Eighteen year old attacker Neil Benjamin came off the substitutes’ bench to give DIRECTV W Connection something to cheer about with a late well taken goal at the Rommel Fernandez Stadium in Panama City last night. But it was largely a miserable outing for the Trinidad and Tobago Pro League team as the “Savonetta Boys” opened their 2013 CONCACAF Champions League campaign with a 3-1 loss away to Arabe Unido in Panama.
The final score mirrored the loss suffered by Caledonia AIA away to Toluca on Tuesday night in Mexico City. But Caledonia coach Jamaal Shabazz and Connection coach Stuart Charles-Fevrier might have had different feelings at the final whistle.
Toluca has twice won the Champions League, twice finished runner-up and has competed in two finals in this millennium while its home stadium is 8,793 feet above sea level. In contrast, no Panamanian team has ever got to the final of this competition and Arabe has just one point and two goals from five outings in its domestic competition this season.
Caledonia was expected to lose heavily. But Connection was thought to have a real chance of making a strong start in the CONCACAF tournament.
The Connection management surely expected some negative reviews for registering 14 foreign players in its 27-man Champions League squad. What Fevrier might not have expected was for his most illustrious signing, Brazilian right back Joao Ananias, to effectively engineer Connection’s first high profile defeat.
Ananias is on loan to Connection from Brazil top flight club, Nautico, and it is hard not to view a signing of that ilk as a coup for not only Connection but the Pro League as well.
Yet Ananias’ debut was a nightmare as he was involved in Arabe’s two first half goals before being replaced at halftime to prevent futher damage.
In the 21st minute, the 22-year-old Brazilian, under no pressure, allowed a low cross to run across his body with the hope that Connection custodian Alejandro Figueroa would tidy up for him. Arabe striker Humberto Ward was alert to the likelihood of an error and swooped in to steer home.
Not even an army of translators could help Ananais explain how he lost sight of Ward; the striker is only about six foot five after all.
Twelve minutes later, Ananias produced an unwelcomed encore. On this occasion, Connection was on the charge when the right back made a loose, errant pass towards the centre of the field.
Arabe countered immediately and Ward stepped inside Mekeil Williams as though he was a cone and lashed his shot into the top corner from the edge of the penalty box.
Fevrier replaced Ananais and the ineffective Jerrel Britto with Christian Orosco Viveros and Andrei Pacheco at the interval. But, within eight minutes, Connection fell three goals behind as Orosco failed to track opposing winger Jose Gonzales who tucked home an Abdiel Arroyo cross.
By then, Connection’s game was vacillating wildly between regal and ridiculous.
In one minute, new captain Joevin Jones, combative Brazilian midfielder Celio De Silva and Colombian playmaker Yefer Lozano were trading slick, short passes in a manner that spelled trouble for Pro League opponents this season. The next minute, the Savonetta Boys were trying to be clever, inexplicably misplacing passes and leaving gaping holes behind as they charged around aimlessly and naively.
Jones, who gave a fair account of himself at left back in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup, had a free attacking role ahead of Connection’s three-man midfield last night and he looked eager to build from a superb 2012/13 domestic season, which he spent alternating between a midfield playmaker and a roving forward. But his teammates could not provide him with the momentum.
The Connection defence, as well as Lozano and De Silva at times, made too many turnovers for Arabe to take their guests seriously while the team’s front men did not hold up the ball enough for their teammates to get forward.
In the 65th minute, Fevrier made Benjamin his final change and the teenager, who replaced a disappointing Williams, did what his elders could not.
Like former teen star Shahdon Winchester, who is now on loan in Finland, Benjamin has an uncanny ability to find space in a congested playing field. Winchester was stronger and more creative but Benjamin, who, unlike Winchester, prefers to start his runs from wide areas, seems sharper in the penalty opposing area.
Lozano spotted Benjamin’s movement and sent him clear with a well weighted pass in the 76th minute. And the number 65 took one touch to steady himself before nonchalantly knocking around Arabe custodian Miguel Lloyd for the consolation item.
Lloyd, the Dominican Republic international goalie, spent two seasons at Connection but was often deputy to Marvin Phillip. His former teammates did not make it too difficult for him last night.
Connection must do much better in the return leg.
Most of the final statistics last night made it hard to determine the superior team: Arabe 14 shots, Connection 12; Arabe 5 corners, Connection 5; Arabe 10 clearances, Connection 16. Perhaps the most telling figure was recoveries, which was tabulated as Arabe 81 to Connection 56.
Connection must protect the ball better and be more aggressive in regaining it. Fevrier must be wondering if he only imagined their pre-season preparation.
Arabe Unido: 1.Miguel Lloyd (GK) (Captain); 26.Felix Gondola (4.Luis Fraiz 64), 3.Fidel Caesar, 21.David Daniels, 30.Harold Cummings; 9.Abdiel Arroyo, 6.Rigoberto Nino, 5.Paul Roderick, 25.Abdiel Macea (88.Alejandro Velez 65); 12.Jose Gonzales, 14.Humberto Ward (10.Orlando Rodriguez 88).
Unused substitutes: 13.Alexander Andreve (GK), 11.Enrico Small, 15.Brayan Flores, 28.Joel Barcenas.
Coach: Jair Palacios
W Connection: 21.Alejandro Figueroa (GK); 24.Joao Ananias (25.Christian Ocoro Viveros 46), 4.Daneil Cyrus, 15.Mekeil Williams (65.Neil Benjamin 61), 2.Kurt Frederick; 3.Gerard Williams; 6.Celio Da Silva, 27.Yefer Lozano; 10.Joevin Jones (Captain); 31.Jerrel Britto (9.Andrei Pacheco 46), 26.Stefano Rijssel.
Unused substitutes: 18.Julani Archibald (GK), 7.Silvio Spann, 40.Jomal Williams, 14.Hashim Arcia.
Coach: Stuart Charles-Fevrier
CONCACAF Champions League
Thursday August 8
Arabe Unido 3 (Humberto Ward 21, 33, Jose Gonzales 53), DIRECT W Connection 1 (Neil Benjamin 76) in Panama City
Tuesday August 6
Deportivo Toluca 3 (Edgar Benitez 23, Miguel Almazan 29, Raul Nava 60), Caledonia AIA 1 (Julian Wade 87) in Mexico