XAVIER Gilbert, head coach of Jamaica's Under-20 Reggae Girlz, believes the team is now starting to gain traction in their preparation for the Concacaf Women's Under-20 Championship which serves as a qualifier for the World Cup later this year.
With some players, particularly those based locally, being inactive for over a year, Gilbert and his team were tasked with getting that crop back on track in terms of fitness and conditioning while also evaluating some overseas-based talent for possible inclusion in the final squad as they widened the player pool.
For Gilbert, they were almost starting all over again for the first two camps — the first of which was conducted late last year — but with five to six assemblies now under their belt things are gradually falling into place.
“We had some challenges at the start because, as you know, the players haven't been in training for almost two years so we had some difficulties in terms of getting them clicking. But, as time progressed they have been getting better and that's all we can ask for,” Gilbert told the Jamaica Observer.
“We had some overseas players that came down on three occasions for evaluation so we had to reset to see how best we could get everybody on the same page and see if we can have them as part of the pool going forward,” he added.
The camps held at the UWI/JFF Captain Horace Burrell Centre of Excellence have been a combination of both Under-20 and Under-17 Reggae Girlz units, the latter being led by Dane Chambers.
Gilbert's team will contest the Concacaf Women's Under-20 Championship scheduled for February 25 to March 12, while Chambers' side are set to bow into a action in April for their qualifiers.
The Under-20 team has been placed in Group H alongside Haiti, Cuba and Guatemala for the championship slated for the Dominican Republic.
Gilbert believes his pool has enough potential from which he can select a quality team to secure one of the top three spots from group.
In fact, eight players, namely Captain Jody Brown and midfielder Peyton McNamara from the squad which fell by the wayside at the quarter-final round in 2020, will be up for selection — adding more value to the prospects.
Both Brown and McNamara possess senior team experience and as such, are expected to lead from the front.
“I think the pool is a decent pool. We have a mixture of players, some experienced and some young ones, so I think it is pretty balanced in terms of positions and it's going to be competitive for selection — which is always a challenge that we welcome,” Gilbert said.
“We did a lot of assessment during the camps and, of course, the main focus surrounded physical work but, like I said, the players have been responding positively each time we come together and we just want to continue gelling and see how best we can sort of keep things going,” he noted.
After the 12 top teams are decided from four groups they will advance to the round of 16 where they will be joined by four group winners from a previous qualifying round — Curaçao, Suriname, Cayman and Bermuda — for the knockout phase.
With the quarter-final exit in 2020 — which came at the hands of host nation Dominican Republic — still very much fresh in his mind, Gilbert is optimistic that his team can go one of two steps further on this occasion.
The top three finishers will qualify for the Under-20 Women's World Cup in Costa Rica in August.
“We are looking forward to the tournament. Hopefully, we can do better than what we did last time and that's the objective — to at least make it to the final four and then we take it from there,” the tactician said as he recollected his team's historic 3-1 win over Canada at the last tournament.
“That obviously means that we rate our chances of doing well, but of course the other teams are also preparing and will have some good players. As you know, Haiti is in our group and they have a solid team.
“So, we just have to go and give a good account of ourselves. Hopefully we will be fully fit by the time the tournament comes around, because it's going to be very demanding, and [we] just hope that the team that we select can execute and take it one step further,” Gilbert ended.