By Chuckie Maggio @chuckiemaggio
With all due respect to Atlantic 10 contenders Dayton and La Salle, St. Bonaventure women’s soccer coach Steve Brdarski faced his toughest opponent of the year last Thursday night- the United States women’s national team.
Brdarski faced the Women’s World Cup champions at Detroit’s Ford Field as an assistant coach for the Haiti women’s national team. The game was the first of two the Haitians played against the U.S. as part of the Americans’ Victory Tour; they were a last-minute substitute for Australia, whose players refused to play due to a dispute with their federation. Brdarski was unable to make it to last Sunday’s match in Birmingham, Ala. because he was coaching the Bona women at Youngstown St.
The matches went predictably, with the U.S. running away with a 5-0 victory in Detroit and 8-0 drubbing in Birmingham. But Brdarski, who has been with Haiti since 2012, knew the games were about much more than the scoreboard.
“I made sure to tell people ‘just so you know, this is not comparing apples to apples,'” Brdarski said. “A lot of people judge us compared to the American team when they see us play, and it’s unfair because (the programs are in) two different cycles.”
The Copley, Ohio native shouldn’t have to spend too much time convincing people that the nations are in different soccer stratospheres. Besides the obvious fact that the American women won the World Cup and Haiti didn’t even qualify, age and experience are other major differences between the two teams. The current Haiti roster includes two 16-year-olds, two 17-year-olds and four 18-year-olds, while the U.S. World Cup roster featured 10 players over 30 years of age. In fact, 19 Haitian national team players are younger than America’s youngest player, 22-year-old Morgan Brian.
Despite the clear disparity between the two teams, Brdarski said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“As a coach, you get there 90 minutes before the kickoff and one of the first things you do is come out to the field to set up and get things situated before the girls come out,” he said. “When you step into (Ford Field) you come down this huge ramp, so you know there are people there and you hear the crowd but you don’t know how many people are actually there. It’s not until you come to the tunnel that you see that there are a couple thousand people standing there at the tunnel an hour and a half before gametime ready to see the players.
“Then we stepped onto the field and I’d say there were about 5,000-7,000 people that were there already, and they just kept trickling in. We were setting up the cones for warmups and people were already going absolutely crazy. It was really cool to see that environment.”
The fans were there to see the USA, but Brdarski acknowledged the tremendous support and gratitude they showed for his team as well.
“How receptive the crowd was to our team was probably the icing on the cake,” he said. “They were amazing, because they could’ve easily said they wanted a better game or a higher-profile team, but all of the fans knew that without this Haiti team the game would’ve never gone on.
“Our team didn’t get off the field for at least an hour after the game was over because of all the people who wanted to get signatures of all our girls, so that was really, really cool.”
The reception was a reminder of why the federation decided to play these games in the first place. Not many other countries would have agreed to play against the United States women in the first place, let alone playing them in a completely foreign environment without proper preparation time or scouting reports.
“We barely had enough time to get the team that we wanted to bring and get them there by Tuesday,” said Brdarski. “So people would think we were crazy for taking that game, but I think we took it because of the opportunity, the experience and the fans. You don’t want to disappoint those fans who have been waiting for the opportunity to see this game.”
That experience is crucial for a Haiti team that may have to face the Americans in a meaningful match when World Cup qualifying rolls around again in 2018. They already faced that scenario in the CONCACAF Women’s Championship group stage last October, when their dreams of going to the World Cup were dashed in a 6-0 loss to the red, white and blue.
Qualifying for the 2019 World Cup in France will be even tougher for Haiti. Fellow CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) member Canada received an automatic bid for this year’s competition by virtue of being the host country, but in the next go-around, everyone is fair game. The United States, Canada and Mexico will be favorites (all-but locks) to qualify, which leaves Haiti, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago to fight for a spot in the CONCACAF–CONMEBOL playoff to see who gets the final spot.
If his young squad can continue its progression and undeniable work ethic in the next three and a half years, Brdarski hopes his players can be representing their country on the big stage. However, he made it clear that soccer is just a part of what the program leaders are trying to accomplish.
The Haitian Football Federation has made its players’ development and well-being off the field as much of a priority as on-field growth. When the girls are in the United States for six-month training sessions, they take English lessons at a local university, receive shoes and gear and are aided by numerous charities and fundraisers. Each player was affected by the 2010 earthquake in one way or another, but the game of soccer, along with the sense of family within their team, has helped them recover and live positive lives.
“I’ve never been a part of a team where there’s so much of a humanitarian emotion of coaching a team,” Brdarski said. “You usually coach a team to win or lose. We’re coaching this team because we want them to do well, we want them to have a better life.
“It’s all done to promote and further their lives; that’s the real victory. They’re soccer nuts and they love the game, but it’s what we do off the field that will help them go on and do their best later on in life.”
It’s easy to get caught up in how the American dominance- how they have outscored their opponents 62-7 since their last loss (a February defeat in France) or how all-world midfielder Carli Lloyd has scored 31 international goals since the beginning of last year. But if you’re scoring at home, you can chalk up taking the field and competing against the World Cup champs as a major victory for a country that has really needed a reason to cheer the past five years.