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After learning from Olympic qualifying, St. Kitts & Nevis is ready to start winning

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A young squad made major progress over three games. Will they get more chances to develop?

St. Kitts & Nevis entered the CONCACAF women’s Olympic qualifying tournament as the lowest-seeded team, by far. Half their roster are teenagers, with several under-15s in the mix. They were competing against some of the best teams in the world. Unsurprisingly, they lost all three games by healthy margins. Such is the way of things in a game where the top nations are investing hundreds, maybe thousands, times more than the smaller ones.

Following the final match, their coach Jené Baclowski was asked about her main takeaways from the tournament. Her response: “really disappointed in the scores. As a competitor, I don’t like to lose and neither do the players.”

Baclowski isn’t under any illusions. She knows her team were massive underdogs. But this tiny nation (pop. 55,000) didn’t make it this far by accepting the reality of inequality and settling for moral victories. Their core identity, she says, is “a hard-working team that has grit.” They came here to win. And barring that, to make concrete improvements so that they can win next time, or the time after that.

It might seem fanciful. But plenty of nations punch well above their weight in international soccer. Iceland’s population is under 400,000 and yet they’ve seen significant success from both their men’s and women’s teams. The men’s team from the Faroe Islands (pop. 49,000) managed two wins and three draws from ten games during qualification for the 2018 World Cup. And tiny Gibraltar (pop. 35,000) has managed four international wins on the men’s side since being admitted to UEFA and FIFA roughly five years ago.

St. Kitts & Nevis is never realistically going to challenge the United States or Canada. But in a region where no other federations invest reasonably in their women’s teams, Baclowski’s stated objective of qualifying for the 2023 World Cup doesn’t feel completely implausible.

Taking the next step

The big question is: how does a team who had literally never played a game against anyone except other Caribbean nations prepare for taking that next huge step?

For team captain Phoenetia Browne, this was “a learning experience. It’s our first step coming to a bigger stage coming out of the Caribbean and so we’re looking to learn from this process so that in the future we’ll be able to compete and win games like this.” Browne played college soccer at Columbia and Texas, making her one of the few players on the squad to face competition levels anything like what they experienced in this tournament.

Her strike partner, Britney Lawrence—another player with college experience in the US—sounded a similar note: “It’s definitely been challenging at times. But we had to deal with what we had. Some girls had more experience, and we had to motivate the other girls and push them to be their best out there. We tried our best and that’s all you can ask for.”

One of the breakout players for the team was Cloey Uddenberg, a seventeen-year-old midfielder. The squad actually features three Uddenberg sisters. They grew up in Canada but have a grandparent from the islands, which made them eligible to play for the national team. For Uddenberg, the intensity of play was the hardest adjustment: “It’s more intense at this stage. The teams are harder. The teams are better technically. The game is faster. So we have to keep up with that pace.”

The value of experience

Uddenberg’s point seems obvious, but it’s also difficult to overstate just how significant the difference really is. Watching these matches up close, you can see just how tight the margins are. Over and over, the St. Kitts & Nevis players would read the game correctly but have their pass intercepted. Or receive the ball with a light touch and turn to dribble, only to find their pocket picked by a secondary defender. Or block out a striker’s lane to the touchline only to get beaten by an impossible burst of acceleration.

When the small nations of the world talk about the value of experience, this is a big part of what they mean. It’s not just about playing games, getting camps, have practice facilities—though of course those things are all immensely important. But there is literally no replacement for facing off against truly world-class competition and beginning to grasp what that means in a visceral way.

As Baclowski put it after their match against Mexico: “We started a 14 year old, a 15 year old, a 16 year old against a team with so much more experience. So naturally when they come off the field they have questions. They’re trying to solve things…You can imagine if you’re 14 and you’re playing against some of the best players in the world and you’re being able to solve problems and hold your own, you have to think of how positive that is for the future.”

Cloey Uddenberg’s performances over the tournament provide a strong piece of evidence for this case. She started out tentative, overcommitting at times and then backing off to avoid making the same mistake, only to find herself giving too much space. But as the games progressed, her marking grew more efficient, her vision clearer, her passing more intuitive. By the second half of their final game against Jamaica, Uddenberg was consistently stealing the ball, building triangles in the attack with Browne and Lawrence, and covering an exceptional amount of ground in the process. Her slight build makes it impossible to forget that she is still in high school, but the quality of play on display suggests someone with far more maturity.

Uddenberg will be attending the University of Guelph in Canada starting next fall, and will continue playing soccer. But one can’t help but wonder if some college coaches watched this tournament, saw the lightning pace of her improvement, and thought they might do well to convince her to transfer to their program.

And you could tell the same story about players up and down the roster. Dakota Mills, 22, is a striker by trade, but as the opening game against Canada began to get out of hand, she was moved back to center back, in the hope that her speed and size would provide some support. It worked. She was a rock in the defense, repeatedly blocking out top players like Renae Cuéllar and Bunny Shaw, heading away dangerous crosses, and stepping up to close down attacking angles. Christi-Anne Mills, 17, entered the game against Jamaica in the second half and almost immediately was at fault in a goal. But rather than getting hung up on the mistake, she worked relentlessly, constantly listening to advice being shouted from the sidelines. Kaylee Bennett, 15, was similarly guided by regular advice from the bench, helping her with positioning and assessment.

Across the team, you could see the significance of high-level competition, as well as the value of high-level coaching. So when Baclowski talks about her team’s mentality, their commitment, their ability to soak up information and learn from it, this is what she means. In just three games, these players began to see dimensions of the game that had previously been obscured. And they adjusted to them, growing more comfortable with the pace and physicality. They didn’t just drop back and desperately try to hold on. They started looking to solve the puzzles on their own.

“Sometimes you get tired of learning lessons and you just want to have some success”

This team was never close to earning a result in these games. But the combined scoreline of 24-0 also doesn’t tell the story. They fought hard, they were tenacious, and they attacked well. And they learned. A lot.

Still, when talking about a team like St. Kitts & Nevis, there’s always the risk of overpraising effort. As Baclowski said in her press conference, “Sometimes you get tired of learning lessons and you just want to have some success.”

So yes, warm feelings are nice, but that’s not what the team needs. What they need is resources. Baclowksi: “we need more games. We need more training. We need an annual calendar that will help us.”

Luckily, they do appear to have a federation interested in making that effort. It’s still nowhere close to equitable, but the mere fact that they sought out Baclowski is a good start. And she says there is genuine buy-in to support not only the full national team but also the Under-20 program. Conveniently, given the youth of the team, there is significant overlap between those squads. In fact, many of this core will reassemble in a little over a week for the CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship in the Dominican Republic.

That doesn’t mean everything is perfect. For Browne, “Just like it’s a learning process for us, it’s a learning process for our Federation. Because we haven’t been on this stage before, and we hope that we can continue to get that support.” At this point, Browne says, it’s still “a work in progress for the Federation. We are getting enough support to make it to this level, but there’s still things that we have to work on.”

Ideally, the success of the team and the work by the federation produce a positive feedback loop, which redounds not just to the benefit of the national team itself, but helps grow the culture of women’s soccer on the islands themselves. If that happens, there really is no reason that this tiny nation could be back in a few years: older, wiser, and hopefully with a starting XI where ‘Unattached’ is no longer the dominant club affiliation.