Eighteen year old wonder boy Levi Garcia marked his senior international Trinidad and Tobago debut with a decisive double, as the “Soca Warriors” came from behind to edge St Vincent and the Grenadines 3-2 in a Russia 2018 World Cup qualifier at Arnos Vale.
It was a largely stodgy performance from Trinidad and Tobago, as they trailed 1-0 at halftime and always looked vulnerable to St Vincent’s menace on the counter attack.
But it all changed when Garcia stepped on to the field, as a 62nd minute change for right back Daneil Cyrus, and instantly imposed himself on the “Vincey Heat” backline as the game came to a cracking conclusion.
Trinidad and Tobago coach Stephen Hart chose to start the contest with an improvised line-up that saw full back Justin Hoyte play in an advanced position on the right flank.
If the pairing of Cyrus and Hoyte was meant to offer solidity to the Warriors’ right side, it did not work.
St Vincent had the first good chance of the match as midfielder Emerald George won the ball near the halfway line and tore into space behind Cyrus to collect a return pass from Myron Samuel. Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Marvin Phillip was quick off his line to apply pressure, though, and George stabbed wide.
The Warriors were seeing more of the ball and left back Aubrey David, who was a bustling figure in the half, stepped in off the flank and forced a sharp save from opposing goalkeeper Lemus Christopher.
Christopher came up trumps again, in the 33rd minute, with a fine low save to deny Trinidad and Tobago captain Kenwyne Jones, after a threaded pass from Khaleem Hyland.
Christopher, incidentally, was one of an eye-raising eight changes in the Vincentian starting team from their last qualifier as coach Cornelius Huggins opted for fresh legs. The average age of the Vincey Heat team was 24, some three years younger than their Trinidad and Tobago counterparts.
The Warriors might have been thinking about halftime drinks when disaster struck in the 44th minute. Seattle Sounders attacker Oalex “Bounty” Anderson, a genuine rising star at just 20 years old, slipped behind the defence for burly striker David Pitt, who was clattered by Phillip for a cast-iron penalty.
If anything, Phillip was lucky that Panamian referee Jose Kellys did not show a card as well.
Samuel, who led the Vincentian offensive line superbly, calmly converted the penalty for a surprise lead to the hosts.
Christopher began his time wasting antics, like delaying picking up the ball in open play, from within seconds of the second half. But the following 45 minutes did not go anything like he planned.
Joevin Jones helped bring the two island republic level in the 51st minute with an inswinging corner kick that was inadvertently headed past Christopher by his own defender, Shemol Trimmingham, for the equaliser.
Hart introduced Garcia for Cyrus, as the Warriors finally got a winger on the pitch with Joevin more prominent in central areas.
Huggins replaced Pitt with Shandel Samuel, a former San Juan Jabloteh striker, to ensure Vincey Heat had fresh legs upfront who were capable of exploiting any Trinidad and Tobago turnover.
Garcia made his mark first.
Kenwyne jumped high to flick on a pass with his head—in a rare escape from excellent Vincentian defender and captain Roy Richards—and Garcia immediately squared up opposing full back Akeem Williams and danced inside him, before blasting home at Christopher’s near post in the 71st minute.
It was some debut for the whiz kid, who made his first Pro League appearance for T&TEC FC at 15 and signed a pre-contract for Eredivise club, AZ Alkmaar, at just 17 years old.
He is already Trinidad and Tobago’s youngest ever goal scorer in a European top flight competition, which is a mark he poached from ex-Manchester United star and 2006 World Cup captain Dwight Yorke.
The 33 year old Samuel (S) had no intention of conceding the spotlight to a kid barely old enough to drive, though.
In the 76th minute, just five minutes after Garcia’s strike, Vincentian enforcer Jarrel McMaster, who is built like a bouncer and hits like one, showed his ability on the ball as he exploited space to thread a diagonal ball to Anderson, who had slipped behind Hoyte.
And Anderson cleverly played the ball across the opposing defence for Samuel (S) to tap past an exposed Phillip.
Trinidad and Tobago had thrown away a hard-fought advantage and Hart might have looked sadly in the direction of England-born midfielder John Bostock, who missed the affair after an administrative error by the Warriors technical staff.
Boucaud was out of sorts on the dry, treacherous Vincentian pitch while Hyland and playmaker Kevin Molino, who was making his first appearance of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, toiled without much end product.
But little Levi made it all look so easy.
Hart, suitably encouraged by Garcia’s progress, sent on the teenager’s former National Under-20 teammate, Neveal Hackshaw, and they quickly combined to devastating effect.
Hackshaw had space to pick out Garcia with a lofted diagonal pass behind the opposing defence and the Netherlands-based winger finished decisively below Christopher’s body for a 3-2 lead.
There might have even been a hattrick for Garcia but the angle was too tight, as he volleyed another effort across the face of goal.
And there was even an effective yet flashy dribbling exhibition, as Garcia executed a perfect “spanner” by pushing the ball on the outside of his left boot then flicking it the opposite way, in one fluent movement, to beat Shawn Benjamin out of his shoes.
It was enough for three points and a fresh breath of air in the Warriors’ push towards Russia.
Trinidad and Tobago can virtually seal their place in CONCACAF’s final qualifying round on Tuesday evening, when they host the Vincey Heat from 7 pm at the Hasely Crawford Stadium.
The side plot, though, is that it would be Garcia’s first home international as a senior player. At this rate, it is worth being a part of that story.
Trinidad and Tobago (4-2-3-1): 1.Marvin Phillip (GK); 5.Daneil Cyrus (16.Levi Garcia 62), 4.Sheldon Bateau, 18.Yohance Marshall, 2.Aubrey David; 8.Khaleem Hyland, 14.Andre Boucaud (6.Neveal Hackshaw 80); 13.Justin Hoyte, 10.Kevin Molino, 3.Joevin Jones; 9.Kenwyne Jones (captain) (11.Willis Plaza 90).
Unused substitutes: 24.Adrian Foncette (GK), 7.Hughtun Hector, 12.Sean De Silva, 17.Mekeil Williams, 19.Shahdon Winchester, 20.Trevin Caear, 23.Jomal Williams.
Coach: Stephen Hart
St Vincent and the Grenadines: 1.Lemus Christopher (GK); 14.Akeem Williams, 5.Shawn Benjamin, 3.Roy Richards (captain), 16.Jolanshoy McDowall, 4.Jarrel McMaster, 6.Shemol Trimmingham, 10.Oalex Anderson, 17.Emerald George (7.Kyle Edwards 83), 21.David Pitt (19.Shandel Samuel 66), 9.Myron Samuel.
Unused substitutes: 22.Kevan Henry (GK), 8.Darren Hamlett, 15.Kevin Francis, 20.Durwin Ross.
Coach: Cornelius Huggins
Referee: Jose Kellys (Panama)
Man of the Match: Levi Garcia (Trinidad and Tobago)
Russia 2018 World Cup qualifiers
(25 March 2016)
St Vincent and the Grenadines 2 (Myron Samuel 49 pen, Shandel Samuel), Trinidad and Tobago 3 (Shemol Trimmingham OG 51, Levi Garcia 71, 81) at Arnos Vale.