Tiny Antigua and Barbuda looking to be giant killers tonight against United States

BRADENTON -- It's the ultimate David vs. Goliath scenario.

A country of just 88,000 battling one with a population more than 300 million.

But when the Antigua and Barbuda men's national soccer team, which has trained at Manatee County's IMG Academies for the past two weeks, squares off against the United States in tonight's World Cup qualifier at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, the size is gone.

It's 11-on-11.

And miracles do happen in

sports. Just ask the old Soviet Union how the medal-round ice hockey game against the United States turned out in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Or ask all the bigger high schools that fell to tiny Milan (Ind.) High, which inspired the movie "Hoosiers," during the state basketball tournament in 1954.

"Yes they have players that play at a higher standard than us," Antigua and Barbuda head coach Tom Curtis said, "a lot more depth in terms of their squad. Obviously, U.S. soccer and the infrastructure and the organization is more hugely developed than what we have. But at the end of the day, it's a game and anybody can do well. If we can perform and be competitive, then we'll be happy."

The Antiguans will make history if they defeat the mighty United States, which features stars like Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan and has played in every FIFA World Cup since 1990.

However, Antigua and Barbuda, an island country in the Caribbean lying north of Venezuela and east of Puerto Rico, has already made history.

The men's national soccer team has advanced further than any other in the country's soccer history. They did so by winning Group F of CONCACAF's second qualifying round with five consecutive victories.

The monumental triumph came when substitute Kerry Skepple buried the game-winner to produce a 1-0 result over group runners-up Haiti.

"He was sitting on the bench and he told me, 'I think something is going to happen for us tonight,'" midfielder Ranja Christian said. "And just before he went on, I said, 'Remember what we talked about, Skepple.' And when he went on and actually scored a goal, it was such a feeling. It's like the first time you got a toy from your father or your mother. ... Every time I think about it, if gives me chills."

Antigua and Barbuda's soccer history might not be deep, but the country has produced world-class athletes, especially in cricket.

That stems from its relationship with the United Kingdom, which served as a member of its vast empire until gaining independence in 1981.

The players on this year's team were no more than 5 years old at the time.

Yet there are two groups of players on the Antiguan side: those from the island, and those based in the United Kingdom who have Antiguan heritage.

Marc Joseph is in the latter group. The center back is a former professional with Nottingham Forest F.C. and used to play in the Championship Division of the English Football League, one notch below the Premier League.

"It's a big deal for us, really," Joseph said of tonight's game. "Playing against America and playing in the (third) round of qualifiers as well, obviously football is a massive thing back home, back in England, and the World Cup especially. It's something that you dream about playing in and watch it every year it's on, and to be a part of it is special."

For Christian, who is from the group of players based in Antigua, the meaning of advancing this far cannot be expressed by words, he said.

Aiding the country's arrival at this stage of the World Cup qualifying tournament is the Antigua Barracuda F.C. of the USL Pro Division. Many players on that club team play for the national team, which brings a strong built-in chemistry.

It's one that they'll hope pays off in tonight's group match against the United States.