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St. Kitts and Nevis are ready to take on the odds

The lowest ranked team in the Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament aren’t just here to make up the numbers.

In the fall of 2018, the Reggae Girlz of Jamaica arrived in Edinburg, TX on a mission: to qualify for a major international tournament for the first time in their nation’s history. After a narrow victory over Costa Rica got them through to the semifinal, a penalty shootout over Panama earned them a spot in France.

A little over a year later, another Caribbean nation has arrived in Edinburg hoping to pull off the same feat. For the Sugar Girlz of St. Kitts and Nevis, though, the hill is even steeper. This would not just be their first time qualifying for a major international tournament; this is actually the country’s first ever appearance in even the final qualifying round.

St. Kitts and Nevis is an island nation in the West Indies with a population around 60,000 and a GDP of less than 2 billion. That’s the equivalent of a single mid-sized American city. They are currently ranked 127th in the world, easily the lowest ranking of any team left in the tournament. The last time they played a non-Caribbean team is never.

So yes, the road is an unlikely one. The odds are heavily against them making much of a show here. But the team remains undaunted. They have set their sights high, and are ready to do the hard work to move up the ranks.

I spoke with their coach Jené Baclawski after SKN’s narrow 2-1 defeat to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in a pre-tournament scrimmage. She was most realistic and optimistic about her team’s chances. They open against Canada, currently ranked #8 in the World, a tough game for any opponent. But for her “the goal is to get into the next round. It’s one game at a time. Playing a team like Canada will certainly teach us some things and will give us a different look than what we’ve seen before. But we realize that we still have results we need to get from the next two games against Mexico and Jamaica.”

It would certainly be a shock, but few expected them to even reach this point either. And if they could defeat #60 Trinidad and Tobago to get here, what’s to say they couldn’t manage another couple upsets?

Still, while advancement remains the primary objective, they are more realistically focused on the learning experience that these matches will offer. According to Baclawski, their sights are truly set three years down the road: “The goal for us is to gain experience, for the players to improve, because we feel like St. Kitts and Nevis had a very good chance of qualifying for the next World Cup. And that’s the end goal.”

Lauren Williams, one of the veterans on the team, echoed this point, speaking about the importance of the experience to help the team take the next step: “We’re definitely going to take it one game at a time. We all walk, kick, run with the same two feet. And seeing how the team has progressed, getting a lot of new players in…We’ve worked really hard to get here, and it’s really exciting we get to represent the country.”

This is a group, and a national organization, with a plan and a willingness to follow through. Even reaching this point shows that they are capable of punching above their weight. Bringing in Baclawski is one indication of their seriousness. She has a USSF A Coaching License, and has brought a level of international experience to the squad. But, in her own words, the story of this team is the players themselves: “They’ve been working a long time before I came out. I just got fortunate to come in at the right time.”

This is an extremely young team. Exactly half of the 20-woman qualifying roster is still under 20 years old and the average age is 20.3 years. Their youngest player, Kayla Uddenberg, only turned 14 last fall. Just to put that in context, on the date that Uddenberg was born, Christine Sinclair had already scored 53 international goals.

But they see the youth of the squad as a real opportunity. As Baclawski put it: “50% of the rosters are Under 20s. That is crazy exciting. Yes, they’re going to be inexperienced and are going to be young. But we have players like Lauren [Williams] who bring in stability and experience. Who knows in four years what this team could look like, with the experiences that those young players are getting. That’s going to pay off down the road.”

Having watched the team play, albeit in just a scrimmage, those words are not just fluff. There is real talent in this squad, in the likes of Cloey Uddenberg, 17, who has a silky touch on the ball, Quinn Josiah, 19, a goalkeeper with exceptional potential, and Ellie Stokes, 16, who has played in the Washington Spirit Academy system and for Baltimore Armour Girls and brings a strong goal-scoring threat. None of these young talents look like immediate international stars, but they’re getting invaluable experience, and who knows what that could produce over the next four or five years.

St. Kitts and Nevis also has the ability to draw on a much larger population than the 60,000 of their two islands. Like many Caribbean nations, there is a large diasporic community. In this squad, roughly half the players come from the home territory, with the other joining from outside. That includes a number of players who have played in US and Canadian developmental systems, as well as a few who ply their trade internationally in places like Finland and Sweden. This is the story for their best talent, Phoenetia Browne, who played college soccer at Columbia and Texas and has spent time playing internationally in Iceland, Romania, and Finland. She is skillful on the ball, capable of moving with speed, and the central playmaker for the team.

Ultimately, looking at this roster tells a compelling story of global soccer as we move into the 2020s. The squad is a blend of native and diasporic players. It features young talents who are growing up into an international soccer economy which is increasingly capable of sustaining an influx of talent. Leagues are growing and professionalizing; teams are investing more resources; fandom is expanding.

Even ten years ago, there was very little room to make a career in soccer outside of the true global elite. That’s less true today. For many of the SKN players, this tournament could be an opportunity to put themselves in the shop window and thereby take the first steps toward a professional career. Maybe they will pique the interest of a US college program. Maybe they will make a connection that leads to a pro contract.

At the end of the day, St. Kitts and Nevis probably will not win any of their games. They probably won’t even manage a draw. Chances are high that they’ll concede quite a few goals in the process. But we often grow accustomed to a particular ‘Concacaf style,’ with teams sitting as deep as possible and hoping desperately to keep the margins of their defeats respectable. This team does not seem to be interested in that approach. This isn’t a team built to bunker. It’s a team built to take on the game and grow in the process. And to put down a marker. As Baclawski put it: “One of the things that’s important to me is that people around the world structurally think about what teams in in Concacaf and the Caribbean can offer. It’s not just Trinidad and not just Jamaica. We think we think we have things to offer, too.”

So they’re by no means resigned to the idea of defeat. But if they do lose, they’re going to make sure it’s for a purpose. They want to stake a claim of ownership over their own potential—and to invite fans to see how much richer and more interesting the global game is growing every day.