Central FC enjoyed a post-World Cup 2006 record attendance for a Pro League club last night as the “Couva Sharks” completed their maiden CONCACAF Champions League adventure with a 1-1 draw against United States MLS team, LA Galaxy, at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain.
There were easily over 4,000 people at the Hasely Crawford venue, which was almost certainly the biggest crowd at a local game featuring a Pro League outfit since the fall-out from the 2006 World Cup drained enthusiasm away from the game.
W Connection played before nearly 10,000 spectators in 2001 when the “Savonetta Boys” hosted another MLS team, Kansas City, and around 6,000 fans watched them challenge Mexican outfit, Chivas, in 2005.
In the past nine years, though, attendances have tended to peak around 2,500 while, for the last three Champions League matches over the past week, there were barely 600 people at the Hasely Crawford.
In that sense, yesterday seemed like a red letter day.
“Thanks for the support from Trinidad and Tobago,” said Central coach Ross Russell, in the post-game press conference. “We know LA Galaxy brought them but we are still glad they came.”
And yet, it was hard to remember a team that tried to dampen an occasion as much as the Galaxy.
The Galaxy’s official website had a preview of its impending clash against the Sharks in Port of Spain. But the US-based club certainly did not try to ramp up interest with its headline:
“Watch CONCACAF’s hilariously over-the-top video preview…”
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena not only left all three of his marquee players—ex-Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard, Irish captain and former Tottenham standout Robbie Keane and Mexico star and ex-Barcelona attacker Giovani Dos Santos—back in Los Angeles. He omitted his entire first team too.
And he did not bother to flatter the capabilities of the squad that kicked off against Central last night.
“We kept our first 11 at home,” said Arena, who chose to focus on the club’s MLS responsibilities, “and these were the only players available to us.”
Astonishingly, Arena did not even have a full complement of substitutes as Galaxy, who were virtually assured of qualification before kick off, travelled to Trinidad with just 16 players.
“You can only use three substitutes anyway,” said Arena, breezily, “we had things covered…”
And it was for this clash—one half-interested team against an already eliminated one—that Trinidad and Tobago fans came out in their thousands, with no noticeable rise in marketing or any of the other suave terminologies that are supposedly the bane of the Pro League.
Somewhere in yesterday’s bumper crowd lay a sobering reality about Trinidad and Tobago’s football fans, and an exit interview for spectators might have been priceless.
Russell said his Sharks did not feel slighted or motivated by Galaxy’s travelling party.
“Whatever team Bruce puts out,” said Russell, “that’s his first 11.”
But it was an unconvincing argument.
Central striker Willis Plaza offered a better response when he scored within 115 seconds of the kick off.
Veteran playmaker Marvin Oliver, who was not granted a visa for Central’s crushing 5-1 loss in Los Angeles in the first leg, released Plaza with a lofted diagonal ball. And Plaza touched the ball just once.
His right footed volley from 12 yards flew across the body of Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Rowe and into the far corner.
Plaza celebrated with the nonchalance of a man that probably scores a dozen screaming volleys before breakfast.
Galaxy, despite being a weakened bunch, still had a fully professional roster available and, thankfully, was not about to roll over.
The visitors might have equalised in spectacular style in the 26th minute but for a brilliant save from Central and Trinidad and Tobago international custodian, Jan-Michael Williams.
Williams had to anticipate, sprint and extend his right arm to keep out a Mika Vayrynen free kick that curled and dipped into the far corner.
It is a trick the “Soca Warrior” repeated in the second half when substitute Jose Villarreal tried to outfox him by smashing his set piece effort towards the other corner.
Apart from the set pieces, Galaxy was as blunt as a butter knife.
Arena had brought his “Super Sub” and US international Alan Gordon, who is a fierce competitor in the air. But, although Central winger Marcus Joseph was happy to allow opposing full back Rafael Garcia time and space to pump balls into the opposing box, Gordon could not get on the end of anything.
Credit Central’s defensive pair of Jamal Jack and Marcelle Francois who refused to be bullied by Gordon. Oliver was not so lucky.
At one point, Gordon nearly gave the beanpole Rastafarian a make-over with an elbow to the head that went without a caution by Puerto Rico referee William Anderson.
Why did CONCACAF allow a Puerto Rican to officiate in a game involving a US club anyway? Was that not like a Tobagonian referee doing a Trinidad and Tobago international match?
It only added to the slapdash feel of last night’s event.
In truth, Central should have been comfortably ahead. The Sharks were faster and more inventive than their MLS opponent. And Plaza, with his clever off the ball movement, was as elusive to the Americans as controversial UNC financiers Ish Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson.
In the 45th minute, Plaza found ex-Naparima College star Nicholas Dillon with so much space in the opposing area that the teenaged attacker could afford to completely miskick, spin around and still get off his shot.
By then, of course, Galaxy’s defence recovered suitably to charge down Dillon’s effort.
