The Guyana women’s soccer program is being resuscitated with an eye to qualifying for next year’s Rio Olympics.
Greater Toronto Area-based players are expected to make up a large chunk of the Lady Jags squad that will be assembled by technical director Mark Rodrigues who spent 34 years in the Greater Toronto Area before relocating to Florida where he’s the executive director of the Greater Tampa Bay Soccer Club.
He accepted an invitation from Guyana Soccer Federation’s technical director Claude Bolton to return to Guyana last Thursday to take up the assignment that will last until Guyana’s run in the competition ends.
Guyana will compete in Group Two with host country St. Kitts & Nevis and Haiti in a Caribbean zone qualifier from August 21-25.
Puerto Rico will host Group One that comprises the home country, Haiti and Grenada. Group Three is made up of host country Suriname, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Dominica.
The three group winners will advance to the Confederation of North, Central American & Caribbean Associations of Soccer (CONCACAF) women’s championship from January 21-31 next year in the United States. They will be joined by Canada, Mexico, the United States and two teams from the Central American zone.
The top two sides will advance to the 12-team Olympics which doesn’t have an age ceiling for women. The men’s tournament has an Under-23 age restriction.
A former Scarborough United Women’s Soccer Club and Ontario Soccer Association coach, Rodrigues will stage a five-day camp in the GTA next month.
“I will bring in about 15-20 players,” he said. “I will have a look at them and see who is in shape and is ready to compete at a high level.”
In addition to the Canadians, Rodrigues will extend an invitation to American goalkeeper Chante Sandiford, who plays professionally with UMF Selfoss in Iceland, to attend the Toronto camp. The University of California, Los Angeles graduate is the daughter of former Guyana goalkeeper Wendell “Figuero” Sandiford.
“She’s someone I have not seen, but she has an impressive track record and I am hoping that she can commit to us,” he said.
Rodrigues plans to use his Canadian soccer contacts to organize a practice game for the squad during the Toronto training camp from June 18-23 at a venue to be decided.
“I am looking at Birchmount stadium because of the artificial surface there and the fact that we will be playing on an artificial grass pitch in St. Kitts,” he said. “After this camp, I will decide which players to bring from here along with a few from the United Kingdom and the United States to Guyana to join a few players based there. I plan on having about 22 players in training in Guyana in mid-July before selecting the final squad that will travel to St. Kitts & Nevis.”
He expects most of the Toronto-based players, who were part of the first Guyana women’s soccer side assembled six years ago, will be available for the Olympic qualifiers. That team made history by qualifying for the 2010 Gold Cup tournament which doubled as a 2011 World Cup and Central American & Caribbean Games (CAC) qualifier.
“The majority of those players were just entering university or in their first year in university,” said Rodrigues. “They have graduated now are either playing professionally or doubling as a player/coach with clubs. The ladies have more experience and they are much stronger physically.”
The GTA players who have committed to the program include striker Ashlee Savona who graduated from Northwestern State University, midfielder Olivia Gonsalves who attended the University of Toronto and sisters Briana and Kayla DeSouza who graduated from Carleton University and the University of Toronto respectively.
Less than a year after the women’s program was launched, the Lady Jags shut out Barbados and St. Lucia 3-0 and 8-0 respectively to become the first Guyanese side to make it to the CAC Games and the last stage of the World Cup qualifying tournament.
With the Under-20 team exiting in the second round of the Caribbean Soccer Union tournament in 2011 in Cuba, the women’s program folded primarily because of lack of funding.
Rodrigues is excited the program has been revived.
Timing was everything when I ran it, hence kicking it off originally in 2009,” he said. “It was immediately after the men had ended their World Cup qualifying run. I tried again to revive it in 2013 under the Christopher Matthias administration, but they voted not to do so. I had a very strong plan that showed us making it all the way to the World Cup in Canada kicking off next month. But after repeated attempts to convince them, they still refused to change their minds. I was that confident based on the quality and maturity of the players and also because the World Cup had expanded its entry from 16 to 24 teams with and extra spot being from CONCACAF as Canada was hosting.”