[USA-ANTIGUA & BARBUDA] The USA has never faced a country as small as Antigua & Barbuda (population: 88,000) this late in World Cup qualifying. The Benna Boys are given no chance on Friday night in Tampa (TV: ESPN, ESPN3, Galavision, live, 7 pm ET), but they are treating the Group A opener as the biggest game of their lives. The government gave the Antigua & Barbuda Football Association funding to send the national team to IMG Academies in Florida for two weeks to prepare for the first appearance in the semifinal round of qualifying. Seven players, albeit all with affiliations to minor-league clubs this past season, were called in from England. Seventeen of the other 18 players in the squad play for USL PRO's Antigua Barracuda FC.
Antigua & Barbuda communications officer Mark Bowers says the team has received international media coverage like it has never received before. And its stay at IMG Academies, where the players have been working with trainers and sports psychologists, has been an invaluable.
"It is a wonderful experience for these young men," he told the Antigua Observer, "especially the 18 that have never experienced anything at this level."
Team manager Fernando Abraham and the team's English coach, Tom Curtis, recruited from the English minor leagues for players with Antiguan roots to supplement the squad of players from Curtis' Barracuda FC, currently 10th in the 11-league USL PRO.
The best player is midfielder Mikele Leigertwood, whose goal helped Reading seal promotion to the English Premier League this spring. Forward Dexter Blackstock (eight goals for Nottingham Forest) also played in the League Championship.
But other players were discovered in leagues outside the English Football League, in places like the Northern Premier League and Conference National.
To pump up interest back home, the Benna Boys toured local schools to meet with students.
There is enough interest in the national team that jerseys have been made for the occasion.
Antigua & Barbuda Roster:
GOALKEEPERS (3): 1-Olson Forde (free agent), 18-Molvin James (Antigua Barracuda FC), 21-Keita Decastro (Antigua Barracuda FC).
DEFENDERS (6):2-Marvin McCoy (Wycombe Wanderers/ENG), 4-Karanja Mack (Antigua Barracuda FC), 5-Marc Joseph (Kendal Town/ENG), 6-Ranja Christian (Antigua Barracuda FC), 17-George Dublin (Antigua Barracuda FC), 19-Troy Dublin (Antigua Barracuda FC).
MIDFIELDERS (9): 3-Joshua Parker (Dagenham & Redbridge/ENG), 7-Kimoi Alexander (Antigua Barracuda FC), 8-Mikele Leigertwood (Reading/ENG), 10-Keiran Murtagh (Woking/ENG), 11-Quinton Griffith (Antigua Barracuda FC), 13-Tamarley Thomas (Antigua Barracuda FC), 15-Lawson Robinson (Antigua Barracuda FC), 20-Akeem Thomas (Antigua Barracuda FC), 22-Justin Cochrane (Boreham Wood/ENG).
FORWARDS (5): 9-Stefan Smith (Antigua Barracuda FC), 12-Kerry Skepple (Antigua Barracuda FC), 14-Randolph Burton (Antigua Barracuda FC), 16-Peter Byers (Antigua Barracuda FC), 23-Dexter Blackstock (Nott. Forest/ENG).