Sat, Jun

A fierce thunderstorm was whipping across South Florida. Slashing winds, lightning and showers threatened to put a damper on Miami FC's United Soccer Leagues (USL) nationally-televised game even before it started.
In one dressing room, the visiting Puerto Rico Islanders were itching to spoil the home team's Independence Day celebrations. In the other, the "Blues", riding a delicate surge of success after a slumbering start to the season, risked being derailed by frustration as they endured an hour-plus kick-off delay.

Moving about the locker room, Avery John, the Trinidad and Tobago World Cup veteran, summed up his team's mood. If ever calm was needed in the middle of a storm, it was at Tropical Park stadium this July 4 evening. But John, in his first year with Miami FC, knew he was walking a thin line.

"Sometimes it (the delay) can be difficult," said the 33-year-old from Vance River, a starting defender who joined the team several games into the 2008 USL season, but has established himself as a leader.

"Everybody has their way to get prepared for a game. You have to be careful how you approach them. You have to talk to them and let them know there is a game to be played. You try to keep everyone active. You have to help to keep the focus and not let their minds wander."

A game of "keep away" was organised. Some soccer tennis broke out. Laughter stepped in. And when the real game finally started, Miami FC was ready to roll.

Quicker on and off the ball and more aggressive overall, the Blues pounced on the Islanders. Reward was almost immediate. A seventh minute penalty was converted by Brazilian Alex Afonso after Jamaican Sean Fraser was held in the box. It was all the offence Miami FC would need.

The club, bolstered by John in central defence, held the visitors' attack in check to preserve a 1-0 win which pushed Miami FC into mid-pack of the 11-team USL Division I points table.

It also kept alive a streak of impressive defending by the Blues. Counting the Islanders, Miami FC has conceded just seven goals in 11 USL games, including seven shutouts, since John joined the club in early May. Before that, the team had allowed seven goals in four games. The connection has not gone unnoticed.

"What Avery brings to the team is experience," said Fraser days after the Islanders game. "He reads the game very well and he talks a lot. That motivates the defence, and the whole team respects him as a person and a player.

"Where Avery is concerned, he always takes the biggest, strongest and best forward on the opposing team. In my view, he is the best defender on the team."

Coach Zinho, who played for Miami FC in its first two USL seasons, noticed the defender's early influence as well. In mid-May, after Miami FC's first shutout of the season against the Portland Timbers in John's third game with the club, Zinho, a 1994 World Cup winner as a player, pinpointed his impact.

"Avery has leadership and he has the World Cup experience," said the former Brazilian star. "So he can orient and he knows how things should be done at the back. He can move the other guys around if it needs to be done."

It appears T&T, which scraped through its first round of World Cup qualifiers without John last month, may need those skills as well.

The Soca Warriors, who made it to the game's big show in 2006 in Germany, where John played against Sweden and Paraguay, surprisingly lost their home fixture against Bermuda last month before bouncing back to win away and take the tie on goal aggregate.

John, who has played for T&T more than 50 times but not since late 2006, was last week invited to rejoin the national squad along with several other World Cup veterans.

Before that announcement, there had been no place for John in the national set-up under new coach Francisco Maturana, who replaced Leo Beenhakker. Since the World Cup he has played only at club level, first at US Major League Soccer New England Revolution, a team he helped to the final of the MLS last year but which did not sign him for the 2008 season, and now Miami FC.

But John always wanted to play for his country and, he believed, based on current form, he earned another chance to wear the red, black and white strip.

"At the end of the day, Trinidad and Tobago is not a very big country," he reasoned last week before learning about his call-up. "When you look at the pool of talent, I have to be in that. I should get rewarded. I deserve to have a chance Right now, there can't be any excuse."

But was there? Some believe that John's link to the T&T World Cup compensation furor between more than a dozen Soca Warriors and the T&T Football Federation was part of the problem.

