Here I delve into how Helenites SC secured the title in record-breaking style, while the state of football generally in the US Virgin Islands is examined…
Helenites SC are officially champions of the US Virgin Islands (USVI), clinching the domestic title for a record fourth time last weekend, adding to previous success in 2006-07, 2011-12 and 2013-14. From the outset, the club’s mission was to retain the USVI Club Championship – the islands’ premier football competition created 18 years ago – and they successfully achieved that objective.
There are three main islands in the USVI: St Croix, St John and St Thomas, with the rest much smaller and less inhabited. Leagues are split by district, with football played on the former and latter islands. The number of teams in each league is low, six in St Croix and nine in St Thomas, and at the end of the regular season the top two advance to the aforementioned Club Championship, where the ‘Big Four’ square off in search of the much-coveted trophy.
This year’s edition saw Helenites and Rovers represent St Croix while Raymix and Haitian Victory flew the flag for St Thomas. The action took place at the 9,000 capacity Lionel Roberts Stadium, St Thomas, over the weekend of the 7/8 February. In Saturday’s early kickoff, the number one ranked side from St Croix, Helenites, faced the St Thomas second ranked Haitian Victory, and they made comfortable work of their opponents, scoring five and securing a clean sheet. Garrick Mathurin particularly caught the eye with an impressive brace in the second half. This sent out a powerful statement of intent from the Groveplace-based club, showing strength in attack and resolve in defence. The following match-up was to involve even more goals, however, as a rampant Raymix side registered a resounding 7-1 victory over Rovers, star man Richard Allen completing a hat-trick. The final was decided, then, with Helenites taking on Raymix while losers Haitian Victory and Rovers took to the field for the third place match.
Rovers’ lapses in concentration at the back and lack of threat in the final third allowed Haitian Victory to capitalize, and the game was effectively over before half-time. Reynold Regis broke the deadlock inside 25 minutes before Romaine Bellevue doubled the lead 10 minutes later, only for Regis to complete his double after the interval. It was an assured performance from Victory, a side comprised mostly of players of Haitian descent, as they profited from playing against much weaker opposition. The marquee clash was to come as Helenites prepared to make history with a win, becoming the first team to add the Championship trophy to their cabinet for a fourth time, breaking a tie for most all-time with New Vibes from St Thomas.
Thanks to a considerable amount of good fortune, Helenites ran out 3-1 winners. The game got off to a nightmare start for Raymix and in particular Kareem Plummer, who turned the ball into his own net with just six minutes on the clock. This gave Helenites the confidence and belief to push on, which they managed to do in the end, as Vernus Abbot converted roughly on the hour mark. To further compound Raymix’s misery, Connel George became another player to put the ball in the wrong net, perhaps sparing Plummer’s blushes but completely wrapping the game up in the process. Trevol Smith managed to grab a consolation goal in stoppage time but it was a case of too little too late. Raymix had other chances throughout the 90 minutes but Mohawk-hairstyled goalkeeper Danny Michael was equal to almost everything thrown at him, as he was named most valuable player (MVP) in the Championship. Speaking after full-time, Helenites manager Alvin Randolph said he was really proud of his team’s “organisation, togetherness and love of the game.” He admitted that his players spend a lot of time together and often “have gatherings after each game and discuss the match.” Randolph’s assistant Kenneth Marcellin explained: “We were a little shaky coming into the game…but we got our stride in the late first half. The second half was a better half for us because we were able to move the ball around freely and execute our plans.”
There were scenes of wild celebration and overriding joy as the final whistle blew and FIFA development officer Angenie Kanhai and FIFA technical development officer Marcos Tinoco came onto the pitch and handed out the awards and medals. Such is modern football, a group of Helenites players took a selfie as a way of marking their achievements. After all, they were the best team over the course of the campaign. As a result of winning the title, the club will be able to participate in the CFU Club Championship, which serves as the region’s qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League. A date has yet to be confirmed, but it is reported that the qualifiers will happen in March and April this year. Helenites participated back in 2007 as they were put into Group D consisting of Portmore United (Jamaica) and Leo Victor (Suriname), but they finished bottom of the pile. They’re surely a stronger unit now, though, and could learn a lot from the experience.
USVI football in a wider context
As of 2014, the population of the US Virgin Islands was an estimated 106,792. Formerly the Danish West Indies, but an insular area of the United States since 1916, they are one of the smaller islands in the Caribbean. The dominant sports are American-influenced such as American football, baseball and basketball. So there are clearly challenges for the Virgin Islanders when it comes to getting children to play football and generating crowds at league games.
The work of Aggressi Soccer Club, however, is trying to buck the trend by encouraging more children on St Croix to play the beautiful game, and crucially to play longer. Set up by football-mad mother Beverly Edney, the project aims to help serve the community by taking children aged 3-15 from all walks of life and teaching them the sport’s fundamentals, as well as keeping them behaved and grounded. This extract is taken from their website: “In the year 2010 there were approximately 15,000 children in the Virgin Islands between the ages of 5 and 14, yet only about 500 play soccer, with a little more than half of this number on St Croix. By high school, less than 75 youths continued to play soccer on St Croix. The goal is to increase the number of children playing soccer on the island of St Croix to 600 by the end of 2015.”
In January the national association launched their first Goal Project which is to include a new office building, parking lot, two pitches, a grandstand, dormitory and training facility. This should be completed in about three years. The USVIFA’s Marketing and Communications Director, Joel Walker, told me “the office is completed and they’re now working on the pitches”. Furthermore, the USVI are going to be appearing in the CONCACAF Beach Soccer Championship in El Salvador this year, starting in late March and finishing in early April, for the first time. A BeaSal team is forming as this article is being typed up, as training workshops and practices to sharpen skills in beach soccer are already in full swing, according to Mr Walker. Not to forget 2018 World Cup qualifying as the national team prepare to take on Barbados in the first round, playing away in the first leg on 22 March before hosting the second leg a week later. If they overcome the Barbadians, then they’ll face Aruba in the second round, another two-legged affair set for June.
There are undeniably barriers and obstacles to overcome for the islands, but the type of work mentioned above is commendable and certainly a step in the right direction, as not only local neighbourhoods, communities and clubs look to benefit, but also the national football programme as a whole.
By Nathan Carr
Thank you for reading! Feel free to leave any constructive feedback in the comments box below. Big up to the people at Aggressi Soccer Club for providing details on their project’s aims and ambitions, and to Joel Walker at the USVIFA for providing additional information. Meanwhile, you can get in touch with me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.