Lucas Knecht and Bo Barry are donning the CNMI colors anew, as the Blue Ayuyus battle host Guam, Mongolia, and Macau in the EAFF Asian Cup qualifier that will run from July 21 to 27. Knecht came all the way from Georgia to suit up for the CNMI National Men’s Team for the third time, while Barry traveled from Virginia. Both arrived on Saipan more than a week ago and have been joining the squad’s regular training session at the Oleai Sports Complex Field.
Asked what makes them return to Saipan and be part of the national team, Knecht and Barry, who last suited up for the CNMI in the Asian Football Confederation 2014 Challenge Cup Qualifiers in Nepal last year, said they owe the island a lot, specifically the foundation of the sport they love.
“I grew up here on Saipan and I’ll always call it home so anytime I have an opportunity to represent my home I will always take it. I owe my whole beginning to this association (Northern Mariana Islands Football Association) and the many amazing people who helped start what we have. I’d never have it any other way,” said Knecht, who now plays center defender for Georgia Southwestern State University.
Barry will soon start his collegiate career at Saint Leo after completing his high school stint with Massaponax, which came just three wins short of making it to the state finals.
“Playing for the CNMI is an honor. I would not trade anything to play for the CNMI. Anytime I have the chance to represent my country I will try my best to do so,” he said.
Both Knecht and Barry played for the MP United Football Club when they were still on Saipan and were among the first few youth players to compete in off-island tournaments for the CNMI. They belonged to the first batch of players who went through the birth pains of CNMI football in the early 2000, playing in improvised pitches, training with raw and volunteer coaches, and relying on private companies for support on equipment.
“I first started playing for the CNMI when I was 13 years old, I was lucky enough to have been selected for a U14 tournament held in Beijing China in 2006,” said Knecht, who noted the significant improvement of the sport in the Commonwealth.
“This island has made leaps, jumps, and bounds compared to our earlier days. Every time I come back I see such development in the players. This has a lot to do with the wonderful coaching staffs we are lucky enough to have, they are great and I always look forward to coming back and learning from such high level instruction. It’s very encouraging and I hope it never stops,” Knecht said.
Barry agreed to Knecht’s observations and added that frequent exposure to high-level competition, such as the EAFF qualifier, will ensure the continued development of CNMI football.
“The coaching staff are excellent, the FA is great. The player’ skills have improved a lot. As for the IQ for the game, one have to experience it from playing in actual games, like the ones we will have in Guam,” Barry said.
In Guam, the Blue Ayuyus will first play Mongolia on July 21, while the Macau-CNMI match is set for July 24. The CNMI will close out the preliminary with a game against Guam on July 27. The CNMI’s final roster for the EAFF qualifier will be announced this week.
The winner of the Round 1 will advance to the tournament in Chinese-Taipei later this year and play against the host, Hong Kong, and North Korea. The victor of Round 2 will then gain entry to the 2015 EAFF East Asian Cup and join early qualifiers China, Japan, and South Korea.