In the build-up to last night’s international friendly, Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team coach Stephen Hart challenged his players to assert themselves at home and set a standard for football visitors at the Hasely Crawford Stadium.
But, in the end, it was the stretcher bearers who saw the most action as the “Soca Warriors” and Nicaragua played to a largely dull goalless draw in Port of Spain.
Hart, who extended his unbeaten run in regulation time to seven games, was happy to look for the positives, though.
“I thought in the first half we were a little bit lethargic,” said Hart, in the post-game press conference. “(But) I was really, really pleased with the second half. I thought we just took over the game and Nicaragua realised that and started to kill the whole rhythm of the game.”
Only Hart would know how much of his positivity was genuine.
In truth, the Warriors had a wonderful opportunity to show their offensive capabilities against organised but limited opponents. And, at best, Nicaragua goalkeeper Justo Lorente looked to be in trouble just twice.
Warrior fans with long memories know what it means to dominate opponents and that was not it.
There was no doubting the sincerity of Nicaragua coach Henry Duarte’s pleasure with the result, though.
“Four days ago, Trinidad won a very difficult game against Panama,” said Duarte, via a translator. “And they were playing at home…”
Last night was Nicaragua’s ninth game under Duarte, a Costa Rican native, and they have lost just once with six wins against Anguilla (twice), Suriname (twice), Jamaica and Cuba.
“Within a couple of years, Nicaragua will be a team to be reckoned with,” said Duarte.
The Warriors do not have the luxury of time, not where their Russia 2018 World Cup dreams are concerned.
Ironically, if there were disappointed supporters yesterday, it was because the Warriors have made a habit of overachieving when it mattered.
Yesterday was a reality check. Hart’s troops are still a work in progress. They are spiky, defiant and athletic. But they are not expressive, creative and domineering.
Not yet anyway.
The first blow to the squad’s ego might have been delivered at 7 pm as roughly 2,500 people came out to see the Warriors kick off against Nicaragua. The number of supporters doubled by halftime but, in a venue built to accommodate 22,000 supporters, the attendance still seemed scant respect for the efforts of the young men.
Regardless, the Warriors started brightly and should have scored after just three minutes as playmaker Keron “Ball Pest” Cummings crossed from the left flank for full back Aubrey David whose close range shot was denied by Lorente while Khaleem Hyland and Trevin Caesar both failed to bury the rebound.
But it was a false dawn.
Joevin Jones whistled a free kick narrowly wide, three minutes later, but, largely, the Warriors struggled to get their rhythm against Central American opponents who closed passing lanes quickly.
The boys in red shirts dished out more turnovers than a server at Linda’s Bakery. But Nicaragua had neither the guile nor the explosiveness to capitalise.
Credit is due here to the composure and athleticism of the Trinidad and Tobago back four, which was superbly shielded by midfield ball winner Kevan George. But the football fans had hoped for more against a team that was already eliminated from the World Cup qualifying series, albeit by the most slender of margins against 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup finalists, Jamaica.
Trinidad and Tobago were better in the second half, although it was near impossible to be worse.
“In the second half, when we put the ball on the ground and moved it with a shorter quicker speed and got the wide players involved,” said Hart, “I thought that made all the difference.”
Yet, chances remained at a premium.
Cummings, who had one of his quietest showings in “Red, Black and White”, hit one presentable chance off the body of captain Kenwyne Jones in the 59th minute. And Cummings opted to go alone in the 62nd minute but only gave Lorente catching practice while the Joneses pleaded for a cross inside the area.
The Nicaraguans were beginning to tire by then and the flow of the game was repeatedly broken by substitutions or players seeking medical attention.
“The amount of times they went down and every time (Trinidad and Tobago referee Keon Yorke) called for the stretcher,” said Hart. “They just killed the second half because they realised it was only a matter of time before we probably scored.”
There was no doubting the seriousness of the Warrior captain’s injury in the 73rd minute, though, as he was stretchered straight into the dressing room after a collision with the opposing goalkeeper. Hart said there will be x-rays on the giant forward’s shinbone to assess the damage.
