For national coach Tom Curtis and his Antigua and Barbuda team, it isn’t necessarily about winning now, but building for the future as well.
In less than a month’s time, Antigua will undertake what Curtis calls the biggest soccer game in the country’s history. The Benna Boys, who have never gone this far in World Cup qualifying, will play the heavily favored United States in the CONCACAF semifinal round in Tampa on June 8.
“With a doubt,” he said. “It’s a huge game in Antigua’s history. We hope we can put on a competitive performance.”
That Antigua is among the final 12 CONCACAF teams is one of the confederation’s big stories and surprises, considering it has a population estimated at around 90,000 as one of world’s soccer minnows.
The Caribbean country — which is located in the Leeward Islands, north east of St. Kitts and Nevis and north of Guadeloupe — was merely an afterthought about CONCACAF World Cup contenders. That is, until the Antigua Football Federation decided to place a team — Antigua Barracuda FC — in USL PRO last season so the players could improve and play at a higher level and compete for a spot at the 2014 World Cup.
Success can be measured in certain ways. The Barracudas did not reach the USL PRO playoffs, finishing sixth and last in the American Division with a 9-13-2 record. But their development was evident elsewhere. The National Team (5-0-1, 15 points) edged a favored Haiti side (4-0-1, 13) by two points to win Group F and reached the semifinal round.
“This is a chance these guys wouldn’t have,” Curtis said last year. “Normally, they would be working eight to eight and they would not get a chance to train professionally.
“Before they were able to play in the USL they weren’t experienced in terms of playing at such a high level,” he added during a telephone interview last week. “I think because they are playing week in and week out, some technical, high quality opponents, it gives them an experience of what the level is all about and the expectation of what they need to do to get to that level.
“It has been really vital for us in terms of preparing for these big games. The level that we will have to play up will be a step up again and hopefully the players will realize that it’s not going to be like the USL. The players are going to be world-class players. It’s going to be difficult for us, but hopefully it’s going to be something that they’ll enjoy and gain a lot from. I think the coaching will as well. What we’re hoping is that the young players of Antigua and Barbuda can look at their peers playing against these world-class players and have an expectation, too, that they might be able to compete at such a high level.”
While Curtis and the AFA certainly would welcome wins and advancement to the final round, he is realistic as well.
“We want to be competitive in this group,” he said. “It’s important we focus on the game. Obviously, everyone has dreams and ambitions to go through to the next round. But for me as a coach, if we can be competitive in this round, then we’ll have been successful. We’ve already been successful in terms of getting here.
“You’re got to remember that the island is 88,000 strong. We’re playing against populations and football structures that are a lot bigger and a lot more experienced. So we’ve done really well to get this far. If we can be competitive in the next round then we obviously can be successful. Everyone dreams on the island. Everyone wants to get through to the next round. Everyone wants to get through to Rio. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people having high expectations and high ambitions.”
“I think it would be phenomenal,” Curtis said. “Like I mentioned before, the island is a very small island, a very small population. People are intensely nationalistic and want the National Team to do well. If the National Team does get through to the next round, you’re going to find the whole island will jump on board for support. You’ll find that second and third generation Antiguans will jump on board as well.
“Hopefully, that sort of thing can snowball and the football structure on the island can improve and we can help the younger players out and get them to play on decent surfaces and good facilities. At the moment, we don’t any decent [artificial turf] facilities or any kind of football sense and national team we’re looking for to develop. Hopefully, if we are successful, we can gain some investment and move football on the island forward.”
In the second round of playing, Antigua was led by two Barracuda players — striker Peter Byers, who tallied eight times in six games, and veteran defender and team captain George Dublin.
While most of the National Team is made up of Barracuda players, Curtis has reached across the ocean to bring in some Antiguans performing in various English leagues.
That included four players who perform at varying levels in England — defender Marc Joseph of Kendall Town (Northern League Premier Division) and midfielders Mikele Leigertwood of Reading FC (The Championship), Keiran Murtagh of Woking (Conference South) and Justin Cochrane of Boreham Wood (Conference South).
“We will augment and hopefully strengthen the Barracuda side with players coming in from overseas,” Curtis said. “That doesn’t mean to say that the Barracudas don’t have the opportunity to cement themselves in the team. That’s another good thing about the Barracudas. They are playing week in and week out and we’ve given them an opportunity to get themselves into the national team. There’s no excuses. If we feel they are good enough to get on the national team, then that’s great.
“We’ve also had interest from players in colleges in the states.”
A little success can go a long way.
“With the little bit of success that we’ve had, word of mouth and people talk to the players and all of the sudden you find that they have an Antiguan grandmother somewhere and we try to get them on aboard,” Curtis said. “That’s what we need to do. We’ll continue to do the best we can in terms of strengthening the side.”
This year’s version of the Barracudas have gotten off to a 2-4 start in the USL PRO season, splitting their double home series with the Charlotte Eagles and Pittsburgh Riverhounds before losing twice on their first appearance on American soil this season last week, to the Wilmington Hammerheads and Charleston Battery. The Barracudas rebounded with a 3-0 win over Inter Moegatapoe (Suriname) in the CFU Champions Cup in Trinidad & Tobago on Monday. The team played Victory FC (Haiti) on Tuesday and was scheduled to meet W connection (Trinidad) on Thursday.
Asked about the team’s performance, Curtis replied, “I suppose up and down, really. We’ve had a couple of good results against Pittsburgh and Charlotte and a couple of disappointing results against them. I think what we need to do is to find a level of consistency when we’re able to put together decent performances on a consistent basis. We haven’t been quite able to do that. We found last year and of course this year that the level is really high. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell to cope with. I’ve said to my players they need to be 100 percent mentally and physically prepared for each game or we’ll not be able to compete. so we’re working on that at the moment.”
The 49-year-old Curtis played professionally in England for some 16 years before he turned to coaching in 2007. He was the assistant coach of the English Universities team before he was given a unique offer — to coach in the Caribbean.
Curtis could be the busiest soccer coach on the planet. He not only directs the Barracudas and National Team, but is technical director of the Antigua Football Association as well. That means he also is responsible for the age-group teams as well.
“I’m fortunate to have a lot of local coaches around me who are working hard for me as well,” he said. “They take a lot of sessions in the evening, which I oversee. it’s certainly busy and certainly stressful at times. It’s enormously very enjoyable and also very challenging. It’s a good job and very busy. Hopefully, we can be successful and its an experience that I chose to take on . . . 14 months ago. Hopefully, it will make me a better person, a better coach and a better manager in the future.
Last week IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. tweeted that the Antigua National Team will train at its facility prior to the U.S. game.
“We’re hoping that will be the case,” Curtis said. “I went over to IMG for the USL combine. I was really impressed with the combine. The FA is working with the USL to get us training facilities at IMG. It’s only down the road from Tampa. . . . It will be a fantastic opportunity for our players. We haven’t in the past had the experience of having staying in that sort of facility. We’re really excited by the opportunity.”
By Michael Lewis