Is Neal & Massy Caledonia AIA really the Caribbean’s best football club?
Caledonia assistant coach Jerry Moe could not quite muster a straight answer.
“I can be biased and say yes,” Moe told Wired868.com, “but some of these games come down to what happens on the night and who executes. It is close…
“They were not any Jamaican teams in the CFU either. Maybe when they come back we will be able to say that.”
Three months have passed since Caledonia AIA edged DirecTV W Connection on penalties to lift the Caribbean crown. And yet the thought of the longstanding underdogs—the have-nots—as the region’s standard bearers seems not to have to fully soaked in; even within the club’s management.
Still, in Friday’s First Citizens Cup semifinal, there was a bit of a coming-out party for the “Eastern Stallions” at the Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain.
Once more, Caledonia was up against Connection, the most successful team in the history of professional football in Trinidad and Tobago. And, this time, the Morvant/Laventille outfit did the job within 90 minutes.
There was barely two minutes left on the clock when Keyon Edwards volleyed home a cross from fellow substitute Densill Theobald and whipped off his shirt in celebration. In the stands, a Caledonia supporter spontaneously tossed an open can of beer high into the sky.
Moe might feel awkward saying it but the unscripted celebration from the Caledonia AIA player and fan told its own tale. Caledonia is the team to beat now.
Defence Force, who edged St Ann’s Rangers 2-1 in the other semifinal fixture, will have its work cut out trying to outwit this lot when the First Citizens Cup kicks off from 8 pm at the same Port of Spain venue on 6 September 2012.
Morvant/Laventille doesn’t need to look to a retired NBA star to fathom the importance that the values of sport—discipline, sacrifice, nutrition and team spirit—can do for its community. Not after 2012 anyway.
As expected, Connection ran Caledonia close.
Both teams closed their CONCACAF Champions League campaigns last Wednesday. Connection managed a credible and hard-fought 1-1 home tie against Mexican outfit, Chivas de Guadalajara, while Caledonia lost 3-2 to Xelajú in Honduras.
Caledonia left for Honduras on Monday and only returned to Trinidad on Thursday evening.
Which team suffered more physically in midweek? Who had kept more mental strength and focus in reserve?
Against Chivas, Connection showed that it belonged among CONCACAF’s best teams. Midfielder Clyde Leon and goalkeeper and captain Jan-Michael Williams stood out against opponents who played in South America’s esteemed Copa Libertadores final, two years ago.
But Caledonia, who competed at CONCACAF level for the first time, had reason to be revved up too.
“The players enjoyed (playing in the Champions League),” said Moe. “It was a great example for the team of what football can give to you; they got to travel and experience different cultures and stay in four-star hotels and play football at a higher level. They understand more what is required from them especially in terms of things like diet and concentration and so on.
“They are hungry now to go back to that (next year).”
Unsurprisingly, both teams experimented with their lineups to compensate for midweek exertions.
Caledonia kept 2006 World Cup midfielder Densill Theobald on the bench at kick off. Connection started with two orthodox midfielders while Hashim Arcia, one of four strikers, was initially asked to accept a deeper role. Busy flanker Joevin Jones was among the substitutes.
The coaches for either team had a rethink on all counts within the first 45 minutes. Only one change appeared to be prompted by injury; Caledonia striker Kerlon Ferguson was replaced by Theobald after 41 minutes with breathing problems and is due to have a medical examination on Monday.
The best chance of the first half fell to Caledonia.
Williams fended a Trayon Bobb shot into the path of adventurous Caledonia right back Kareem “Tiny” Joseph but Joseph, who is usually a composed finisher, hit into the side netting.
Fevrier brought on Jones at the resumption and he should have scored within three minutes but also failed to finish after a raking right-side Rennie Britto cross.
Such sights of goal were rare, though.
Caledonia versus Connection is a cat and mouse affair with each team wary of the other’s ability to spring rapid attacks and often happy to sit off in numbers and wait for an error.
By the time, the game entered the final stretch, though, one could sense Connection was in trouble.
In Theobald and fellow substitute Ataullah Guerra, who was making his first appearance this season since return from a lengthy injury-induced lay-off, Caledonia had players of personality and guile and they were becoming increasingly influential. Connection, with Leon subdued and the talented Jomal Williams still learning his trade, lacked that dynamism in the centre of the park.
Theobald provided the sparkle in the end with an uncharacteristic dribble into the opposing penalty area and Edwards made no mistake with his finish.
“I don’t see us as the standard bearers yet,” said Caledonia AIA head coach Jamaal Shabazz. “There are a couple players who, given the CONCACAF experience, have seen the need to live a professional life and have turned the corner. But we still have the challenge of convincing the rest of the squad to also make that turnaround.
“W Connection is still the better squad because of the example they set in proving things like housing for their players and stuff and creating a professional environment.”
Caledonia might not be there yet in terms of the club’s administrative capabilities. But, on the field, the squad seems to grow stronger by the game.
These Morvant/Laventille representatives, converted by sport, have no fear for the regiment either. Last season, Caledonia won three from four meetings against Defence Force even though their last clash, in May’s Digicel Pro Bowl final, ended in a lopsided 5-2 win in favour of the army/coast guard combination.
“I think we have a little score to settle,” said Moe.
Caledonia is favoured to do just that.
If a Port of Spain shootout between Morvant/Laventille and the armed forces doesn’t whet the appetite, God knows what will.
33.Glenroy Samuel; 12.Kareem Joseph, 3.Nuru Muhammad, 4.Colin Nelson, 15.Walter Moore; 11.Abdallah Phillips (9.Keyon Edwards 74), 7.Stephan David (Capt), 10.Conrod Smith (25.Ataullah Guerra 65), 13.Trayon Bobb; 19.Kerlon Ferguson (21.Densill Theobald 41), 23.Jamal Gay.
Unused Subs: 34.Colin Edwards, 2.Aubrey David, 5.Aquil Selby, 6.Trevin Caesar.
Coach Jamaal Shabazz
18.Jan-Micheal Williams (Capt); 13.Kern Cupid, 4.Daneil Cyrus, 19.Joel Russell, 6.Kemuel Rivers; 12.Gerrard Williams; 8.Clyde Leon, 14.Hashim Arcia (40.Shahdon Winchester 63), 7.Rennie Britto, 26.Stefano Rijsssel (36.Joevin Jones 45), 9.Matthew Bartholomew (29.Jomal Williams 28).
Unused Subs: 22.Aquelius Sylvester, 3.Akeem Benjamin, 25.Christian Viveros, 32.Kurt Frederick.
Coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier
First Citizens Cup Semifinal Round
Defence Force 2 (Jerwyn Balthazar 67, Kevon Carter 78), St Ann’s Rangers 1 (Devon Modeste 83 pen)
Neal & Massy Caledonia AIA 1 (Keyon Edwards 89), DirecTV W Connection 0