As the United States begins its qualifying campaign to Brazil in 2014, not much attention has been paid to their first opponents on Friday in Tampa. Antigua & Barbuda represent the first true competitive test for Klinsmann’s camp. Unknown to many observers, Antigua & Barbuda reached the fourth stage on the back of an impressive second round in which they won five and lost one with a goals-for record of 28 and only five goals against. Representing a two islands of 88,000 people (Elmira, NY, pop. 88,840), they could be the story of WCQ if they can pull some shocks.
Having played against most of their national side in the USL (Antigua Barracuda), I can attest to the ability of their players (and the beauty of their island). The US must not take this match for granted. In Englishman Tom Curtis (who also manages Barracuda), Antigua have a knowledgeable leader who played for a myriad of Football League clubs. Curtis favors a hard-working, organized 4-4-2 formation with a predictably direct style of play that accentuates the strengths of his players.
Those strengths lie in the pace and power of “Big” Peter Byers up front. With 31 goals, he’s Antigua’s all time leading scorer. A bit older nowadays, Byers is a veteran of the USL and NASL in North America and can be a handful on his day. He’s the target of the direct approach that Curtis employs. Look for Byers to be on his own up top or paired with a speedy option such as fellow Barracuda Stefan Smith or Nottingham Forest forward Dexter Blackstock who’s just been brought into the national side through parentage.
In midfield, 20-year-old Quinton Griffith is a player to keep an eye on. A true box-to-box midfielder who has the ability and drive to make an impact in one of the top leagues around the world. Griffith has a comparable style of play to Shalrie Joseph, power, economical use of the ball, but with searing pace to drive at back four defenses. Veteran popcorn-club man Mikele Leigertwood (Crystal Palace, Sheffield United, QPR, Reading) provides top-league experience and physicality in midfield as well.
Questions remain though on whether Antigua can keep the giants of CONCACAF at bay. Captain George Dublin leads by example, but at 35 years old, could be in for a torrid time from Jozy Altidore, Ricardo Fuller, Carlos Ruiz and other top forwards in the group. Goalkeeper Molvin James remains untested at the highest level but has looked solid in USL play.
Antigua and Barbuda’s progress has both islands galvanized and dreaming of a place in Brazil. It’s not out of the question. The game in Tampa against the US is probably a write off but the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua is a difficult place to play for any team. Home wins against Jamaica and Guatemala coupled with an away draw against the flaky Jamaicans could see the Benna Boys advance as the second place team in Group A.
Clint Irwin is a KYCK team member, a professional player for Charlotte Eagles and a coach with Charlotte United. He was an Academic All-American, Hermann Trophy nominee, and Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award nominee at Elon University. You can follow him @ClintIrwin.