While St. Kitts and Nevis is ranked 133rd in the World, the Sugar Boys present a step up in class for Canada after blowout wins over the U.S. Virgin Islands and Dominica in CONCACAF Nations League qualifying play.
“We know we’re coming up against a hungry group of players,” Canadian coach John Herdman said ahead of Canada’s game against St. Kitts on Sunday in Basseterre.
“This is going to be a tough opponent for us, which is exactly what we want and what we’ve needed,” he added.
Canada, ranked 76th in the world, stands third in the CONCACAF Nations League qualifying standings after blanking the U.S. Virgin Islands 8-0 and Dominica 5-0. St. Kitts is fifth after beating Puerto Rico 1-0 and Saint Martin 10-0.
No. 79 Curacao and No. 103 Haiti, also 2-0-0, top the standings with goal differences of 15 and 14, respectively.
The four-game qualifying round sets the stage for a three-tier competition, complete with promotion and relegation, that kicks off in the fall of 2019 in the confederation covering North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The top 10 nations in qualifying play will make the CONCACAF Gold Cup field while the top six also qualify for CONCACAF Nations League Group A.
The six teams that made it to the final round of the most recent World Cup qualifying in the region — Mexico (No. 16), the U.S. (23), Costa Rica (37), Honduras (62), Panama (70), and Trinidad & Tobago (93) — are bypassing the qualifying portion and will go straight into the top tier of the Nations League.
Anthony Johnson, president of the St. Kitts and Nevis Football Association, calls Sunday’s contest “the most important match in the history of St. Kitts Nevis football,” saying a win could move the Sugar Boys into the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time.
He’s urging fans to arrive early at Warner Park, which hosted games at the 2007 Cricket World Cup.
“Come in your St. Kitts Nevis colours. Come dressed in whatever that represents St. Kitts and Nevis. Come with your noise-makers in whatever form,” he says in a story on his association’s website. “We are at home and we ought to take advantage of being at home.”
The two teams met previously in November 2011 in a World Cup qualifying series, tying 0-0 in Basseterre before Canada won 4-0 in the second leg at Toronto.
“If we get a nil-all draw in this game, we probably will miss the Nations League Group A,” said Herdman. “And if we miss Group A, it means for the next two years, we’ll be flying around Caribbean countries, building more resilience but not playing the type of teams that we need to play to keep moving forward and testing our mindset and our culture and our tactical identity.”
Canada wraps up the qualifying round in Toronto on March 26 against French Guiana.
Coached by Mexican Jacques Passy, St. Kitts is a well-organized side that has recruited well, according to Herdman.
The team is led by 33-year-old defender-midfielder Atiba Harris, a veteran of 275-plus MLS games with Real Salt Lake, Chivas USA, Vancouver Colorado,San Jose and FC Dallas.
He started his career in England for Newcastle United’s youth ranks and spent time in Spain with Cadiz CF and Club Deportivo Linares before becoming the first St. Kitts player to feature in Major League Soccer in 2006 when he signed with Real Salt lake.
Harris currently plays for OKC Energy FC, the USL club in Oklahoma City.
Forward Harry Panayiotou started in the Leicester City system, but now plays for Nuneaton Borough FC along with St. Kitts teammate Theo Wharton, a midfielder, in the League National League North, the sixth tier of English football.
Forward Omari Sterling-James began his career in Birmingham City’s system but now plays for England League Two’s Mansfield Town. Midfielder Romaine Sawyers is a West Brom academy graduate who now plays for Brentford in England’s second-tier Championship.
There is also Canadian content in defenders Justin Springer, Alain Sargeant and Nile Walwyn.
Springer, former captain of the University of Guelph soccer team, is a native of Burlington, Ont., who qualifies for St. Kitts because his father was born there.
Sargeant, from Toronto, was formerly with the Toronto FC academy and George Mason University. His father Osmond, a former triple jumper, was born in St. Kitts.
Walwyn, born in Mississauga, Ont., plays in Iceland.