USVI soccer team has big hopes riding on upcoming series with BVI


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ST. THOMAS - The word "history" was thrown around a lot during a U.S. Virgin Islands national soccer team practice Wednesday. If a youthful USVI squad can get past the British Virgin Islands in an upcoming home-and-away, two-game playoff series, the top soccer players from the territory will take their very first steps toward a possible World Cup berth.

The USVI in the World Cup? History, indeed.

"We're a family now - it's USVI and we need that to make history," team technical advisor Keith Griffith, a Barbados native, said Wednesday before practice at the University of Virgin Islands. "In the six weeks that I have been here on the islands, the team has come a long way and everything has changed. We are ready."

The USVI will host its British cousins in the first derby match Sunday at Lionel Roberts Stadium. Kickoff is at 5 p.m. and admission is $10. The second match will be held July 10 at A.O. Shirley Recreation Grounds on Tortola.

The winner will advance to the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) preliminary draw, which will include the United States, Mexico and 23 other countries.

After this series, either the USVI or BVI will be thrown into a six-team qualifying group where three home and three away matches will be scheduled, USVI Soccer Association President Hillaren Frederick said.

The ultimate goal is the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. But a USVI squad that boasts seven active college players and 10 players under the age of 23 knows better than to look past the BVI.

Virginia Tech's Alberto Van Gurp Jr., one of the college players for the USVI, said he had trouble trying to explain the importance of Sunday's match to his college teammates.

"I've played on a couple national teams and this is the most confident I've ever been," said Van Gurp, who just finished his junior season in Blacksburg, Va. "For a lot of us, this is the first time we've ever been involved in any kind of World Cup qualifying. Not many people can say that."

A group of area high school players showed up to work out with national team player Adam Fuller, assistant coach Dale Richards and Griffith on Wednesday afternoon. A few hours earlier during a morning session at Lionel Roberts Stadium, several other national team players practiced with Griffith, who continued to preach the idea of making history.

"This is our chance and our guys know it," said Griffith, who amassed 120 international caps for the Barbados national team and was a former team captain. "We're excited. I know all of our guys are excited for Sunday. We're just asking for all our V.I. fans to come out and watch us try to make history."

The USVI is ranked 200th out of the 208 member associations of FIFA, the international governing body of soccer. The BVI is ranked No. 183 so for the USVI to advance past its British cousins would not be a leap of faith.

The last time the sides met was in a friendly over two years ago and it ended in a 1-1 draw, Griffith said. Since he's come on board to join head coach Terry Jones, Richards and assistant coach Zimba Bailey, improving the USVI defense has been Griffith's main objective.

A 10-0 shellacking the USVI endured against Grenada in 2008 left a sour taste in the mouth of every soccer fan in the territory. At least in the most recent games, the USVI has showed a stronger defense, holding its last two opponents scoreless.

The USVI traveled to Puerto Rico last month and knocked off Bayamon F.C., 4-2, and played to a 0-0 draw with Mayaguez F.C. The squad then played to a scoreless tie at Anguilla two weeks ago.

"We have a lot more players who have trained in the States and I feel like there's a different energy with our team right now," said Van Gurp, a St. Croix native, who just came back from a hip flexor injury. "This is a big rivalry because it's our next-door neighbors. Making it to the next round of qualifying just adds to everything."

NOTES: Tickets for Sunday's match cost $10 and can be bought in advance at Urban Threadz and V.I. Bridal & Tuxedo. Tickets will also be sold on game day in the Fort Christian parking lot as tickets will not be sold at the stadium. Kickoff is at 5 p.m. Refreshments will be on sale. For more information, call 719-9707 or 643-5837.

- Contact sports writer Aaron Gray at 774-8772 ext. 352 or email agray@dailynews.vi.

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