“The medical staff is still working on him,” said Hart. “It doesn’t look good… But I don’t want to speculate.”
Jones (K) has scored 33 percent of the Warriors’ goals over the past two years. And, almost certainly, Guatemala would breathe easier if the Cardiff City forward does not travel to Guatemala City for their qualifier on November 13.
Radanfah Abu Bakr got the ball in the back of the net in the 88th minute but his item was immediately ruled out for a foul by defensive partner, Sheldon Bateau, on the opposing goalkeeper, after lively teenaged substitute, Aikim Andrews, had sent a looping header towards the far post.
Andrews created two good shooting opportunities for himself too but failed to hit the target while fellow substitute, Jonathan Glenn, could not reach his incisive low cross in stoppage time.
“It was just one of those games,” said Hart. “I am very pleased with the second half and if we put two halves together the way we played the second half, we will be a difficult team to play against.”
It sounded like a generous assessment of a largely uninspiring affair.
“The most important 30 minutes of a manager’s week is his press conference,” former Liverpool manager Gerald Houllier once said, “because it is watched, listened to and read by supporters, directors and players.
“A manager could use it to set a tone that resonated throughout his club.”
The next time Hart sees his players, there will be three World Cup qualifying points at stake. In the interim, supporters and potential sponsors still need to be wooed.
Was Hart reporting what he saw? Or what he wants us to see?
Thus far, Trinidad and Tobago’s competitive record under Hart—eight wins and just one regulation time defeat from 15 outings—suggests a man who knows what he is doing.
Just over a decade ago, the Warriors were stacked with shifty little ball players and swaggering conductors like Russell Latapy, Dwight Yorke, David Nakhid, Arnold Dwarika, Kerwin Jemmott and Aurtis Whitley.
These days, it is the gladiators like Jones (K), Bateau, Hyland, Abu Bakr and Andre Boucaud who set the pace for the Trinidad and Tobago football team.
“For me, pressing is the new number 10,” said Hart, as he explained part of his football philosophy. “If you can press high up the pitch and win the ball, then you don’t have to go far to get chances. And I thought our press was extremely effective (in the second half).”
Movie Towne is just a stone’s throw from the Hasely Crawford Stadium but they might as well exist in parallel universes.
For much of last night, Trinidad and Tobago’s play was as entertaining as watching a construction crew smash rocks. Yet, many impressive buildings started that way.
Warrior fans will have to trust Hart’s blueprint a bit longer.
Trinidad and Tobago (4-2-3-1): 21.Jan-Michael Williams (GK); 23.Daneil Cyrus, 18.Yohance Marshall (6.Radanfah Abu Bakr 57), 4.Sheldon Bateau, 2.Aubrey David (17.Mekeil Williams 68); 19.Kevan George, 8.Khaleem Hyland; 11.Trevin Caesar (13.Aikim Andrews 78), 20.Keron Cummings (14.Andre Boucaud 67), 3.Joevin Jones; 9.Kenwyne Jones (captain) (7.Jonathan Glenn 73).
Unused substitutes: 1.Marvin Phillip (GK), 10.Willis Plaza, 15.Neveal Hackshaw.
Coach: Stephen Hart
Nicaragua (4-2-3-1): 1.Justo Lorente (GK); 2.Joseue Quijana, 4.Oscar Lopez, 6.Luis Copete (20.Axel Silva 81), 3.Manuel Rosas; 5.Luis Peralta, 8.Marlon Lopez (14.Jason Coronel 86); 7.Carlos Chavarria (15.Carlos Membreno 90), 11.Juan Barrera (captain), 10.Elvis Figueroa (13.Bryan Garcia 68); 9.Raul Legias (18.Eulises Pavon 77).
Unused substitutes: 12.Diedrich Tellez (GK), 16.Daniel Reyes, 17.Erick Javier, 19.Jessie Lopez.
Coach: Henry Duarte
Referee: Keon Yorke
Man of the Match: Kevan George (Trinidad and Tobago)
(Tuesday October 13)
Trinidad and Tobago 0, Nicaragua 0 at Hasely Crawford Stadium.