By STEVE BRENNER
If Jurgen Klinsmann, the German coach of the United States national team, thinks he is at his lowest ebb, Cornelius Huggins can offer him a startling reality check.
When Klinsmann’s team begins the qualifying cycle for the 2018 World Cup in Russia on Friday night, it will do so on the heels of a string of desperately disappointing results. Fans are grumbling, and faith in Klinsmann’s leadership seems to dim with each new unimpressive display.
Yet if Klinsmann ever fears that all hope is lost, he can always put himself in the shoes of Huggins, a man once known as the Outlaw who faces a much taller task.
Huggins coaches the young national team of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which will serve as the first hurdle for the Americans on the road to Russia. The teams play Friday at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Currently ranked 122 in the world by F.I.F.A, St. Vincent encounters the kind of difficulties no major nation — or any of its current opponents in qualifying — will endure. The team, a collection of part-timers, does not even have a training field of its own. It best-performing striker is a fisherman. The captain is a member of the coast guard.
“You cannot be jealous of what others have, like the United States,” Huggins said in an interview last week. “It’s been a struggle for us. We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the finances. We just thank God for helping us reach this point.
For his tiny Caribbean country to have reached this moment is special. The 103,000 natives who inhabit St. Vincent, a 16-mile, economically ravaged island at the southern end of the Caribbean, would fit inside Penn State’s Beaver Stadium with room to spare. But triumphs over Guyana and Aruba in the earlier rounds have given fans, and Huggins’s team, a chance to dream.
St. Vincent has never won a match at this level. In fact, it is only the fifth time its team has reached the main qualifying tournament. Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala make up the rest of its group, but meeting the United States is the main event.
“Life here is hard,” said Huggins, the country’s most celebrated player.
If not for soccer, Huggins might still be clocking in at the plastic-bag factory where he used to work. Instead, he will lead the Vincy Heat, as St. Vincent’s team is known, into some of the biggest games of their lives.
“It’s a real struggle for the players to make a living for themselves and their families,” he added. “The rich people aren’t playing the game; it’s the poor ones. There’s no professional league in St. Vincent. They get nothing. They work from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., and then at 4:30, they can start doing their stuff.”
He called the chance to share the stage with the region’s biggest players and teams “a massive opportunity.”
“That’s why playing for the national team is so important: you go overseas and someone might see you,” Huggins said. “Scouts come here very rarely, which is a shame because there is a lot of talent in the smaller Caribbean countries.”
Comparing the infrastructure of these two soccer nations, however, is an illuminating exercise. No expense has been spared for Klinsmann and his support staff in the search for progress. In St. Vincent, the situation is strikingly, and depressingly, different.
F.I.F.A’s Goal program, which finances development projects — sometimes controversially — in member associations, approved a project to build a headquarters for the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Football Federation in 2013. The plans, though, were soon scrapped.
“Our main training pitch is the one where we play all our games, and that is a shared facility with a cricket team,” Huggins said. “Now that we are in the World Cup qualifying competition, they have allowed us more freedom. They are still playing on it at this time of year though, so we don’t always have it totally to ourselves,”
“They want to keep training so we only use certain areas, to go down the sides and keep off the main part. We just need a facility where we can train whenever we like. We can’t keep sharing a surface which is used for other sports.”
While the United States striker Jozy Altidore earned almost $5 million this year in Major League Soccer, his opposite number Tevin Slater earns precisely nothing playing for Camdonia F.C. in the St. Vincent Premier League. Slater earns his income by catching fish.
No matter. Slater, 20, is a raw, exuberant danger in attack, scoring seven goals in his first 11 international appearances, and a Concacaf-leading five in World Cup qualifying.
“We are the underdogs, so there is no pressure, but it’s difficult for us,” said the St. Vincent captain, Darren Hamlett. “I am a coast guard officer, so I work from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., go to training, and then come back at night to keep working.
“Some of our squad have just come out of school, while others are unemployed,” he added. “A lot of our players are young, but if you want to become a professional, you have to start acting like one, so we work hard.
“That’s what we are up against. But we love football. And we love our country.”