By Andrew J. Skerritt
It was a weekend series in August with mixed results, a 1-0 loss on Friday and 2-1 win on Sunday against the playoff-bound Richmond Kickers.
The victory did nothing to prevent Antigua Barracuda FC from finishing last in the 12-team USL Pro division with a 5-1-18 record. It ended well out of playoff contention, but because the team acts as the de facto Antigua & Barbuda national team - the season is far from over.
There is more to play for - World Cup qualifying.
"We've done really well," Barracuda FC and national team coach Tom Curtis said.
Barracuda FC may not be going to the playoffs in the U.S. third-division USL Pro league, but Antigua still harbors hope of reaching the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
The unconventional idea sparked four years ago by the Antigua and Barbuda Football Association (AFBA) to create a club team has allowed it to transform a group of amateurs into a professional unit.
After having won only five of 26 World Cup qualifying games between 1972 and 2008, the twin island nation of 89,000 won five straight in last year's second round of qualifying, including a 1-0 win over regional heavyweight Haiti and a 10-0 rout of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
It already has held Caribbean power Jamaica to a 0-0 draw in the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying. It will host the Caribbean Cup finals in December with the hope of qualifying for the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time.
The improvement has come after AFBA officials felt they saw another World Cup qualifying attempt end too quickly.
The idea germinated after an 8-3 aggregate loss to Cuba in qualifying in June 2008 under former Millwall manager Willie Donachie. Then, after Antigua was eliminated from the group stage in the final round of the 2010 Caribbean Cup, General Secretary Gordon Derrick and other AFBA executives decided the program needed a professional solution.
Typically, Antigua and Barbuda's best players worked regular blue-collar jobs before exchanging their work boots for soccer cleats at afternoon practice.
"We knew we had to take this to another level," said Derrick, chairman of Antigua Barracuda FC. "You can't have amateurs competing against the U.S and Mexico, which has all professional players."
For a model, the ABFA looked at the Puerto Rico Islanders and Bermuda Hogges FC, teams based in the Caribbean but competing in lower division leagues on the U.S mainland. It took time, but with backing from government tourism officials and private sponsors, Antigua Barracuda FC debuted in the USL Pro in 2011.
The ABFA recruited the 39-year-old Curtis, who played for 11 clubs in 20 years in his native England - including Derby County and Portsmouth -- to coach the privately owned club and national teams.
For Curtis, preparing amateurs to play a rigorous schedule of domestic and international fixtures was only half the job. The biggest challenge was getting players who were stars on local teams to understand that being a professional required both a big physical and mental adjustment, especially in terms of playing time.
"The professional side has competition for places," said Curtis. "Everybody won't play every week."
Led by established pros like Peter Byers and George Dublin, who once played professionally in Trinidad & Tobago, the new set up paid off right away.
With the World Cup qualifying format changed, instead of a two-leg playoff against a traditional power, the "Benna Boys" were placed in a group with Haiti, the U.S Virgin Islands, and Curacao. It won five straight, outscored its opponents 25-4 and clinched the group with a match to play.
When it reached the semifinal round of qualifying, Barracuda FC's players comprised about 70 percent of the national team for a 3-1 loss to the United States and goalless draw against Jamaica in June.
That squad also was supplemented by U.K-based players, Dexter Blackstock, Mikele Leigertwood, Marc Joseph, Keiran Murtagh, Justin Cochrane, Josh Parker and Marvin McCoy.
An added bonus was when Barracuda FC reached the semifinals of Caribbean Club Championship in June, and missed out on qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League by one victory.
For the Guatemala games Friday and September 11, Curtis is expected to call up several new imports, including Zaine Francis-Angol, a 19-year-old fullback from Scottish club Motherwell FC, who will replace injured McCoy.
The combination of homegrown professionals and U.K based players works, said Fernando "Nando" Abraham, manager of both Antigua Barracuda FC and the senior national team.
The concept of creating a club team to develop the national team isn't completely unheard of. The United States tried it with Team America in the old North American Soccer League in 1983, the last year the NASL was around.
On a wall at the ABFA offices hangs a chart projecting the Benna Boys reaching the six-team final round of the 2018 CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, Abraham said.
"We are ahead of our time," he said. "From what we saw in the first two games, we can be very competitive and can come out one or two to get to the final six and take it from there."