The matter was recently settled in arbitration, with the players due to get more money than the Federation was originally willing to offer. The final amount is still to be decided. Yet the bitter taste from the dispute has not totally gone away and some believe-correctly or not-it has factored in players being ignored for national duties.

According to John, only a handful of players involved in the dispute have represented T&T since the World Cup, including invitations for Kenwyne Jones, Stern John and Aurtis Whitley. Cornell Glenn and Anthony Wolfe were also recalled for last Tuesday's friendly against Guyana. The word "blacklisted" pops up in discussions on the issue.

"Your friends ask you what's going on with the national team," John said. "They understand what's going on. The majority of the fans, the die-hard fans, they understand. They understand why the majority of the blacklisted players have not been called back."

Yet John's absence from the Soca Warriors has not meant that he is not paying attention to the national team. He did not watch either game against Bermuda, but attended the Guyana friendly on July 8 after receiving time-off from Miami FC to take care of some personal business at home.

The T&T squad, made up of mostly local-based players, beat Guyana 2-0.

John said he understands the need to give those players, especially the younger ones, international exposure as part of building a strong team for the rest of the World Cup campaign. What he rejects is the idea that his age or the level of the USL-second tier to the MLS-would work against his inclusion.

After all, other USL players, like Randi Patterson of Charleston Battery, have been selected.

John remained patient. It's not just about him, he said recently, confident that the interest of the twin-island republic would eventually smooth things over.

In the run-up to World Cup 2006, Beenhakker instilled "unity, organisation and discipline" among the Warriors. National pride swelled. That translated into the "best moment" in John's football career in Germany. So now, even if he doesn't make it this time around, John still wishes T&T the best.

"You always feel you should have been there," he said, "that you can help the team move on (But) it's not about Avery John. It's about Trinidad and Tobago."

His focus is also on his club. On July 1, Miami FC was beaten 2-1 by MLS team FC Dallas in the US Open Cup, America's version of Britain's FA Cup knockout competition. But the Blues are still in contention for a USL playoff spot, a prospect which seemed dim earlier.

John's current teammates, a colourful bunch featuring Americans, Brazilians, Jamaicans, Haitians, Colombians and Hondurans, do not believe his quality has diminished. And they are happy John, who attended tryouts with other teams before signing with Miami FC, is on their side for that post-season push.

"(The USL) is a step down from the MLS, but I think he's been able to adapt excellently since the get-go and he's doing well," said Eric Vasquez, who played against John in the MLS.

"He's always setting an example that's good to follow. You see someone with his age still out there and running as hard you respect that."

John, meanwhile, has fit in well at Miami FC. He has survived two-a-day practices and multiple games in limited days. He has worked out a communication system with his Portuguese-speaking coach and is adjusting to the humid South Florida weather as well.

The game itself remains the same. Soccer is a clash of wills, where physical and mental forces meet over 90 minutes. John understands his role and ambitions in it. T&T, New England, Miami, changes little. New teammate or not, it's no time to be shy.

"I believe what I bring is the aggression, the experience in helping with organising the guys in the front and in the back," he said. " I help them know where they are and why they have to be there. You're not just yelling at them to be there, you're explaining why. You treat them as professionals."

Then he has his own mini-battles to fight as well. Against the Islanders John rose to an aerial challenge with an opposing forward. The collision left him laying on the wet grass holding his face.

"If I remember the play, I went up," he said later, laughing as he recalled the incident. "His head connected my cheekbone."

Concerned teammates flocked around. John slowly got up, rubbed his face, then looked at his hand.

"The first thing you check to see if there's blood," he said, still laughing. "There was none. There was pain, but I was okay."

Bumps and bruises aside, the Soca Warrior would live to fight on. After all, the competition is still sweet.

"This is what I grew up doing," John said. "I can't afford not to enjoy it. God gave me a gift and I am using it. I'm making the most of it. It's not getting old yet."

(Gordon Williams is a Jamaican journalist based in the United States)