When the U.S. takes the field to open 2018 FIFA World Cup qualification against St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Friday, one familiar face in American soccer circles will be taking his seat on the opposing bench.
Former MLS defender and current Seattle Sounders FC 2 coach Ezra Hendrickson joined the St. Vincent technical staff last month as they ramped up for Round Three of CONCACAF FIFA World Cup qualifying.
Having played 123 times for Vincy Heat, Hendrickson is the Caribbean nation’s most accomplished soccer son.
“For me it’s a great opportunity to give back to my country,” he told ussoccer.com on Tuesday. “I’m proud to come back with the National Team, show them what I’ve learned from my experience and help out as much as I can as an assistant.”
With a population of approximately 109,000 or roughly the same as Billings, Montana, St. Vincent has been known to punch above its weight, advancing to the Semifinal Round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying four cycles in a row from 1994-2006. Hendrickson was a huge part of that success, captaining the side during the latter three cycles, but as his generation of players moved on, the modest nation’s performances dipped, causing the side to miss out on Semifinal Round qualification for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.
Former MLS defender Ezra Hendrickson captained St. Vincent during 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cup Qualifying / Credit: Charis Wilson
“It’s been about nine or 10 years since we reached this stage,” Hendrickson said. “I think the country as a whole expected what my generation achieved to just continue. The proper measures weren’t put in place to continue that when our guys became older.”
After early exits from the last two qualifying cycles, the nation’s Football Federation hired Hendrickson’s former national teammate Cornelius Huggins as senior team head coach and put a new emphasis on rebuilding its national programs, investing in youth development with hopes of longer-term gains for the full team.
“A lot of these guys you’ll see on Friday are under 24 years old,” he added. “It’s a very young team, but it’s not inexperienced. A lot of the guys played recently in Olympic qualifying – they’ve played a lot of international games at U-23, U-20 and U-17 level. It’s a good thing that the country has done this, it puts us in a situation where for the next 10 years we have 21, 22 year old guys who can continue to play and help our full national team advance.”
The undertaking has a similar semblance to what U.S. Soccer did during the mid-1980s, coalescing and putting emphasis on talented players at the youth and collegiate levels which eventually led to the MNT’s qualification for the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
“Once we keep the same consistency and continue on that road, this is just a start for what St. Vincent football can be and become. I think Friday will be the start of something very, very special.”
Another part of helping St. Vincent develop its national team is getting more players playing club ball outside of the tiny island nation. Hendrickson has played his part there as well, signing attackers Oalex Anderson and Myron Samuel to Seattle Sounders FC 2 this past season.
While Samuel picked up an injury during the season, Anderson tallied four goals in 16 games for Sounders 2. Since making his international debut in 2014, he’s found the back of the net nine times in 14 appearances for Vincy Heat, including the second goal in St. Vincent’s 2-0 victory against Aruba in the first leg of the side’s second round CONCACAF World Cup qualifying match on Sept. 4.
Seattle Sounders 2 forward Oalex Anderson is one of St. Vincent's most promising talents / Credit: Charis Wilson
“Oalex is a player that I’ve watched now for 4-5 years, since he was 14-15 years old,” Hendrickson said. He had a very successful season with me up in Seattle this year and he’s just growing as a player. He’s still young, still 19 years old but he can be a big part of this game on Friday. We have several players with the same skill set as Oalex – very fast, very talented attacking players.”
Others to watch for include speedy winger Cornelius Stewart, who as a member of Finnish side PS Kemi is one of the few St. Vincent players to ply his trade outside of the Caribbean. Twenty-year-old target forward Tevin Slater has also proven useful for Vincy Heat, tallying 12 goals in eight international matches, including the second leg strike against Aruba that pushed St. Vincent to the Semifinal Round.
“They’re very young, but very talented and full of potential,” continued Hendrickson. “Hopefully we get to see some of that flair and some of that football skill on Friday.”
Even with a good youth movement brewing, St. Vincent knows they’re not the favorites in Friday’s match. In fact, the small nation’s all-time record against non-Caribbean countries is a paltry 1-23-1 – the lone positives coming a 4-1 home win against Nicaragua on June 20, 2004 and 1-1 home draw against Belize on November 11, 2011, both World Cup qualifiers.
Still, Hendrickson thinks the underdog role might just be beneficial for his side in St. Louis.
“There’s no pressure on us, everyone expects the U.S. to win and everyone is looking forward to a U.S. victory. I think we can surprise a lot of people. It all has to do with us and our confidence and execution. We’ve done enough to prepare the guys and it’s just a matter of, on the given day, executing.
“The U.S. and a lot of people are going to be surprised at the product that’s on the field with St. Vincent. We’re not cocky, we’re not over confident, but we believe in ourselves. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do. There’s a reason why the game is played. If we knew the U.S. was going to win, we wouldn’t show up and play – it’s a waste of money. There’s a reason the game is being played and we’re ready for it.”