The Spice Boyz are burning up.
"I can't stand in one place, it's so hot!" Jason Roberts, star striker for Grenada's national soccer team, said as he gingerly stepped to the sideline yesterday at Howard University's Greene Stadium to relieve his burning feet.
Cleats and socks were no match for the searing artificial turf, where the Boyz -- who take their nickname from Grenada's spice industry -- have been training this week in preparation for Sunday's 2006 World Cup qualifier against the heavily favored United States in Columbus, Ohio.
"Ya, mon, it's hotter here than in Grenada," Coach Alister Debellotte said. "The sun is biting us."
Grenada, a speck of islands in the southern Caribbean, sent its obscure team to Washington for training camp because of the strong ties between its soccer federation and the expatriate community in this area. A group of six local residents, including Mount Rainier attorney Windell Thomas, a former Howard player, helped arrange the stay.
The players have lived in a dormitory next to the stadium, eaten lunch in the campus cafeteria and strategized in the dorm's stately club room. Yesterday before practice, Debellotte was moving Styrofoam and plastic cups around on a table in front of the assembled players to illustrate formations.
The delegation attended a reception at the Grenada embassy on Wednesday and met with Ambassador Denis Antoine. Today they will fly to Columbus for the opener of a two-game, total-goals second-round series, with the return leg a week later in St. George's, the Grenadan capital. The winner will advance to the semifinal round starting in August.
"We feel like we're at home," said Debellotte, a former soccer and cricket player. "Everyone has been very, very, very accommodating. We can depend on the people here; they know what we need. It's good to be around friends."
Howard's connections to Grenada go well beyond soccer. The country's prime minister, Keith Mitchell, earned his masters in mathematics from Howard in 1975. And after receiving his PhD from American University, he was a Howard professor for six years.
Starting goalkeeper Kellon Baptiste, whose full-time job is as a dockworker, has been to Washington a few times. His brother Kyron attended the University of the District of Columbia for a year before transferring to Lincoln (Pa.) to play basketball and soccer, and is now working on his masters at Strayer.
Several hundred Grenadans living in the United States are planning to travel to Columbus. "They're coming from Washington, New York, Texas, Canada," Debellotte said. "There are probably more Grenadans in the United States than in Grenada."
Grenada has a population of about 95,000 and is best known to Americans for being invaded by U.S. forces in 1983 to stop a political uprising and disrupt Cuba's influence. It's also known as the Island of Spice, primarily for its nutmeg exports; what it's not known for is exporting soccer players, although with this series against the United States, ranked ninth in the world, No. 138-ranked Grenada hopes to improve its profile. "We need players to get exposure," Debellotte said.
The team has also used family ties to boost its shallow player pool. Roberts, the squad's most accomplished player as a member of English First Division club Wigan Athletic, grew up in London, but because his father is from Grenada, he is eligible to represent the country.
Others playing in England are defender Anthony Bedeau with Torquay United, which was just promoted to the Second Division; and midfielder Byron Bubb, who began his career with Millwall and now toils for minor league Aylesbury United.
Most of the players, however, compete on their country's amateur circuit and hold regular jobs. Forward Kithson Bain works construction and defender Brian Benjamin works in the upholstery business.
"Seems like we don't have a chance, from what I've been told," Roberts said sarcastically about his team's prospects against the Americans, quarterfinalists at the 2002 World Cup.
Despite playing alongside many amateurs on the national team, Roberts said: "Their ability is much more than what they've been given credit for. Being on the island, it's hard to be recognized as good footballers. A game like this is a good opportunity to show people how good they are against a top international team."
The Spice Boy with the most insight into the U.S. team is midfielder Shalrie Joseph, who played at St. John's University and now starts for the MLS's New England Revolution. Teammate Ricky Charles was an all-American at South Carolina-Spartanburg.
"We are positive," Baptiste said. "The players understand they're playing a big team, but we're going to go as far as we can. It's a great opportunity for us. . . . A good performance, to me, that's a win."