The last time the U.S. Virgin Islands Soccer Association’s Premier League held its championship playoff series, Raejae Joseph was off island playing collegiate soccer.
That meant Joseph — who was playing on Rider University’s men’s soccer team at the time — missed out on St. Croix’s Helenites Sports Club winning the inaugural Premier League title and its fifth territorial club championship overall.
Fast forward four years, and Joseph is back on St. Croix — and playing for Helenites SC, one of four teams that will contest for the 2022-2023 USVISA Premier League title during this weekend’s “Big 4” playoff series.
“I wasn’t even here,” for Helenites SC’s last title win, Joseph said in a telephone interview with The Daily News, “but I’m really excited to be back now, both for myself and the team. We’re looking forward to this.”
The playoffs begin tonight at the USVISA’s Bethlehem Soccer Complex on St. Croix, with New Vibes Soccer Club — the St. Thomas-St. John Division champions — facing Rovers Football Club of St. Croix at 6:30 p.m.
That match will be followed by the second semifinal between Helenites SC — the St. Croix division champs this season — and St. Thomas’ United We Stand Sports Club at 8:30 p.m.
The winners of tonight’s semifinal matches advance to Sunday’s Premier League championship match, set for 4 p.m. The semifinal losers will play in the bronze medal match at 2 p.m. Both matches will also be played at the Bethlehem Soccer Complex.
Helenites SC’s last title came during the inaugural season of the Premier League, which had been formed by the USVISA in 2018. In previous years, the champions of the two territorial club leagues — on St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John — had met to determine the territorial champion.
But that 2018-2019 title match — won by Helenites SC over United We Stand SC 2-1 — was the last one held until this weekend, a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic that affected sporting events worldwide to one degree or another the past three years.
Few were more affected by the pandemic than the U.S. Virgin Islands, with the Premier League’s 2019-2020 season called to a halt just before its playoffs were to begin, and both the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 seasons called off.
However, with the resumption of Premier League play in late October, along with a new format — no inter-island division matches until the “Big 4” playoffs — has many of the same teams and players back in familiar territory.
“We’re ready — we want to make the most of the opportunity,” Joseph said. “The last time we were in this position, we got [the regular season in 2019-2020] halted, and nothing came out of that. But we’re happy that we’re finally back to where we used to be.”
Helenites SC won the St. Croix Division with an 8-1-0 record, while second place became a battle between Rovers FC (5-3-1) and Unique Tropical Sports Club (4-4-1). Prankton Soccer Club finished last at 0-9-0.
As for the St. Thomas-St. John Division, it became a three-way battle for the two playoff spots. New Vibes SC won the division title at 7-1-0, with United We Stand SC (6-2-0) edging out LRVI Football Club (5-3-0) for the second berth. Waitikibuli Soccer Club and Raymix Soccer Club tied for last at 1-7-0.
All four teams contending for the Premier League title should go into this weekend’s playoffs well-rested — the St. Croix teams last played on Feb. 4, the St. Thomas teams on Feb. 12.
“We were able to heal up — some guys had some minor injuries — and get everybody healthy,” Joseph said. “We’re also trying to get the team on the same page; we’re looking through some of the things we did well, and some of the things we needed to improve on heading into the playoffs.
“We just want to make sure we’re ready to defend our title — we did win it, after all.”
And Helenites SC is considered the favorite going into the weekend — not only because of its current success in the Premier League this season, but its past history in the playoffs.
“Even before I started playing, Helenites was always one of the better teams in the league,” Joseph said. “We’ve always had a target on our backs. Everyone always wants to beat us, everyone always wants us to lose.
“We’re kinda used to it at this point. We just want to go out there and do what we know we can do.”
— Contact Sports Editor Bill Kiser at 340-714-9117, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.