Trinidad and Tobago’s Russia 2018 World Cup charge started off with a baby step at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva last night as the “Soca Warriors” fell 1-0 to Panama in an international friendly affair.
At the final whistle, Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo had not been stretched once. Trinidad and Tobago registered two shots on target for the entire 90 minutes—from Willis Plaza and Sheldon Bateau respectively—and both offered just straightforward catching practice for Panama’s US-based custodian.
But, on the other hand, it was not quite shooting practice for Panama either as Trinidad and Tobago defenders Sheldon Bateau and Mekeil Williams—the best players in red, white and black on the night—protected their own goal as well as could be expected.
“In the end, Panama’s experience showed and they made us chase the ball a lot,” said Trinidad and Tobago coach Stephen Hart, in the post-game press conference. “… Outside of the fact that it is five days of preparation, our organisation wasn’t too bad.”
Not too bad, of course, is not good either. It was a lukewarm showing at best from the Warriors, who rarely imposed themselves on their Central American guests. But, as always, context matters.
Panama were seconds away from pipping Mexico to a 2014 World Cup Play Off spot, barely two years ago, while they were beaten finalists at the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament. It is not for nothing that the Central American team is ranked fourth in the Confederation.
And, more importantly, Panama travelled to Trinidad with a full-strength team while the hosts did not return the compliment.
The average age of Panama’s starting team was 28 with a combined 523 senior international appearances between them. In contrast, the Warriors’ first team averaged just 22 years of age and amassed just 185 full international caps.
It was veterans versus interns.
“I always wants us to play teams who will push us over the top,” said Hart. “(American boxer) Larry Holmes was Muhammad Ali’s sparring partner and he went on to be world champion…”
The final score line was no disgrace but Panama pulled their punches. It was a schooling, which might necessarily be as bad as it sounds. The Panamanian squad is built for today whereas the Trinidad and Tobago team is at the start of its cycle.
But that might be scant consolation for the roughly 3,000 local fans who turned out for the proceedings.
Thirty minutes before the scheduled 7 pm start, Couva was hit by a power shortage that temporarily cut the lights at the Ato Boldon Stadium. And, as they waited for the generator to warm up, a shower—blown from east to west—sent supporters scampering through the dark in search of a hiding place.
When the game got underway, seven minutes after the advertised kick off time, it was the Warriors who looked exposed as Panama gave the hosts a lesson in ball movement and collective play.
After an early optimistic penalty shout by Trinidad and Tobago playmaker Kevin Molino, Panama deservedly went ahead in the 16th minute as captain Roman Torres outmuscled 18-year-old Warriors right back and debutante, Shannon Gomez, to head home Rolando Escobar’s cross.
It was a rough introduction for the pint sized Gomez but the National Under-20 Team captain did grow into the match and might be pleased with his contribution by the end.
Things nearly got worse for the Warriors in the 24th minute, as the slick passing Panamanians carved through the left side of the host’s defence like a hot knife through butter. On this occasion, Marvin Phillip, the Point Fortin Civic goalkeeper, produced a superb save to deny Rolando Blackburn.
Phillip was a surprise inclusion in the starting line-up ahead of Jan-Michael Williams but there is little to choose between the former 2001 Under-17 World Cup teammates.
“Jan is always 100 percent ready (but) I think Marvin deserved an opportunity with his professionalism and work ethic,” said Hart. “I have to find and create competition in the squad for work places.”
But while Phillip, Williams (M) and, to a lesser extent, Gomez gave tangible evidence of their worth for the Russia 2018 cause. Further upfield, Tyrone Charles, a debutante at 27, struggled to adjust to the demands of the international game while neither striker Willis Plaza or the creative pair of Kevin Molino and Ataulla Guerra compensated for the man-mountain that is striker and captain Kenwyne Jones.
True, Jones’ performances in the 2014 Caribbean Cup were largely forgettable. But, under Hart, he has produced more good games than poor ones and, on this evidence, his leadership will be vital.
Khaleem Hyland, who barely played a handful of games this season with Belgium top flight club Racing Genk, thundered around the field flattening Panamanian players like a latter day school principal after the recess bell had rung.
