In less than two weeks, the CNMI Men's National Football Team will defend its home pitch in an effort to do what last year's squad was unable to accomplish by beating Guam on Saipan.
Last year, football fans from across the world watched as the home team came within one goal of beating the FIFA-ranked Guamanians, as the visitors escaped with a 3-2 victory at the Oleai Sports Complex. A week later, the men from Saipan were unable to find similar success against their heavily favored opponents abroad, as Guam dismantled the CNMI at home, 9-0, in the rematch.
Aside from pleasing their fan faithful at Harmon Field, the Guamanians also drew first blood in the Inaugural Marianas Cup. This month's match will mark the second time the regional rivals vie for the giant perpetual trophy, and several new faces will don the home team's uniforms on Sunday, April 27, at the OSC.
Team CNMI will be without 11 of players that filled out its roster in 2007, as Bruce Berline, Vince Stravino, Wesley Bogdan, Mike Hall, Aaron Lewis, Chris Nelson, Mark McDonald, Kyle Cabael, Jonathan Mafnas, Tyce Mister and former captain Yosh Gabaldon have either opted out of the grueling national schedule or will be unavailable for this month's match.
The CNMI still has a core of players who remember the bitter pill that Guam served up on Harmon Field, as Ben Wood, Dale Roberts, Michael Thomas, Brad Ruszala, Lucas Knecht, David Dueñas, Chris Leon Guerrero, Peter Houk, and Angelo Villagomez return to the Blue Ayuyus with manager John Ravell.
Filling the vacancies left by last year's history-makers was no easy task, but a crowd of new faces survived the training and evaluation process, and is now ready to officially don the blue and white for the first time. Among the rookies added to the 2008 lineup are Peter Loken, Steve McKagan, Dan Westphal, Joe Miller, Choi Yong Woon, Norman Camacho, and Nick Swain.
Change has been the theme to this year's team, as Team CNMI made changes at the top with the departure of last year's coach, Jeff “Ziggy” Korytoski, who has since moved back to the Mainland. His replacement, Jason Higgins, will also miss match, as he and the Northern Mariana Islands Football Association quietly parted ways two months ago.
Since then, Swain has taken the reigns as player/coach for the local squad, and NMIFA officials regard the former Pacific Islands Club Clubmate as a magnificent find who possesses the talent to direct his teammates both on and off the field.
Adding to his already full plate, Swain is also coaching the CNMI Women's National Team as well as the U14 squad. The women will compete against their counterparts from Guam on Saturday, April 26, at the Oleai Sports Complex. As with the men's contest, the match between the CNMI and Guam will serve as the 2nd Annual Marianas Cup between the women.
Last year, the CNMI women journeyed south to the southernmost link in the Marianas Islands chain as underdogs, and fell to Guam, 0-7. Despite suffering a lopsided defeat on the scoreboard, the injury riddled CNMI Women displayed their character by holding off their opponents for a majority of the first half.
Both matches in the second edition of the Marianas Cup take place at 3pm with pre-game activities getting underway at 2:45pm. Attendance is free and organizers invite the community to provide the same crowd support that last year's team enjoyed. (Brad E. Ruszala)