Former Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team captain and Atlanta United FC forward Kenwyne Jones and Minnesota United midfield ace Kevin Molino are both set to return to international action next week, after being named in a 26-man squad to face Panama and Mexico in Russia 2018 World Cup qualifying action at the Hasely Crawford Stadium on 24 and 28 March respectively.
Jones and Molino will be joined by 11 more foreign-based players, including Seattle Sounders left wing back Joevin Jones, KC Krylia Sovetov defender Sheldon Bateau and teenaged AZ Alkmaar attacker Levi Garcia.
Defence Force striker Jamille Boatswain keeps his place in the team—after his double in a 2-0 friendly win over Barbados on 10 March—while Central FC midfielder Leston Paul, San Jabloteh winger Nathan Lewis and Defence Force defender Curtis Gonzales also won picks into the final squad alongside regular faces like Central custodian Jan-Michael Williams, W Connection playmaker Hughtun Hector and unattached defender Daneil Cyrus.
Although there were no major surprises in the first competitive squad selected by rookie head coach Dennis Lawrence, Mexico-based striker Shahdon Winchester and Yohance Marshall, who both represent second division team Murcielagos FC alongside attacking midfielder Jomal Williams, might feel desperately unlucky to miss out.
Winchester scored a hattrick in his last outing for the Soca Warriors, which was a 4-3 loss Gold Cup qualifying loss to Haiti in January.
And Marshall, who scored a stoppage time equaliser in Trinidad and Tobago’s memorable 4-4 draw with Mexico at the 2013 Gold Cup, might wonder how he missed out despite being a regular player for a Mexican outfit—particularly when six of the nine defenders selected are in their pre-season or off-season.
San Jose Earthquakes winger Cordell Cato has also not featured at all this season and was not even the bench for his team’s last outing while defensive midfielder Kevan George and full back Aubrey David are still in their pre-season preparation with United States NASL team, Jacksonville Armada, and Finland club, PS Kemi, respectively.
Lawrence claimed his overseas contacts vouched for the fitness of his foreign-based players although he further suggested that playing time was one criteria used in his squad selection.
“With assessing the overseas based players, one of the things that was important was finding out how much game time they’ve been getting at the moment and their physical condition,” Lawrence told the TTFA Media, “because obviously the boys that play in the MLS, their season is only two games in.
“We managed, by use of our contacts in the US, to speak to some of the personnel at the clubs and get physical data on the players which helped us a lot because we knew what physical condition they were in coming into our camp. It all then came back down to what I want to do and what I think is best for the team and we made the selection based on that.”
Lawrence’s job might not have been helped by fact that the local Pro League ended a month ago either, although he kept a local squad together in constant training.
India-based striker Willis Plaza could certainly claim to have earned his ticket home after banging in 12 goals in seven games for East Bengal while Radanfah Abu Bakr (FK Sūduva—Lithuania), Khaleem Hyland, Bateau, Garcia and Joevin have featured regularly enough for their clubs.
But Lawrence, as with his selection of off-colour Central midfielder Keron Cummings to face Barbados, might have already hinted that he considers the individual attributes of his players before he looks at their form.
“We had to try and incorporate the players from abroad so we had to select based on the positions that were needed and required for what I want to do,” said Lawrence. “In the end we put together a group that will give us the best possible chance of getting the result against Panama.”
That meant a recall for Kenwyne who is yet to start for new MLS franchise, Atlanta, and played a combined 13 minutes of their two games so far before this weekend’s fixtures.
Kenwyne was symbolically dropped by former head coach Tom Saintfiet on the grounds that he was not mobile enough to lead the line.
However, Saintfiet’s verdict always seemed to be have more than a tinge of political self-interest since the former England Premier League player was not even available to represent his country at the time. And, ironically, Saintfiet’s team often resorted to sending lanky central defender, Abu Bakr, upfront and punting long balls towards him.
Jones has enjoyed a love/hate relationship with local fans for years.
He scored 15 goals from his first 30 matches under coach Stephen Hart and played a key role in the Soca Warriors’ successive Gold Cup quarterfinal berths in 2013 and 2015 and buried a brilliant volley in a 2-1 away win over Guatemala that helped take his squad into the CONCACAF Hex.
However, in 2016, Jones’ only goal from five matches in 2016 came in a 6-0 home win over St Vincent and the Grenadines and his poor form coincided with a dip in results for Trinidad and Tobago, which ultimately contributed to Hart’s dismissal.
Molino’s role in the Warriors’ poor 2016 run was even less savoury as he was twice disciplined and subsequently suspended from the team for breaching internal rules—he allegedly broke curfew to party on at least two occasions.
The skilful former FIFA Under-17 and Under-20 player remained every bit as treasured off the island as his move from Orlando City to newly promoted Minnesota United at a cost of US$650,000 set a new MLS transfer record.
It has not been all roses for Molino in Minnesota though, as his new employers set a less flattering record for the worst start in franchise history after losing 5-1 and 6-1 in their opening two matches. Molino contributed one successful penalty for the club to date.
Seattle play New York Red Bulls tonight while Colorado Rapids face Minnesota, Atlanta tackle Chicago Fire and San Jose Earthquakes take on Sporting Kansas City.
In Europe, Garcia suffered from the typical second season blues but bounced back to regain his starting position for Eredivisie club, AZ Alkmaar, in the Netherlands. He started in four of AZ’s last five games, during which time he scored his lone goal this season in a 7-1 hammering administered by France giants, Lyon, in a UEFA Europa League contest.
Lawrence claimed that he expects the local-based players to set the tone when his combined squad hits the training ground this week.
“The players that worked with me locally had a head start on the players that were abroad because I had more contact time with them,” said the Warriors coach, “and I think a lot of them understand exactly what we are trying to do, which I believe was important.
“I think in this case it’s going to be the other way around where the local players are going to be the ones leading. And I am hoping the players that come from abroad can just come in and it will be easier for them to integrate with the local players and [learn from] their knowledge of what has been happening in the preparations so far and it should help us to gel together for the game.”
Tickets for the Panama and Mexico contests, which both kick off from 7pm at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain, are available for TT$350 (covered) and TT$200 (uncovered) from March 18 to match day.
(Trinidad and Tobago 26-member squad)
Goalkeepers: Marvin Phillip (Morvant Caledonia United), Jan-Michael Williams (Central FC), Glenroy Samuel (Unattached);
Defenders: Carlos Edwards (Unattached), Alvin Jones, Tristan Hodge (W Connection), Aubrey David (PS Kemi—Finland), Daneil Cyrus (Unattached), Radanfah Abu Bakr (FK Sūduva—Lithuania), Curtis Gonzales (Defence Force), Sheldon Bateau (KC Krylia Sovetov—Russia), Mekeil Williams (Colorado Rapids—USA);
Midfielders: Andre Boucaud (Dagenham & Redbridge—England), Khaleem Hyland (KV Westerlo—Belgium), Kevan George (Jacksonville Armada—USA), Hughtun Hector (W Connection), Leston Paul (Central FC);
Attacking midfielders: Cordell Cato (San Jose Earthquakes—USA), Nathan Lewis (San Juan Jabloteh), Hashim Arcia (Defence Force), Kevin Molino (Minnesota United—USA), Joevin Jones (Seattle Sounders—USA), Levi Garcia (AZ Alkmaar—Netherlands);
Forwards: Kenwyne Jones (Atlanta United FC—USA), Willis Plaza (East Bengal—India), Jamille Boatswain (Defence Force).