The DIRECTV W Connection football club is going to need skill and organisation to progress beyond the first round of the 2013/14 CONCACAF Champions League but fellow Pro League outfit, Neal and Massy Caledonia AIA, will need a slice of luck as well.
The two Trinidad and Tobago teams were slotted into groups of contrasting levels of difficulty for the Confederation’s elite eight-group 24-team competition, which was drawn in Miami last week.
Round One of the competition kicks off on August 6 and Caledonia, who qualified as the Pro League runner-up for the second year in succession, finds itself in Group Six. The “Eastern Stallions” are grouped with Guatemala’s champion club, Comunicaciones, and Mexico’s 10-time Liga champion team, Deportivo Toluca.
Toluca’s Estadio Nemesio Diez home stadium, which has a capacity of 27,000, is 8,793 feet above sea level and Caledonia’s ability to perform at that altitude is likely to be a crucial factor.
W Connection, the three-time Caribbean Cup champion and four-time runner-up, will miss out on the 2014/15 CONCACAF tournament after finishing two places behind the newly crowned Defence Force in this season’s Pro League standings. So the “Savonetta Boys” would hope for a memorable run in the CONCACAF competition this year and they are drawn in Group One alongside 2012/13 Major League Soccer (MLS) runners-up and two-time MLS Champions Houston Dynamo and Panama League champions Arabe Unido.
Caledonia AIA’s Technical Director, Jamaal Shabazz, the current National Co-coach, said he was “thrilled with the grouping and the opportunity to meet a big Mexican team.”
Shabazz is no stranger to coaching at altitude; as Guyana’s national team coach last year, he accompanied the “Golden Jaguars” to the famous Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, which is 7,200 feet above sea level, to take on the host nation in the second round of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
“Having been to Mexico lots of time (while coaching) in women’s football,” he told Wired868, “and playing at the Azteca with Guyana also was good exposure for me in terms of knowing the atmosphere to expect. As a staff and as a club, we can only benefit from such a history.”
Shabazz, who led the Trinidad and Tobago national team to losses away to Romania and Estonia last week, hopes his Estadio Azteca experience will “come in handy” when Caledonia prepares for its Toluca clash.
But Shabazz is not happy with the job the Confederation has been doing to promote the tournament.
“There needs to be a greater public awareness programme initiated by CONCACAF,” he said, “and enacted by the clubs regarding the CCL. A lot of people still do not realize that this is CONCACAF’s version of Europe’s Champions League. So that for W Connection and Caledonia to advance from the Caribbean zone two consecutive years says something positive about the TT Pro League and the work being done in the clubs.”
W Connection Chairman David John-Williams preferred to train his guns on the local media, which he accused of being “at best lukewam” in their response to the clubs’ laudable achievements.
“As you rightfully said,” he told Wired868, “we and Caledonia have been the only Caribbean representatives and that is significant. But I think the media’s reaction hasn’t been very significant.”
The truth is that, despite elimination at the group stage last season, both these sides, the only English-speaking clubs in the competition, will keep the Trinidad & Tobago’s flag flying in the CONCACAF zone for a second successive season; the national team, it is worth remembering, was eliminated from the on-going CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifiers since November 2011 and Jamaica are backpedalling at the rear of the current pack, in serious danger of imminent elimination.
W Connection Head Coach Stuart Charles-Février is thanking his lucky stars that he will not have to make the uphill trek to any Mexican venue in the group stage.
“No group is easy at this level of football,” said Février, “but we are always excited to play in the CCL despite how difficult it may be or be perceived to be. We were especially pleased to not have to play any opponents at altitude in the group stage.”
He went on to express the wish that the club’s qualification would somehow have a positive impact on its local support.
“For sure, as football people we would always like to see more people and better media support,” he said. “At this stage, we at Connection are hoping that qualifying for this competition would mean we can at least get more support for our home games.”
The Connection coach and chairman both said there were plans to strengthen the current squad although discussions have not started on who might be added to the squad and removed from it.
Caledonia is a little ahead in that regard. Shabazz revealed that the club is currently “consolidating our financial situation.”
“For now,” he ended, “the players to come in will come from our Reserve and Youth teams.”
The full fixture list is expected to be released soon.
2013-14 CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GROUPS
Group 1: Arabe Unido (Panama), Houston Dynamo (USA), DIRECTV W Connection (T&T)
Group 2: Olimpia (Honduras), Sporting Kansas (USA), Real Esteli (Nicaragua)
Group 3: Herediano (Costa Rica), Cruz Azul (Mexico), Valencia FC (Haiti)
Group 4: Club América (Mexico), Alajuelense (Costa Rica), Sporting San Miguelito (Panama)
Group 5: San Jose Earthquakes (USA), Montréal Impact (Canada), To be determined (Guatemala)
Group 6: Comunicaciones (Guatemala), Toluca (Mexico), Caledonia AIA (T&T)
Group 7: Club Tijuana (Mexico), Victoria (Honduras), Luis Ángel Firpo (El Salvador)
Group 8: LA Galaxy (USA), Isidro Metapan (El Salvador), Caragines (Costa Rica)