Bankers Insurance Central FC playmaker Ataulla Guerra will get another chance to stake his claim to Trinidad and Tobago’s “number 10” role, after the elegant midfielder was recalled by coach Stephen Hart for his 23-man squad to face Haiti in the 2016 Copa America play off on 8 January 2016 in Panama City.
The 28-year-old Guerra is one of just three additions to the “Soca Warriors”, as Hart managed to retain most of his players although the Haiti match falls outside the FIFA international calendar.
Police FC goalkeeper Adrian Foncette and DIRECTV W Connection attacker Jomal Williams were the other call-ups while national captain Kenwyne Jones was predictably ruled out by his England Championship Division employer, Cardiff City. Russia top flight defender Sheldon Bateau, who represents FC Krylia Samara, was also not released for the play off fixture.
Jones, who is the Warriors’ highest scorer in 2015 with four goals and two assists from 10 appearances, leaves a big hole to fill upfront while Bateau has been in good form at both ends of the field, after scoring twice at the Gold Cup.
But Hart was without both players on September 4 when the Warriors lead Mexico 2-0 at one point before settling for a 3-3 draw in Salt Lake City.
Iceland-based striker Jonathan Glenn, who scored and assisted against Mexico, will be favoured to inherit Jones’ place upfront while Mexico-based defender Yohance Marshall and Republic of Korea-based defender Carlyle Mitchell will hope to play alongside Radanfah Abu Bakr in central defence.
North East Stars midfielder Keron “Ball Pest” was a revelation for the Warriors at the Gold Cup but his form has dipped this season and Hart used a more hard-nosed midfield triangle of Kevan George, Khaleem Hyland and Andre Boucaud for his last international, which was a goalless draw against the United States.
Guerra, who has not represented the “Soca Warriors” since the July 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup, will increase competition for the advanced midfield role. The gifted maverick made his international debut in a 2-0 win over Grenada in 2008 under Colombian coach Francisco Maturana. But his Trinidad and Tobago career has been full of false starts and, seven years later, Guerra has just 39 caps with six goals.
In contrast, Joevin Jones, who is four years younger, has made 50 international appearances.
Williams, who played once for Hart in the March 27 friendly loss to Panama, offers another option as an attacking midfielder and is benefitting from a storming start to his 2015/16 Pro League season with Connection.
The former Mucurapo schoolboy has struggled to adapt to international football thus far and lost his starting place on the National Under-20 and Under-23 Teams after being tipped as the player to watch on both occasions.
However, Hart could not ignore Williams’ domestic form, as he scored a league high 10 goals in all competitions and was MVP of the First Citizens Bank and Toyota Classic Cup tournaments.
His namesake and Central custodian, Jan-Michael Williams, is expected to wear the captain’s armband against Haiti, if he wins the nod over Morvant Caledonia United goalkeeper Marvin Phillip.
At stake for Trinidad and Tobago is the chance to compete against South America’s best teams from June 3 to 26.
Hart said he was grateful to the new TTFA executive committee for resolving a match fees issue with the Warriors, which led to a threat of boycott from the players.
The coach believes that qualification for the Copa America tournament would be priceless for the development of his team.
“The game against Haiti is simply a stepping stone,” Hart told the TTFA Media. “The staff and myself have strived for consistency and the player selection is an indication of this. The challenge now for the players selected, is to perform in camp and compete for their starting positions.
“The importance of the game speaks for itself, however, the importance of actually playing in the Copa America cannot be measured. The experience of playing in such a prestigious tournament, against the best teams in South America and the CONCACAF, is not something that can be taught.
“All aspects of a player’s and team’s footballing ability will tested for over 90 minutes.”
Jan-Michael Williams, who was one of the players’ representatives during the negotiations with the football body, said the Warriors are trying to turn their attentions to the Copa play off with Haiti.
“Obviously the entire situation over the past couple weeks would have some kind of effect on the players,” said Jan-Michael, “but when you look at the composition of the squad and quality that’s there along with the mentality we’ve possessed over the past three years, we are definitely going to get ourselves back to focusing on football. And we’ll be going there to win the game without question.
“It is extremely important for us to win the match against Haiti and qualify for the Copa. The will be an enormous achievement not just for the national team but for the country at large.
“Our performances have been very good this year and we will be looking to continue that momentum and take it right into the upcoming World Cup qualifiers in March and hopefully the Copa America in June.”
Fourteen of the 16 nations have already been decided for the special centennial tournament.
Brazil, Argentina, CONCACAF champions Mexico and hosts United States will all be seeded while South American champions, Chile, will be drawn into either of the four groups along with Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia.
Caribbean champions, Jamaica, Costa Rica and either Panama or Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago or Haiti will complete the list of participants.
The Haitian squad will have a new boss to face the Warriors, as journeyman French coach Patrice Neveu was hired this month and replaces Martinique-born coach Marc Collat.
Collat lead Haiti to the 2015 Gold Cup quarterfinal round, after group wins over Panama and Honduras. But Haiti were eliminated by Jamaica and went on to lose both Russia 2018 World Cup semifinal round qualifiers away to Costa Rica and then home to Jamaica.
The 61-year-old Neveu, an unheralded former Mauritius coach, faces a baptism of fire with Trinidad and Tobago on January 8 and decisive World Cup qualifiers against Panama on March 25 and 29 respectively.
The Haitian outfit will have as many as 11 Europe-based professionals in their ranks, which rarely includes more than three players from Haiti’s domestic competition.
Jan-Michael said the Warriors would be careful not to get ahead of themselves and will not take the Haitian threat lightly.
“To be able to compete against the likes of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and these teams will be massive for us,” said Jan-Michael. “But we know that Haiti is no push over.
“We lost to them in the Gold Cup two years ago and we will have to ensure we are physically and mentally ready for the match.”
The full Trinidad and Tobago training squad is as follows:
Goalkeepers: Jan-Michael Williams (Central FC), Marvin Phillip (Morvant Caledonia United), Adrian Foncette (Police FC);
Defenders: Daneil Cyrus (W Connection), Justin Hoyte (Dagenham & Redbridge—England), Carlyle Mitchell (Seoul E-Land—South Korea), Radanfah Abu Bakr (HB Koge—Denmark), Yohance Marshall (Murcielagos FC—Mexico), Mekeil Williams (Antigua GFC—Guatemala), Aubrey David (Shakhter Karagandy—Kazakhstan);
Midfielders: Andre Boucaud (Dagenham & Redbridge—England), Khaleem Hyland (KV Westerlo—Belgium), Kevan George (Unattached), Neveal Hackshaw (North East Stars);
Attacking Midfielders: Trevin Caesar (Austin Aztex—USA), Cordell Cato (San Jose Earthquakes—USA), Lester Peltier (Slovan Bratislava—Slovakia), Joevin Jones (Chicago Fire—USA), Jomal Williams (W Connection), Keron Cummings (North East Stars), Ataulla Guerra (Central FC);
Forwards: Willis Plaza (Central FC), Jonathan Glenn (Breioablik—Iceland).
Staff: Stephen Hart, Hutson Charles, Derek King, Michael Maurice (goalkeeper coach), David Muhammad (manager), Peter Rampersad (manager), Dr Terrence Babwah (doctor), Dave Isaac (therapist), Tobias Ottley (fitness trainer), Saron Joseph (trainer), Michael Williams (equipment manager), Shaun Fuentes (press officer).