Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Men’s Team head coach Dennis Lawrence is very certain that he wants his players to “take ownership” of the effort to get to the World Cup finals in Russia next year. And to focus on one game at a time although they are scheduled to play two games in four days.
He is, however, not yet certain of just whom he wants to lead their effort on the field of play.
Lawrence yesterday threw down the gauntlet to the 26-member squad he named for the 24 and 28 March World Cup qualifying matches at the Hasely Crawford Stadium versus Panama and Mexico respectively.
The 2006 World Cup qualification hero, whose header against Bahrain sealed the Soca Warriors’ historic debut appearance at a senior FIFA World Cup, conceded that what he and his teammates accomplished will forever be etched in T&T’s footballing history. But, he stressed, it is time for this current group to take a page out of their 2006 predecessors’ history book.
“I want these players to create their own history,” Lawrence declared at the pre-game media conference held at the Marriot Hotel yesterday. “I want them to take up the mantle and take Trinidad and Tobago to another level. I’ve given ownership to them now.”
After two losses in their opening fixtures under then coach Stephen Hart, the team currently sits in fifth position in the six-team CONCACAF Hexagonal qualification table. Lawrence pointed out the similarity between that situation and the position in which his 2006 Soca Warriors found themselves before turning it around.
So history is on the side of the men in red, white and black. But they have to seize the moment and claim it for themselves.
In 2005, T&T suffered opening round defeats to USA and Guatemala before claiming a campaign-defining four points at home with a draw against Costa Rica under coach Bertille St Clair and a win over Panama under his successor, Leo Beenhakker.
Because he is also targeting a minimum of four points, noted the former Everton FC assistant coach, defeat against Panama is simply not an option. It is true that the Central Americans, who sit in third place on the Hex table at the moment, have had the better of Trinidad and Tobago within recent times. But, according to Lawrence, his players have what it takes to buck that trend.
“[Panama] are a team that plays with their heart,” he advised. “They are a team that looks hungry and we need to match that first and foremost. We’ve got to match their hunger to win the game.”
Lawrence’s squad boasts 13 locally-based members, including a single uncapped player in young striker Jamille Boatswain, whose sizzling double strike against Barbados in a 2-0 win in a friendly encounter earlier this month must have sealed his place. The locals have been in training since January and the recently added 13 foreign-based players, Lawrence said, have been integrating well with the training squad.
“At the moment, they have come in and tried to take things on board,” said a pleased Lawrence. “What I’ve liked with the ones that were not involved probably enough [with their clubs], they have come in with a hunger. [They’ve] got a bit of anger with their situation with their club and we need to benefit from that.”
The battle for starting berths is expected to be fierce but there is another fight going on within that larger battle. Kenwyne Jones, who wore the captain’s armband under Hart, is back in the squad. Also in, however, is veteran Carlos Edwards to whom the mantle passed during Tom Saintfiet’s short spell at the helm.
Jones and Edwards are the only surviving players from the 2006 squad but between them Khaleem Hyland (67), Marvin Phillip (61) and Jan-Michael Williams (75) have over 150 full international caps.
So presented with multiple possibilities, the rookie head coach is taking his time and weighing up his options.
“It’s not a decision that I’m in any rush to make,” he admitted. “And I’d leave the decision up until the last moment. The captain will be announced on the day of the game.”
Lawrence pleaded with fans to be patient with the much maligned Jones [K] and said he believes the giant forward still has a lot to offer his country.
“I see a part for Kenwyne to play in T&T football,” he said, “and I think he deserves (…) to be given the chance.
“When players are in the moment and in the period like what Kenwyne is in, he needs support from T&T fans, support from the people around him.”
Jones may very well be one of the players Lawrence had in mind when he talked about residual “anger” that he would like to tap into. Unveiled as a marquee signing for new MLS franchise Atlanta United, the former Sunderland and Stoke centre-forward has been almost consigned to a place on the bench with Venezuela’s Josef Martinez leading the franchise’s line and banging in five goals in three games so far.
Martinez is already being touted as a possible MLS MVP candidate and Atlanta have moved swiftly to make his loan move permanent. That could mean increased frustration for Jones and leave him with a point to prove during his international break.
Under Hart, his style of play was key to the national team’s success but his goal-scoring stream has slowed to a trickle in recent times. What is more is that Lawrence has already made public his preference for possession-based football.
After the Barbados friendly, he revealed that he would like the team to play a possession-based game and reiterated yesterday that we can expect more of the same on Friday.
“We need to try and get on the ball as much as possible and see how much control of the game we take.”
Asked whether he proposed to adopt a similar strategy against Mexico next week, he said his focus is entirely on Panama and neither he nor his team is looking beyond the present to Mexico.
“At this moment in time, the only thing I’m focused on is Panama,” he stressed. “I don’t want the players to be thinking about Mexico. I want them to be thinking about giving every single thing against Panama.”
Kick-off in Friday’s crucial Panama game is scheduled for 7pm.