The road to the soccer portion of Tokyo 2020 begins at the new St. Croix Bethlehem Soccer Complex for the Virgin Islands, Cuba and Barbados in Group B of the first round of Olympic Qualifiers on Wednesday.
After groundbreaking eight years ago, the stadium is ready to host its first official match and will get a full slate of games to do so.
Former National Team player and current U-23 National Team Assistant Coach and Association 1st Vice-President Joseph Limeburner understands the importance of being able to play these games on home soil.
“I remember myself as a former national player when we played countries like Antigua and Haiti on St. Croix and struggled because we did not have a facility there,” he said. “Our games were not at the level they should be – but to be able now to give our athletes in the U.S. Virgin Islands the opportunity to play at an international level right here at home is beyond what I could have ever imagined. What this means to us as an association, our players, and fans is a hope and a dream.”
The Virgin Islands will play at 8 p.m. Wednesday against Cuba and Sunday against the Barbados. Cuba will face off against Barbados on Friday.
The USVI versus Cuba game was originally scheduled for 5:30 p.m. but got pushed back to 8 p.m due to travel issues. The other two games are still going to start at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children younger than 12, and can be bought at the door on game days starting at 4:30 p.m.
John Engerman, one of the V.I. players, hopes to see “thousands of fans screaming and signs” in support of the national team and their efforts in the upcoming games.
Grant Farrell, another player on the squad, echoed those sentiments.
“It would mean the world to us because as players and managers and coaches to come and support us because we need that 12th man, the 12th man is very important as a Virgin Islands community and our team,” he said. Qualification for the Olympics would “put the Virgin Islands on the map,” he added.
In the last cycle of Olympic Qualification for the 2016 Olympics, Cuba won all three of their group games to get to the 2015 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament but didn’t advance out of their group in that competition.
Cuba has made it to this stage in the last three qualifying cycles. Barbados was able to secure a victory against the Cayman Islands but didn’t advance past the first round of the qualification cycle.
The Virgin Islands’ last attempt to qualify for the Olympics came in 2007, for the 2008 games, at which they lost to the Bahamas 6-1 in the first round of qualifying.
Limeburner talked about how the caliber of USVI soccer has improved over the last few years, referencing a match at the U-20 level when the Virgin Islands was tied with Trinidad and Tobago at halftime. They ended up losing the match, but the Virgin Islands only featured local and collegiate players while 17 of 18 of Trinidad’s players were signed to professional contracts.
The same group, plus a few additions that were unable to compete at the U-20, makes up most of the roster for this qualifying tournament.
Being competitive against one of the powerhouses of the Caribbean shows progress according to Limeburner.
The team’s goal for the next two games is “to take it to the next level and really create our own identity – and, with our new facility, I think that identity is going to push through,” Limeburner said. “What we’re looking forward to is getting there, walking on that field and once we enter, our hope and dream is that all of the hard work we’ve put in, shines through. To get these guys here, onto the field, and ready to take the victory – that’s the dream.”
The winner of the group will play the winner of Group C, which contains Haiti, whose senior side just made their first ever Gold Cup Semifinal run, Suriname, Grenada, and the Cayman Islands, in a final play-in match to the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, in which the two finalists will advance to Tokyo.