The Trinidad and Tobago Senior National Team shrugged off another potential minefield this evening to ease past Cuba 2-0 in 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup action at the University Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix.
A stinging press release by Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) president Raymond Tim Kee and general secretary Sheldon Phillip which targeted the perceived behaviour of Sport Minister Brent Sancho might have sent shudders through the “Soca Warriors” squad.
The Sport Ministry does pay the salaries and match fees of the entire squad, after all.
It was fairly straightforward on the field of play, though, as the Warriors focused on their day job to whip Cuba, after another storming first half.
Central defender Sheldon Bateau opened the scoring in the 16th minute with his second item of the competition while Andre Boucaud doubled Trinidad and Tobago’s advantage in the 42nd minute.
The result means the Warriors are into the quarterfinal round with a game to spare in Group C, which they lead at present. They play their final group match on Wednesday against Mexico, who played to a goalless draw with Guatemala tonight.
And, if the Warriors hold Mexico to a draw, they will top Group C and face either El Salvador, Haiti or Honduras in the quarterfinal round on Sunday July 19 in New Jersey.
“Everyone wrote this team off back at home,” Trinidad and Tobago head coach Stephen Hart told the TTFA Media. “No one gave us any chance back home… to even win a game. That’s what they were saying.”
Should the Warriors lose and finish second to Mexico, they are likely to meet either Costa Rica or El Salvador in the knockout round. Trinidad and Tobago beat Costa Rica 2-1 in the 2000 Gold Cup for its best ever finish in the prestigious tournament.
Cuba still has a mathematical chance of advancing with a win over Guatemala in the final Group C round on Wednesday. But it will be a brave man who bets on the Spanish-speaking islanders extending their stay in the competition.
Visa issues and one defection meant that Cuba had just 16 available players for the opening 6-0 loss to Mexico on Thursday.
Today, Cuba’s ranks had swollen to 21 members of their registered 23-man squad as goalkeeper Arael Arguellez, like striker Keiler Garcia before him, chose to run off to seek his fortune in the United States.
They did have their moments on the field and striker Maikel Reyes, who missed the opening game, was a handful. But it was not nearly enough to trouble Trinidad and Tobago.
The Warriors went ahead with their first good scoring opportunity as Cuba’s defence was slow to push out after a woeful Ataulla Guerra free kick and a long ball from Mekeil Williams into the opposing area found Lester Peltier with room to spare.
Cuba goalkeeper Diosvelis Guerra denied Peltier but Bateau pounced on the loose ball to spank past retreating defenders for his second goal of the competition.
Bateau, who plays professionally in Belgium, had not scored an international goal in his first 12 outings before the 2015 tournament kicked off. Now, he has two goals in as many matches.
There was a scare in the 40th minute as Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams failed to gather an Ariel Martinez free kick and needed to be bailed out by teammate Radanfah Abu Bakr.
But, three minutes before the interval, Andre Boucaud calmed any nerves with a sweet half volley into the far corner after Cuba failed to clear a Daneil Cyrus long throw.
It was only Boucaud’s second international goal after 26 appearances, although, to his credit, both of his strikes were unforgettable. The England-born midfielder’s last item was a delightful solo effort in a 3-1 win over Saudi Arabia on 9 September 2013.
Boucaud will miss Trinidad and Tobago’s next fixture against Mexico after collecting a second yellow card this evening. While Williams (J) is also a serious doubt after he went down clutching his hamstring and was replaced by Marvin Phillip in the 44th minute.
But there were more positives than negatives for the Warriors, who should have gotten a third as Bateau missed a free header off a second half corner kick.
It is an impressive return for the Warriors, considering their financial struggles for much of the last two years. But, undoubtedly, theirs is a triumph of attitude rather than art.
Coach Stephen Hart’s troops play fast, hard and direct with long balls out of the defence towards giant captain Kenwyne Jones or into the channels for pacy wingers to chase.
But midfielder Joevin Jones, the 23-year-old son of former “Strike Squad” substitute Kelvin Jones, was a rarity for his poise and creativity on the ball.
Without a deep-lying playmaker of the calibre of David Nakhid, Reynold Carrington, Aurtis Whitley or the latter-day Dwight Yorke, the pragmatic Hart rarely asks his midfielders to try and dictate the tempo of the match.
However, their athletic and combative style has served the Warriors well so far while Trinidad and Tobago arguably possesses its best backline since the 2006 World Cup.
Williams (M), who replaced Aubrey David at left back today, was flawless while Abu Bakr had one of his better showings in central defence.
Boucaud and Peltier were Hart’s other two changes in his starting team and both were involved in the goals and contributed fresh legs to the cause, although the latter’s contribution in the final third was often indecisive.
Upfront, captain Kenwyne Jones’ goal drought stretched to six matches. But he used his physical attributes effectively and is well suited to Hart’s direct approach.
Hart congratulated his squad last night for their gift to Trinidad and Tobago.
“I think it was important for us to qualify,” said Hart “It’s important for the people, for the young players back at home, it’s important for our football. I cannot tell you how important it is for us to get to the quarter final.
“And I am very happy for these young players because they believed in me. I showed faith in them and they were rewarded tonight.”
Mexico will know they are in for a game on Wednesday as “El Tricolour” tries to overcome a mean Warriors outfit.
Trinidad and Tobago (4-3-3): 21.Jan-Michael Williams (GK) (1.Marvin Phillip (GK) 44); 5.Daneil Cyrus, 6.Radanfah Abu Bakr, 4.Sheldon Bateau, 17.Mekeil Williams, 14.Andre Boucaud, 19.Kevan George, 3.Joevin Jones, 11.Ataulla Guerra (20.Keron Cummings 67), 9.Kenwyne Jones, 23.Lester Peltier (13.Cordell Cato 90).
Unused substitutes: 22.Adrian Foncette (GK), 2.Aubrey David, 7.Jonathan Glenn, 8.Khaleem Hyland, 10.Willis Plaza, 12.Kadeem Corbin, 15.Dwane James, 16.Rundell Winchester, 18.Yohance Marshall,
Coach: Stephen Hart
Cuba (4-2-2-2): 21.Diosvelis Guerra (GK), 2.Andy Vaquero, 15.Adrian Diz Pe, 6.Yaisnier Napoles, 5.Jorge Luis Clavelo; 3.Yenier Marquez (captain), 18.Daniel Luis (16.Hanier Dranguet 79); 22.Alain Cervantes (7.Dario Suarez 61), 8.Alberto Gomez (17.Liban Dairon Perez 68); 9.Maikel Reyes, 10.Ariel Martinez.
Unused substitutes: 1.Sandy Sanchez (GK), 14.Aricheel Hernandez, 4.Angel Horta, 13.Jorge Luis Corrales, 19.Yasmany Lopez, 23.Felix Guerra, 20.Armando Coroneaux.
2015 Gold Cup results
(Sun July 12)
Trinidad and Tobago 2 (Sheldon Bateau 16, Andre Boucaud 42), Cuba 0 in Phoenix;
Mexico 0, Guatemala 0 in Phoenix;
(The July 9)
Trinidad and Tobago 3 (Sheldon Bateau 11, Cordell Cato 15, Joevin Jones 25), Guatemala 1 (Carlos Ruiz 61) at Chicago;
Mexico 6 (Oribe Peralta 16, 36, 61, Carlos Vela 22, Andrés Guardado 43, Giovani Dos Santos 74), Cuba 0 at Chicago.