Vin Blaine

Vin Blaine

Vin Blaine

Over the past few weeks, the players of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ senior men’s national soccer team have undergone some strenuous workouts.

In training camp in Florida, and now practicing on St. Croix, the USVI’s players have had to learn a new system and a new approach to the game.

Those lessons will get their first real workout today, when the U.S. Virgin Islands National Team hosts Antigua and Barbuda in the USVI’s opening group-play match in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Qualifiers.

The match will have a limited number of spectators in the stands at the Bethlehem Soccer Complex on St. Croix, allowed under COVID-19 protocols enacted by the V.I. Health Department, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and international soccer’s governing body FIFA.

This will be the first spectator event of any kind in the territory since last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought things to a halt worldwide.

Today’s match is the first of four scheduled matches for the USVI, which is in Group A along with Antigua and Barbuda, El Salvador, Grenada and Montserrat.

The U.S. Virgin Islands also has matches at Grenada on March 30 and at Montserrat on June 2, and a home match against El Salvador on June 5. The top finisher in each of six groups advances to the second round.

That’s the goal the USVI National Team has set for itself, said Vin Blaine, the USVI Soccer Association’s director of football.

“The players are very, very, very confident, and that’s all that we can ask of them right now,” said Blaine, a former technical director with the Grenada Football Association and director of football with the Jamaica Football Federation.

“We’re in a tough group … and it’s only one team that goes through to the second round. So, our first couple games will be very important to us. At least we get a chance to see our opponents play before we have to face them.”

Blaine will handle head coaching duties for the USVI in today’s match, after head coach Gilberto Damiano Jr. could not make the trip to St. Croix due to what Blaine said were “personal matters beyond [Damiano’s] control.”

Also missing is forward J.C. Mack III, one of the USVI’s captains, who currently plays professionally for the Albion Park White Eagles in Australia’s Illawarra Premier League. “The Australian government will not allow him to leave, them come back,” due to the country’s stringent COVID-19 pandemic regulations, Blaine said.

However, the rest of the USVI’s 23-man roster is in place, and coming off two major workout sessions — a training camp in Miami last week, and this week’s practices on St. Croix.

That’s where Damiano, Blaine and the rest of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ coaching staff have been working on installing a new approach to the game.

“It’s a new system, a new coaching approach, a new game model for the team,” Blaine said. “We’re trying to get their mind around how we want them to play.”

As part of their training, the USVI took on Anguilla in a friendly match in Miami last week, with the game ending in a scoreless tie.

“We had a chance to go over what we wanted them to do,” Blaine said. “It was pretty intense.

“[The friendly match] was very encouraging, very encouraging. We wanted them to have a high-pressure game in some areas, and we achieved that.”

While the U.S. Virgin Islands only has the friendly against Anguilla under its belt, Antigua and Barbuda (0-0-1 in Group A) has already played its first Qatar Qualifiers match, battling to a 2-2 tie against Montserrat (0-0-1) on Wednesday in Willemstad, Curacao.

So, even though the USVI’s players are still untested under the new system, Blaine is confident that won’t be an impediment.

“We’re very, very confident,” he said. “Based on what I’ve seen so far, they’re quite disciplined. Their movement is good, and they’ve covering areas quickly. If we close on our opponents quickly and not allow time to play, it will benefit us.

“We’ve got young players whose energy level is high and their movement is good. We’ve asked them to do certain things … and they’ve been doing that quite well.”

— Email Sports Editor Bill Kiser at bkiser@dailynews.vi.