He certainly put the fear of God into his opponents. But it is debatable whether he helped galvanise his own teammates.
Seconds before halftime, Hyland nearly started a brawl after he knocked over Escobar, took exception to the fallen player’s reaction and drew his hand back as if to punch him.
Guyanese referee Sherwin Moore, who looked as far out of his depth than one or two of the Pro League players, did not even show a card.
At the interval, Hart urged his players to get closer to deep-lying Panama playmaker Anibal Godoy, and the Warriors did make things more difficult for the Central American team in the second half.
Three minutes after the break, Plaza got Trinidad and Tobago’s first effort on goal as he neatly cushioned a long ball before crashing a left footed half volley. It was a simple catch for Penedo but at least gave supporters something to cheer.
Hart seemed to be thinking about damage limitation already. In the 53rd minute, he introduced Central defender Jamal Jack for Charles and, ten minutes later, Plaza gave way to teenaged winger Akeem Garcia.
The changes checked Panama’s rampaging runs down either flank but it would be overly generous to say that the Warriors were in the ascendancy.
Phillip made a flying save to his left to keep out a Blackburn header in the 66th minute while, three minutes later, Escobar crashed a 22-yard effort off the bar. Blackburn was denied by Phillip’s legs in the 75th minute, after he spun Jack far too easily in the Trinidad and Tobago penalty area.
Bateau had a tame effort in the 84th minute while substitute Marcus Joseph crashed two late free kicks into the wall. But that was as good as it got for the Warriors who settled for getting through the lesson without significant embarrassment.
“We were not prepared for (the speed of the Panama team) but that is why we played this game,” said Hart. “There were a number of players who the intensity of the training was different for them and you heard them talk about it in the dressing room… It was a learning curve for them.”
Panama jet off to play Ecuador in three days time while the Warriors will disband. Hart has requested three international warm-up matches before the July Gold Cup but none are confirmed. And, since the best teams are booked up to two years in advance, the Warriors must hope for cancellations or make do with whatever teams are on the market.
In the meantime, the Warriors have drafted in fitness trainer Tobias Ottley, who will create individual programmes for the players. Hopefully, they will be in better condition when next they wear national colours.
If yesterday’s exercise was about widening the player pool, Hart seemed fairly satisfied.
“I thought (Neveal) Hackshaw settled down nicely and had a good game,” he said. “… When we moved Gomez higher in the midfield, their left back never got forward again. So he can push.
“Mekeil also had an excellent game both aerially and on the ground…”
It is notable that the National Under-20 players, just two months after the 2015 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, were among the best players in red. International experience matters.
Hopefully, the likes of Dwane James, Joseph and Charles will not have to long to wait for their next international outing.
Trinidad and Tobago (4-2-3-1): 1.Marvin Phillip (GK); 12.Shannon Gomez (19.Jomal Williams 76), 4.Sheldon Bateau, 17.Mekeil Williams, 2.Justin Hoyte; 18.Neveal Hackshaw (14.Dwane James 71), 8.Khaleem Hyland (captain); 7.Tyrone Charles (6.Jamal Jack 53), 11.Ataulla Guerra (16.Marcus Joseph 81), 10.Kevin Molino, 9.Willis Plaza (5.Akeem Garcia 63).
Unused substitutes: 21.Jan-Michael Williams (GK), 15.Uriah Bentick, 20.Hashim Arcia, 23.Johan Peltier.
Coach: Stephen Hart
Panama (4-2-3-1): 1.Jaime Penedo (GK), 13.Adolfo Machado, 3.Harold Cummings, 5.Roman Torres (captain), 17.Luis Henriquez, 6.Gabriel Gomez, 20.Anibal Godoy, 22.Rolando Escobar (19.Alberto Quintero 78), 21.Ricardo Buitrago (11.Armando Cooper 59), 14.Jorman Aguilar (9.Roberto Nurse 59), 16.Rolando Blackburn (8.Miguel Camargo 86).
Unused substitutes: 12.Oscar McFarlane (GK), 4.Chin Hormechea, 7.Blas Perez, 15.Eric Davis, 18.Luis Tejada,
Coach: Hernan Dario Gomez
Referee: Sherwin Moore (Guyana)