Aaron Dennis: “I am trying to set an example, work hard, give the guys instruction. I’m more of a leader by example. I’m not really a vocal player.” (Photo courtesy of the Cosmos)
By Michael Lewis
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Aaron Dennis was shopping in a supermarket last year when he received a phone call with the notification it was from Charlotte Amalie on the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“I was confused because the only person from there who had my number was my God mother and she was in Florida and I had her number saved,” the New York Cosmos forward said. “I picked it up without knowing what was happening.”
The voice on the other end of the call was Marcelo Serrano, whose “9-to-5 job” is as coach of Austin Bold FC (United Soccer League), who also directs the U.S. Virgin Island national team.
Knowing of the Elmont, N.Y. native’s background, Serrano asked Dennis if he would like to join the national team.
Dennis went through a range of emotions. “Excited and also intrigued and shocked at the same time,” he said.
After all, it’s not every day you get an offer to perform for a national team. Dennis is of Jamaican ancestry but was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands when his mother worked for JP Morgan in 1993.
“A lot of people don’t know that I was born there,” he said. “So, for Marcelo to do his recruiting and find out that I was playing in the USL, and I had eligibility to play for the Virgin Islands, I knew he was a great and was doing the right thing. I am excited to be on this journey with him.”
Dennis’ journey continues Friday as the USVI will visit Anguilla in a Concacaf Nations League game in the Caribbean. The Nations League is the qualifying arm for the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup, to be held this summer.
He made his international debut last year, playing twice, in an 8-0 loss at Canada and a 3-0 defeat at Barbados. The Canadians boasted a side with professional players who perform in Europe, Canada and the U.S. “So obviously that game was tough,” he said.
Dennis was named team captain prior to the Barbados match. “It was a great honor,” he said. “I am looking to do more work with the country.
“We were in the game,” he added. “The score line did not indicate how the score went. I’m looking forward to influencing the younger generation on the island, hoping that we can get the country up and running.”
Barbados tallied two late goals in the match.
Being a team leader isn’t anything new to Dennis, who also captained teams with Blau-Weis Gottschee, Cosmos Academy and Villanova University.
“The guys there respect me because I think there’s only two pro players, including myself,” he said of the USVI side. “So obviously I am trying to set an example, work hard, give the guys instruction. I’m more of a leader by example. I’m not really a vocal player. The guys responded well. I am excited about working with them in the future.”
While the former Elmont High School standout is far from being in midseason form, Dennis hoped his first two weeks of training with the Cosmos would be good enough for Friday’s match.
“I’m super-excited,” said Dennis, who has returned to the USVI for the first time since 1994. “I can’t wait, can’t wait to see the guys, can’t wait to get going. Hopefully, with my training here for the last two weeks I will be sharp enough and ready enough to do well in the game.”
Dennis flew to St. Croix to train with the squad Monday.
“I feel that we’re ready,” he said. “The guys have been training. There was a camp a few weeks ago and I’ve been hearing some good things from the coaching staff and other players who have attended. The group has been together for a few camps now. We’re definitely more prepared than we were for the first game.”
The game will pit a pair of minnows of international soccer against each other — No. 202 U.S. Virgin Islands against Anguilla, which is tied with the Turks and Caicos Islands for the 208th spot.
His goal on Friday was simple.
“Right now, it is to win the match and if I can score one, two goals, to help us, I’d be ecstatic,” Dennis said.
Dennis has been taking his role as team captain seriously.
“A lot of the guys look up to me, which is new for me,” he said. “So, I embrace that. I am working harder on talking to guys, giving them advice. A lot of guys ask me questions and I’m happy to answer them and give them stories of my previous experiences at the professional level.”
The Dashing Eagle has been eliminated from Gold Cup contention, so Dennis wanted to use the game as a stepping stone to build up the team and players’ confidence.
“Compared from last year until now, I think the players are much more prepared and a lot more players have been invited to camps that were previously,” he said. “If we win this game, the team’s moral, the country’s moral will definitely go up and attract more fans. Hopefully, the country can get behind us and support us the right way.”
Turning around the soccer fortunes of a country doesn’t happen overnight, but the USVI has planned some improvements.
“Marcelo has done a great job of recruiting players outside the nation,” Dennis said. “So, a lot of better players have been coming in from when we first started or even from the last five years, like myself. Also, FIFA also funding a stadium that will be ready in three-four months, and I’m excited about that as well.”
That stadium is slated to be built in St. Croix, which will include locker rooms and a practice field, Dennis said.
While Dennis will be eyeing a victory, he will find some time to tour his native land between training sessions. After all, he hasn’t been on U.S. Virgin Islands soil since he was a baby.
“Once we get some free time off, some days off, I’ll definitely be traveling as much as I can, to see where I’m from,” he said.
Dennis missed Thursday’s 4-0 preseason win over Queens College, but he will return to the team for Tuesday’s match at Adelphi University and prepare for the National Premier Soccer League season, which kicks off April 27.
Cosmos head coach Carlos Mendes is expecting big things from Dennis.
“Aaron’s a player that I’ve known for a while now,” he said. “I’ve watched him play. He’s a local kid, too. We expect a lot of out him. He’s a player whose very dynamic. He can play a couple of different positions. He’s dangerous with the ball, attacking, going to the goal. Can play wide, can play up top. We’re going to expect a lot out of him. He’s a talented player. Just loved speaking with him and obviously finding out more about his personality. He’s going to bring a lot to us. I’m excited to have him. I think he’ll be a big piece and a guy that we’ll rely on.”