US Virgin Islanders find a foothold

The white-sand paradise that is the US Virgin Islands are never likely to be powers on the global football scene, but they are doing their level best. Comprised of the three idyllic islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, the unincorporated Caribbean territory of the United States has a population that would barely fill the Nou Camp.

Even so, USVI’s technical director Keith ‘Grell’ Griffith, a well-known hero on the Caribbean scene, is overseeing an upswing on the islands. After beating their near neighbours and namesakes the British Virgin Islands (BVI) last month, they followed up with another win in the return leg on the road to move into the group phase of qualifying for a FIFA World Cup™ for the first time in their history. Not bad going for a nation who only played their first international in 1998.

“This is a fantastic and historic moment for USVI’s soccer,” Griffith, former captain and coach of his native Barbados, told FIFA.com . “The only thing that could beat this is to reach the World Cup final,” he added with a lilting and infectious laugh, poking fun at just how long and unlikely a road lies ahead of his semi-professional side. “We’ve done a fantastic job in putting things together here in such a short space of time.”

Griffith, whose last job was as head coach of rising Trinidad and Tobago outfit Joe Public, was approached by ambitious USVI FA chief Frederick Hillaren in late May and in roughly two months he has seen the senior national team sky-rocket up 51 places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking with some positive results: two wins over BVI and a goalless draw with Anguilla. “We were impressive in the games against BVI, we really were,” said Griffith, who works closely with senior team coach Terrence Jones Sr. The Islanders now occupy a record-high position of 149th in the global pecking order, a far cry from their previous bottom-dwelling spot of 200 before the Barbadian’s arrival. 

The US Virgin Islands have only played 28 official games in their history, 20 of them losses. Griffith and Co had a steep hill to climb to even field a team for the series with the British Virgin Islanders. Football is not the No1 sport on the islands either. According to Griffith it ranks well behind American sporting staples like basketball and baseball in terms of popularity and participation. USVI has never produced a professional footballer and the islands’ proudest native son is two-time NBA season MVP Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs power forward and four-time NBA champion.

“We don’t even have a national soccer stadium here,” Griffith said. “The first game against BVI we had to play in our baseball stadium in St Thomas. We had to bring in grass and make special arrangements. It was a big challenge.” The challenges for USVI’s ‘Dashing Eagle,’ as the national team are known, are not restricted to facilities either. “We have to improvise with our training because we have players living and working on different islands,” said Griffith, whose charge as technical director also involves grassroots work with local schools to produce and cultivate future talent. “Some of the players train separately and then we get together as a complete team and train at other times. We have challenges, but we face them.”

There are only 14 club teams on the three islands and ten of the 22 players that lined up in the series against BVI were under the age of 22. The youngest, Michael Beharry, is just 18. Griffith and Jones are hoping he can put the same team together for the upcoming games in their group stage of qualifying for Brazil 2014, another challenge as many of his young charges are in the University and High School system in the United States, some 1000 miles away at its closest point.

The next round will be a true test of the islanders’ progress as they will meet regional powers and 1974 FIFA World Cup participants Haiti and Curacao in Group F. “We hope we can put this team back together for those big games,” said Griffith, who is looking to have a USVI player playing professionally in MLS or England in the near future. “Haiti and Curacao and Antigua and Barbuda may be two or three goals better than us, but we will give it our best shot. We will play with our hearts and souls to try and create more history.”

Addressing the team’s massive jump up the CONCACAF and world rankings, Griffith – a part-time radio commentator and analyst – is not slow with a grabby sound bite. “I hope the next time we talk, we will be up in the top 100,” he said with a chuckle. “But seriously, this rise up 52 places in two months is significant. This is history. This is huge. I think that it will have a big positive impact on the players and the people in the country as a whole. People are taking notice of us on the islands.”