their record before Sunday’s big win on the road in Bridgetown was modest. In 30 World Cup qualifiers, the so-called Dashing Eagle, won just seven times.
Good News, Positive Vibes
Now 27, Good is the team’s grandfather. He’s one of just four returning players from the last World Cup qualifiers in 2011, when USVI lost every game of the first group stage, conceding 41 goals in the space of six games. “A lot of my team-mates call me ‘Old Man’ now,” Good said, who marshals the defence, dropping back from his original position of holding midfielder. He’s played in Sweden’s fourth tier with FBK Karlstad and had stints among the lower leagues of Denmark and England, where his mother holds a passport.
On the right side of defence, right beside 'Grandpa Good', is the team’s baby, Jacob Borden. He recently celebrated a 16th birthday, but he’s “more than ready,” Good said, quick to defend, complimenting the youth which forms the crux of the team. “I help him with little tidbits here and there.”
It took a little luck on the day to earn the 1-0 win over Barbados, a team ranked 66 points above USVI’s 197th place in the world ranking. “The possession was pretty even,” Good said, who committed a foul in the box that led to one of a pair of Barbados penalties. But the reflexes of goalkeeper Erik Mozzo, who made a string of fine saves in the second half, including parrying one of the penalties over the bar, coupled with a Barbadian red card to make things smoother for the road side.
Break with the past
“We’re playing a different kind of soccer now,” Good insisted, a cloud in his voice recalling the old days of heavy defeats and long balls. “We’re focused on youth, on moving the ball and passing. We’re not the biggest team around, but we can keep the ball.”
It’s another trope you hear a lot in the Caribbean – that the modern game, with its high pressing and possession, is making its way to these isolated islands. Ambitious coaches often claim a new order is afoot with few results, but Ahmed Mohammed, USVI’s new Somali-born coach, has really done it. He’s introduced organisation and professionalism to a part of the world where players often travel by boat to training.
With experience coaching in the lower tiers of the professional game in Switzerland, the Mogadishu-born boss is getting results that were clear to see in Bridgetown on Sunday. While Barbados threw their bulk into rough challenges, USVI’s brittle and bony teenagers, some at University in the United States, made the burly Bajans chase shadows. Jamie Browne got on the end of a lofted ball, snuck past the two centre-backs and chipped delicately over the advancing goalkeeper for the only goal of the game. “It was world class,” Good said. “We celebrated like crazy.
“People are taking notice here,” Good said, noting an uptick of congratulations on his Facebook account and words of warm support on the boat dock when he finally arrived home, after a full day of air and water travel, from Barbados. “But we need to calm down,” he said, almost an afterthought, remembering his role as captain of a football team preparing for a return leg with a precarious edge. “We’re only halfway there.”