“Soca Warriors” coach Stephen Hart has opted not to replace injured goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams as the Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team heads into the knockout phase of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup in the United States.
The Warriors face Panama from 4.30 pm on Sunday July 19 and all teams have the option to change three players with alternatives from their 35-man shortlist. The United States, Jamaica, Haiti and Costa Rica took advantage of the opportunity.
But Hart explained that, with the Pro League in its off season and his stand-by players on vacation, it made little sense to alter his squad.
“It is hard to introduce anyone else,” Hart told Wired868. “It is not like we have a league home and people are playing. That is one of the reasons I wanted people training with me, even if they were not selected.
“I have two goalkeepers here I trust, so I will take a chance.”
Hart’s decision appears to rule out a call-up for North East Stars goalkeeper Cleon John, whose last competitive game was two months ago. At present, Point Fortin Civic custodian Marvin Phillip is first choice with Police FC’s Adrian Foncette as deputy.
Hart denied that his squad had any special motivation against Panama, although the Central American nation reneged on a pre-arranged international friendly against the Warriors last month to play two games against Ecuador.
It forced the Warriors into a hastily arranged friendly away to Curaçao, which they lost 1-0.
However, the Trinidad and Tobago claimed there were no hard feelings and suggested that Panama is one of the hardest opponents in the knock out stage, although “Los Canaleros” drew all three group stage matches against the United States, Haiti and Honduras respectively.
“The past is the past,” said Hart. “Panama looked the best out of the third placed teams we could have faced. Costa Rica is certainly struggling and not at their best moment…
“To end up (drawn against) last Gold Cup’s finalist is going to be a challenge.”
Even as football fans swoon over Trinidad and Tobago’s performances at the Gold Cup, the pragmatic Hart admitted his own feelings were mixed.
In emotional terms, the Warriors are in a fantastic place.
“Their response has been tremendous,” said Hart, who also took Trinidad and Tobago to the 2013 Gold Cup quarterfinals. “It is as if something inside them has been awakened and they now recognise their potential.”
But, after spending the last six weeks trying to implement a 4-3-3 formation, Hart said that, for periods against Guatemala and Cuba and for the entire Mexico match, he returned to the 4-2-3-1 system, which was tailor-made for the absent Kevin Molino.
“We were losing shape and balance too easily,” said Hart, “so we reverted back to what players felt more comfortable with.”
Hart admitted to being frustrated at a lack of international friendlies, which meant less time to prepare his players. And, despite being unbeaten at the Gold Cup, he is dissatisfied with their tactical play thus far.
“Tactically, we have a long way to go,” he told Wired868. “We need to possess the ball better to attack the weak side of opponents. We also need to press more effectively when the ball is in wide areas, denying easy crossing opportunities.”
As football fans cheered during Trinidad and Tobago’s 4-4 draw with Mexico, which was described as the greatest Gold Cup game ever, Hart was going berserk on the touchline.
At halftime, he waded into North East Stars midfielder Keron “Ball Pest” Cummings who had received specific instructions to stay tight on Mexico midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos in defence and get close to captain Kenwyne Jones on offence.
But Cummings did neither sufficiently well in the first half.
“I said if you get closer to Kenwyne something will fall for you,” said Hart.
Cummings did just that and scored twice in the second half; and both goals were assisted by Jones. But it was an emotional roller coaster and, once the adrenalin subsides, Hart will have words with his squad.
“I was a little upset (because) we did so much video analysis of Mexico,” said Hart. “We warned them that Mexico would get the ball wide and then look to attack the back post and pick out players early with crosses.
“And then to literally give them three of their four goals… I was a little upset because it shows our concentration (is still lacking) in playing at this level…
“But when you listen to players like Cummings talking (to his teammates) about how fast they take away their space and close them down (at the Gold Cup). And Mekeil (Williams) saying how he felt like he was under pressure all the time.
“You know they will learn from it.”
Hart’s six changes against Mexico, he explained, was an attempt to ensure that none of his booked players miss the quarterfinal and also to give a breather to some squad members.
Now, he has to calm his players down and help them to recover for their hardest challenge yet.
This is Hart’s fifth Gold Cup as a head coach and he has been to the knockout stage four times while he took Canada to the semifinals once in 2007. He knows what he is doing.
“The key to the tournament format is understanding that each stage is different,” he told Wired868. “To get out of the group, you have to be as detailed as possible. Then, at the business end, your mentality changes because here you (either) win or go home.
“My big concern is (the Mexico match) was an emotionally and physically draining game, so recovery is now a big issue. You see it all the time in the (UEFA) Champions League when a team plays a draining game and then struggles in their next match, which is also a must win…
“We worked very hard on our fitness (in the pre-tournament camp). It is not where it should be but hopefully it will get us through.”
Hart’s two-year contract with the Warriors expires at the end of this tournament. He recently received a new proposal from the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) but said now is not the time for such discussions.
“It will only be a distraction at this point,” said Hart. “The TTFA has put forward a contract but now is not the time to deal with that.”
The Warriors have had their issues this year, which affected the serenity of the camp.
In a previous interview, Hart told Wired868 that it sometimes felt as if he was coaching in the dark ages, as he has no data analyst on staff or access to statistical data or even heart monitors or GPS systems for his team.
“Right now, I do all the analysing of my team and my opposition for myself and I don’t have that kind of time,” said Hart, last month. “I have to watch the opposition and break down how their team plays and put it on video as a head coach. I can bet you a million dollars that there is no one else doing that kind of work as a head coach…
“Our opponents have played five more games than us this year… We have a public that demands results but everyone else prepares (while we are) finding out the night before that you are travelling to Jordan or Curaçao.
“And big men with families have to find someone to pick up their children and so on… Who operates like this? There is no (other) team in the Gold Cup that plans that way.”
Yet, the Warriors, who—for the first time—do not have win bonuses at a Gold Cup tournament, are improvising and defying the odds.
Hart spent long periods working with his squad on set piece delivery in the pre-tournament camp. And there must have been an immense feeling of pride when midfielder Joevin Jones charged through falling water bottles and beer cans to execute a pinpoint corner kick for Yohance Marshall’s last gasp headed equaliser against Mexico.
The Warriors are giving it everything they have, said Hart, so do not give up on them.
“We really appreciate the support,” said Hart, whose mother, Monica Hart, passed away on June 24. “For me personally, it has been a tough time with a death in the family and so on and I appreciate all the support I got from people inside and outside the football fraternity.
“I just want to ask our fans to continue to support the players. They have been through a lot and sacrificed so much to make their country proud.”
If Trinidad and Tobago defeats Panama, it will only be the second time that the Warriors have advanced to the Gold Cup semifinal round. Bertille St Clair took Trinidad and Tobago there in 2000.
Hart hopes to equal St Clair’s feat on Sunday by eliminating a Panama squad which, just over a month ago, felt that Trinidad and Tobago was less than adequate match practice for the Gold Cup.
Anything is possible for the “Red, White and Black” outfit these days.