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The other U.S. national soccer team

By James Montague, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. Virgin Islands was only recognized by FIFA, world soccer's governing body, 13 years ago
  • They have lost 20 of 26 games but made the group stage of World Cup qualification
  • "It's difficult finding a Cessna to fly you half an hour to training," says Aaron Gray

Port au Prince -- Whichever way you dice it, Reid Klopp is a man of faith.

The 27-year-old captain of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) national soccer team sits in the stands of Haiti's national football stadium with his teammates, exhausted.

His team of part-timers, all American citizens who live on the Caribbean isles that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands, aren't used to the brutal, regular training sessions that international football demands.

After all, the team, which was only recognized by FIFA, world soccer's governing body, 13 years ago has played just 26 matches in their history, losing 20 of them.

But then, last July, the USVI won two rare games, against local rivals the British Virgin Islands, to make it to the group stages of World Cup qualification for the first time in their history. Suddenly, from playing six games over five years, the USVI had to prepare for six games in three months, the first against Haiti in Port-Au-Prince.

"We're all amateur based from between the three islands," explains Klopp.

"We all have U.S. passports ... some guys are in college in the States and coming back for the team, some of them work in construction. We are one of the only teams left [in World Cup qualification] that don't have pro-players."

Getting this far is a remarkable achievement for a territory -- it is considered a unincorporated territory of the U.S. -- that only has 100,000 residents. Klopp, who was born and raised in Maryland, moved to the islands to work for the Free Will Baptists, a Christian out-reach organization that preaches the word of God to the Island's wayward youth.

It has that local derby feel, they're so close. They're right there over the water
--Reid Klopp

He plays for their soccer team too. And its faith that the team will need as the longest of long shots embark on the unlikeliest of World Cup qualification campaigns.

"We are the extreme underdogs," shrugs Klopp.

"That is one advantage we have. No one expects us to even come close to getting a result. And so we don't have to play with that pressure."

Since their inclusion into FIFA in 1998 -- the same congress that marked a massive expansion of members and saw the likes of Palestine join -- the tiny, three-island territory found between Puerto Rico and Montserrat has sat at the bottom of world football's league table. Last year they were 200th on FIFA's rankings, out of 203.

But then the draw for the 2014 World Cup took place, pitching them against neighbors the British Virgin Islands, something of a colonial grudge match.

"It has that local derby feel, they're so close. They're right there over the water," Klopp explains. It was his first game for the national team and he scored in both legs.

The two-leg victory saw the USVI qualify for the group stages against Haiti, who could count on professional players from some of the best leagues in Europe, Antigua and Barbuda, the most improved team in the Caribbean, and Curacao, a Dutch territory whose team was made up of largely Dutch-based players.

"This is the first time we have ever made it past the preliminary round. So we made some history in that game against the BVI [British Virgin Islands]," says Klopp.

We are one of the only teams left [in World Cup qualification] that don't have pro-players.
--Reid Klopp

"This is a huge group. Haiti is a huge team. Antigua and Barbuda and Curacao all have professional players. It is a big ask to get through it but we are taking it one game at a time."

It's not just numbers and professionalism that pose problems for the USVI. Soccer isn't the most popular game on the islands either.

"I wouldn't put it number one. Tim Duncan [of the San Antonio Spurs] in the NBA is from [the island of] St Croix so basketball is number one at the moment. Then you look at Olympics, track and field is where we send the most athletes," explains Aaron Gray, a sports reporter for the the Virgin Islands Daily News.

"Soccer is maybe a distant fourth. I refuse to call them a national team. The U.S. is our national team. But you talk to the players they say: 'There isn't a chance in hell we can make the U.S. national team. It's great just to be on the same playing field as these guys.'

"Getting them all on the same pitch is difficult. On other islands they can get into a car and drive to training. It's more difficult finding a Cessna to fly you half an hour to training."

USVI's debut in the group stages of World Cup qualification was as tough as it gets. Their bus arrived at the Sylvio Cator stadium in Port-Au-Prince just as a riot erupts. Inside they are mercilessly, and rather cruelly, booed by a crowd desperate for victory in country where there has been little good news.

They lose 6-0. It's a strange quirk of world football that, when you count Haiti's goalkeeper Steward Ceus, born and raised in New York, the majority of the 22 players from the two national football teams are American citizens. Their next game against Antigua and Barbuda didn't get off to the best of starts either.

"The Haiti game was a buzz saw. They knew they were walking into it," says Gray.

For the Antigua game one player had a National Guard commitment, eight players were [unavailable].
--Aaron Gray, sports reporter, Virgin Islands Daily News

"For the Antigua game one player had a National Guard commitment, Reid pulled his groin. Eight players that would start weren't there."

The game finished 8-1. They can technically still qualify for the next round but it would need something of a miracle. Friday's return game, at home on October 7, against Haiti is a must win. But for Klopp and his team of amateurs, just getting the experience of international football has been invaluable.

"They are in uncharted waters and that's great," says Gray.

"The sport isn't sold here and that's what's frustrated. You can't just whip together an international team and hope to go to the World Cup.

"But they're going in the right direction."