We thought it was over. It is now.
The Trinidad and Tobago national under-20 team’s dream of advancing to the New Zealand 2015 FIFA Under-20 World Cup tournament was finally extinguished in Montego Bay tonight after a 1-0 loss to the United States in their final CONCACAF Under-20 Championship Group A outing.
The young “Soca Warriors” initially thought they were eliminated after Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Panama only to realise that head-to-head rather than goal difference would decide the third qualifier from Group A.
The Warriors still had to match the United States’ seven points, though, and that meant a win this evening was crucial. But they could not muster it.
In four of Trinidad and Tobago’s five outings, the two island republic was either level or ahead after the first hour. Six of the seven goals conceded by the Warriors came in the closing 25 minutes while the only item they let in during the first half was an own goal by defender Martieon Watson against Guatemala.
National Under-20 head coach Derek King was left to rue the thin line between success and failure.
“I believe we were the most unlucky team in the tournament,” said King, “but then preparation had plenty to do with it… We did well and we did compete with these teams but the guys need that international exposure to perform (consistently) at this level…
“The talent is there but preparation is the main issue.”
The Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) might have sent the teenaged team to last November’s CAC Games but did not while a December tour to Mexico was cancelled at the last minute for financial reasons.
It meant the Warriors went to Jamaica without the benefit of a single international game in close to five months. The United States, in contrast, played over a dozen warm-up matches, completed a European tour and arrived with a squad coached by former international star Tab Ramos and stuffed with players with professional senior experience.
It might be stretching it to suggest that Trinidad and Tobago football fans had any reason to expect three points against the United States in such circumstances. But there was hope. And the boys did try.
Star striker Kadeem Corbin and lively midfielder Akeem Humphrey were both missing through suspension while, in the starting line-up, winger Aikim Andrews had taken painkillers to ignore his hurt ankle and midfielder Duane Muckette had a strained hamstring.
For the first 20 minutes, it was the US team that was struggling though as Akeem Garcia, who started upfront for the first time, tormented the opposing defence while playmaker Matthew Woo Ling was involved in most of Trinidad and Tobago’s best work.
Garcia wriggled free in the fourth minute and crossed for Woo Ling who teed up Kishun Seecharan inside the opposing area. Seecharan did well to create his own shooting room but then spliced his effort.
Two minutes later, off a set piece, a brilliant diagonal ball from Muckette found Watson behind the US defence only for the alert American goalkeeper, Zackary Steffen, to save with his legs.
In the 11th minute, Trinidad and Tobago threatened again as Muckette won possession and the ball was quickly shuttled forward between Seecharan, Garcia and Woo Ling to Andrews. But the winger, one of the tournament’s top players, shot wide at the far post from inside the box.
“In international football, you have to take those half chances,” said King, after the match.
At this stage, the United States’ threat was mainly on the counter where lively attacker Bradford Jamieson IV was a constant menace with his ability to uncork fierce shots with little backlift.
There will always be jitters when Trinidad and Tobago US-born goalkeeper Johan Welch is called into action after his costly blunders against Guatemala and Panama. And, in the 24th minute, Welch did not exactly instil confidence when he came out to contest a crossed free kick and missed the ball entirely.
Welch produced an encore in the 50th minute with another flap at a free kick and, this time, Neveal Hackshaw rescued the Warriors with a goalline clearance from Jamieson. But the fatal error yesterday was not made by the short shot stopper.
By the hour mark, as usual, the Warriors had lost much of their fizz and the Americans were the more proactive outfit. King replaced Woo Ling with Levi Garcia in the 65th minute and then Andrews with Ricardo John in the 69th.
Earlier this afternoon, Dutch football magazine Voetbal International had finally made Levi’s future plans public. The seventeen-year-old rising star is bound for renowned Eridivisie outfit AZ Alkmaar on a three-year deal with the option of a two-year renewal.
Levi caught the eye after a series of sensational showings in last September’s Caribbean Cup and will become a Europe-based professional on his 18th birthday. But, at the CONCACAF competition in Jamaica, there was little of the stardust that thrilled fans last September and will, hopefully, conquer Dutch fans in years to come.
And, after a few overhit passes and unsuccessful dribbles, Levi charged at four US defenders in the 77th minute with most of his teammates ahead of him waiting for a pass. The North Americans countered immediately and substitute Paul Arriola squared for Jamieson to bury the game’s only item.
It capped off a chastening tournament for the talented young man whose impending professional move bears comparison to Dwight Yorke’s transfer to Aston Villa in 1989. Perhaps, in retrospect, Levi might have benefited by turning out for duty with Central FC over the past month and a half, especially since the club had already made an about-turn and agreed to not stop his move.
“I was a bit disappointed with (Levi’s) performance,” said King. “In today’s game, we thought he would have added something when he came on… But, at the end of the day, he is one of the youngest (players) in the team and, again, international games will help these players a lot.”
Jabari Mitchell, another 17-year-old with a bright future, was on the field by then too. But he also made little impact while John, who did provide pace and intensity, could not take a half-chance off his head.