It capped a woeful debut start for Dillon at Champions League level.
“I thought (Dillon) was brilliant,” said Russell. “He did well for the team. He missed an easy chance but that comes with (youth) and he was anxious.
“I wouldn’t kill him for that.”
Dillon would certainly improve with time but Russell’s enthusiastic assessment of the youngster did not match the general consensus last night. There was sarcastic applause when the Central coach withdrew him in the 61st minute.
Plaza had a peek in the 70th minute but his stinging, angled left footer took out a camera behind the goal instead. And, later, he dragged a right footer wide from an identical position as his opening goal.
Every Plaza opening came with a half-step in one direction and a sprint in the next, as the bewildered Galaxy backline grabbed at thin air. Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team head coach Stephen Hart must have been smiling in the covered stands.
There was less to appreciate last night from attacking midfielders Ataulla Guerra and Marcus Joseph.
Guerra, to his credit, was always involved. But most of his touches came in non-threatening areas of the field and were self-indulgent.
Joseph, who was the Pro League’s top scorer two years ago at Point Fortin Civic, barely extended himself off the ball and was absolutely predictable in his efforts to get off a left foot shot on nearly every possession.
“Ataulla’s performance was much better,” said Russell. “He controlled the ball better and ran at players…
“Marcus is still getting his rhythm. He came from a team where he was the ‘go-to man’ to a team where there are about five ‘go-to men’…”
As the match entered the final 15 minutes, the contest was still alive.
“It was an exciting game,” said Arena. “Central was dangerous on the break and I think they did a good job protecting the lead…
“But I could tell their players were getting fatigued.”
Williams had to sprint off his line in the 81st minute to beat Galaxy substitute Raul Mendiola to a probing pass. Ever the showman, the Warrior flopped on his back for a breather, as he clutched the ball to his midriff.
The fans, who, encouragingly, stayed for the entire contest, exhaled with him and chuckled. But, a minute later, the smiles vanished.
Central substitute Jason Marcano was hustled off the ball and Galaxy countered effectively.
Midfielder Ignacio Maganto slipped a pass between Central left Kevin Villaroel and Francois to Mendiola who squared for an unmarked Gordon to hit home from 10 yards.
“We anticipated a difficult game and we certainly got it,” said Arena. “I was proud of the way the boys fought back… I think the man of the match for both teams was Williams.”
Williams was disappointed not to preserve his clean sheet and hang on for the three points. But there was a sense of relief that their Champions League campaign ended with dignity, after they were hammered 5-1 by Galaxy in their opening game on 7 August 2015.
“Obviously I’m disappointed with the result (because) I think we could have held on for the win,” said Williams. “But this is our first time in the competition and we are still learning. I think we did well…
“We are unbeaten at home.”
Williams was pleasantly surprised by the crowd last night too. And he urged supporters to go out to games and put pressure on players to deliver the quality performances they would like to see.
Last night’s topsy turvy affair, he hoped, would be a watershed moment.
“I was quite happy and pleased with the turnout,” said the Central goalkeeper. “I knew we gave them a show because we played well.
“I think the fans going home would think Central is the team to support.”
It would make sense if 20 percent of last night’s audience, roughly 800 people, turn up for the Sharks’ next outing to see if the Pro League is anything near as exciting.
But then it is never easy to make sense of Trinidad and Tobago’s appreciation for local sport.
Central FC (4-2-4-1): 21.Jan-Michael Williams (GK); 15.Kaydion Gabriel, 12.Jamal Jack, 17.Marcelle Francois, 24.Kevon Villaroel; 2.Elton John, 10.Marvin Oliver; 99.Marcus Joseph (8.Sean De Silva 82), 45.Ataulla Guerra (26.Jem Gordon 87), 14.Nicholas Dillon (7.Jason Marcano 61); 33.Willis Plaza.
Unused substitutes: 30.Akel Clarke (GK), 5.Akeem Benjamin, 6.Kerry Baptiste, 25.Elijah Manners.
Coach: Ross Russell
LA Galaxy (4-4-1-1): 12.Brian Rowe (GK); 33.Dan Gargan, 21.Tommy Meyer, 27.David Romney, 25.Rafael Garcia; 15.Ignacio Maganto, 3.Mika Vayrynen (40.Raul Mendiola 68), 34.Kenney Walker, 6.Baggio Husidic (36.Oscar Sorto 14); 16.Edson Buddle (5.Jose Villarreal 57); 9.Alan Gordon (captain),
Unused substitutes: 31.Andrew Wolverton (GK), 2.Todd Dunivant,
Coach: Bruce Arena
Referee: William Anderson (Puerto Rico)
Man of the Match: Jan-Michael Williams (Central FC)
CONCACAF Champions League result
(Wednesday September 23)
Central FC 1 (Willis Plaza 2), LA Galaxy 1 (Alan Gordon 85) at Hasely Crawford Stadium.