Maryville College senior Jonathan Sykes had a fairly eventful summer, to say the least.
After training with the national team at the beginning of the summer, a brief spell in Tennessee followed. However, this would turn out to be far briefer than first expected, as he got a call that cut his summer in and around Maryville very short. It would prove to be a call that simply could not be ignored.
He had been presented with an opportunity to compete for the Bahamas national first team.
He made the cut after returning to Maryville and was flown back down to the little islands a week before their first away leg on July 2. For any professional player, representing one’s country is the highest accolade one can achieve. For a private, liberal-arts college student, the feeling this honor creates within would be given a disservice if it were described as anything short of euphoria.
In his younger days, Sykes represented the Bahamian national team at the U15 and U17 levels, but the next step at the senior level had eluded him until this summer.
He got the chance very few get, the chance to compete in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in 2014, the premier stage for world soccer.
Sykes was the lone ranger from NCAA Division III in the CONCACAF qualifying section, with the rest of the team comprising of two professional USL players and a selection of NCAA Division I players.
The road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup was always going to be a long and winding one as the Bahamans were ranked 31st in the region.
The Bahamas fall into a pool which sees them in the same light as Turks and Caicos, Belize, Dominican Republic, British Virgin Islands, St Lucia, Aruba, US Virgin Islands and Montserrat.
Teams ranked No. 26-35 all competed in the first round of qualifying bracket. Teams ranked No. 7-25 received byes to the second round while the top six teams, the United States, Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Cuba, each received byes to round three.
These six “big guns” lie in wait for the pool winners of rounds one and two and were split into six divisions. From there, the winners from those six divisions play in one division in the final round and the top three teams from this final qualifying group advance to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
The goliath task of actually qualifying did not dampen the spirits of Sykes or his comrades.
“Last time we got as far as the second round and we expected to go at least one step further than that this year,” Sykes said.
Nevertheless, the fairy tale would not come to pass, as a technical glitch proved to scupper the efforts of the Bohemian boys.
“We got through to the first group stages, but our stadium was undergoing construction and wasn’t ready in time, so FIFA made us pull out.”
This left a bitter taste in the mouth of Sykes and his teammates because it was “the best Bohemian squad they had put together in a while, too.”
Sykes was positioned at attacking forward for the Bahamas senior national team and graced the field in the blue, black and yellow for the first time in the last 20 minutes of their away leg in the first game, which they won 4-0. He proved his worth and did enough to earn a start in the return leg at home, which the Bahamas dominated in what turned out to be a 6-0 rout.
When asked how it felt to step out on the field for his home nation, Sykes said: “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I wouldn’t change for the world. To play on the world’s biggest stage is every kid’s dream, and to say I have an international cap to my name is pretty surreal.”
Coach Jon Baker has seen Sykes come through the ranks at Maryville.
“Jonathan has come a long way since his freshman year,” said Baker. “His decision-making, speed, and knowledge of different systems and style of play have improved greatly.”
Sykes was delighted to capitalize on such a unique opportunity.
“It was the closest to playing professional soccer that I will ever get, and it was a chance I’m glad that I seized with both hands.”
Sykes now has something that no one can take from him, and he created some memories this summer that will keep him warm when he is old and gray.
That is what we are all here to do, make some memories. He is another Maryville international success story, and if this little snippet interested you, feel free to stop and say hello to Jonathan for further details.