King credited Welch and his back four for their performances today and praised the effort from his squad. But it was not enough to keep their World Cup dreams alive and, in the end, he was pleading with the TTFA to help keep the guys together for, presumably, the Rio 2016 Olympic charge.
“The majority of these players are the future of Trinidad and Tobago’s football so we hope the association can keep the team together and add one or two players,” said King. “(But) we need international games. We need to carry them out there to (understand) the pace of the game and the level of (international) football.
“It is a good team and we hope they can stay together.”
It is the United States who join Guatemala into the CONCACAF Play Off round on Saturday though while Panama joined Mexico today as the two first 2015 Under-20 World Cup qualifiers from this confederation.
“We matched all the teams (in Group A) and we were always in it,” said King. “We played some good football but we couldn’t take our chances. I will go back and analyse the whole tournament and take it from there…
“We are disappointed that we didn’t qualify but we just have to go back to the drawing board.”
Fitness is an obvious issue as is the shortage of quality goalkeepers to take up the mantle left behind by the likes of Lincoln “Tiger” Phillips, Earl “Spiderman” Carter, Michael Maurice, Ross Russell, Shaka Hislop, Clayton Ince, Kelvin Jack and, more recently, Jan-Michael Williams and Marvin Phillip.
It is possible too that meticulous, long-term planning and preparation aids in team performance, which might be why every outfit from DIRECTV W Connection to Real Madrid tends to pay quite a bit of attention to pre-competition activity.
Hopefully, the TTFA will give that a try at the next possible opportunity.
Trinidad and Tobago (4-2-3-1): 1.Johan Welch (GK); 2.Shannon Gomez, 3.Martieon Watson, 5.Leland Archer, 4.Jesus Perez; 8.Neveal Hackshaw, 6.Duane Muckette (10.Jabari Mitchell 76); 15.Aikim Andrews (16.Ricardo John 69), 14.Matthew Woo Ling (11.Levi Garcia 65), 12.Kishun Seecharan; 7.Akeem Garcia.
Unused substitutes: 21.Javon Sample (GK), 13.Brendon Creed, 18.Kevon Goddard, 19.Maurice Ford.
Suspended: 9.Kadeem Corbin, 17.Akeem Humphrey.
Coach: Derek King
United States (4-2-3-1): 1.Zackary Steffen (GK); 2.Shaquell Moore, 4.Cameron Carter-Vickers, 5.Matthew Miazga, 3.John Requejo Jr; 16.Russell Canouse (captain), 8.Emerson Hyndman; 19.Bradford Jamieson IV, 11.Thomas Thompson (14.Conor Donovan 82), 9.Romain Gall (10.Herbert Mejia Flores 69), 20.Ben Spencer (7.Paul Arriola 70).
Unused substitutes: 12.Ethan Horvath (GK), 13.Tyler Turner, 15.Fernando Arce, 17.Amando Moreno, 18.Lynden Gooch.
Unavailable: 6.Kellyn Perry-Acosta.
Coach: Tab Ramos
Referee: John Pitti (Panama)
CONCACAF Under-20 Championship results
(Wed Jan 21)
Panama 1 (Ismael Diaz 66), Guatemala 0 at Montego Bay;
United States 1 (Bradford Jamieson IV 77), Trinidad and Tobago 0 at Montego Bay;
Jamaica 0, Aruba 0 at Montego Bay;
(Sunday January 18)
Trinidad and Tobago 0, Panama 1 (Michael Murillo 77) at Montego Bay;
Guatemala 2, Aruba 0 at Montego Bay;
Jamaica 0, United States 2 at Montego Bay.
(Wednesday January 14)
Guatemala 2 (Martieon Watson OG 24, Hugo Portillo 87), Trinidad & Tobago 0 at National Stadium, Kingston;
United States 8 (Romain Gall 16, 23, 32, Bradford Jamieson IV 18, 48, Thomas Thompson 26, Emerson Hyndman 30, Amando Moreno 84), Aruba 0 at National Stadium, Kingston;
Jamaica 0, Panama 2 (Edson Samms 56, Ismael Diaz 86) at National Stadium, Kingston.
(Sunday Jan 11)
Trinidad and Tobago 5 (Jabari Mitchell 3, 78 pen, Aikim Andrews 15, Kadeem Corbin 28 pen, Duane Muckette 58), Aruba 1 (Duncan Homoet 90) at Kingston;
Panama 1 (Carlos Small 78), United States 0 at Kingston;
Jamaica 0, Guatemala 1 (Steven Robles 27) at Kingston;
(Friday January 9)
Jamaica 2 (Donja Smith 67, Junior Flemmings 90+3), Trinidad and Tobago 2 (Aikim Andrews 6, Kadeem Corbin 15)
United States 1 (Cameron Carter-Vickers), Guatemala 1 (Jose Ruiz)
Panama 4 (Ismael Diaz 19, 50, Ervin Zorilla 30, Edson Samms 36), Aruba 0