Dennis Lawrence tasted his first defeat as a head coach tonight as Trinidad and Tobago were edged 1-0 by Mexico in Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying action at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain.
The result meant that the Soca Warriors dropped to the bottom of the CONCACAF Hex for the first time in this qualifying series with four matches played and six remaining. Mexico, on the other hand, are three points clear at the top now and sitting pretty with their next two fixtures at the formidable Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.
By mid-June, “El Tricolor” could book their place for the next World Cup, which is some achievement considering that they needed a FIFA play-off tussle with New Zealand to sneak into the Brazil 2014 party.
Yet, the margin of victory was razor-thin tonight. One scandalous offside decision by Jamaican referee’s assistant, Richard Washington, and one instance of dozy defending by the Warriors backline made the difference.
Joevin Jones’ 32nd minute rocket was not given for Trinidad and Tobago while Diego Reyes’ thumping header in the 57th minute stood for the North American visitors. And it meant the Warriors’ third defeat from four matches.
The roughly 19,000 spectators present could seek solace in the fact that Mexico knew they were in a game. Joevin terrorised either full-back while the local-based central defensive pairing of Daneil Cyrus and Curtis Gonzales again did not look out of place—ably protected once more by midfield destroyer Kevan George.
And record-chasing Mexico forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez had a barren night.
But it might have been better. Mexico had not won in Port-of-Spain for 12 years and their last two trips here ended in a defeat and a draw in 2005 and 2009 respectively.
Tonight, Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio made five changes to the starting team that downed Costa Rica 2-0 in Mexico City last Friday, with only veteran defender Juan Marquez’s absence down to injury.
The pair of holding midfielders, Jesus Molina and Reyes, were arguably introduced to provide more height to defend against Trinidad and Tobago captain Kenwyne Jones and company from set pieces. Presumably, the other adjustments were meant to offer fresh legs for the visitors.
In contrast, Trinidad and Tobago made just one adjustment with Aubrey David replacing 38-year-old veteran Carlos Edwards at right-back.
Lawrence’s decision to leave Sheldon Bateau, Levi Garcia, Andre Boucaud and Radanfah Abu Bakr on the substitutes’ bench—all four of them are active for their respective clubs—was all the more surprising giving that six of the Warriors’ starting XI, including goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams and three of the back four, are either in pre-season or post-season.
Of course, thanks to GPS technology, Lawrence doesn’t have to guess as to the precise physical condition of his players—unlike his predecessor Stephen Hart—and there was little sign that his faith in Cyrus and Gonzales was misplaced.
The first half-hour was fairly even with Mexico captain Hector Moreno threatening with a header following a set piece while Hector Herrera hit a free shot wide from 20 yards. And, at the other end, Joevin tested opposing goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera with one teasing cross while Kevin Molino offered the Mexican custodian some catching practice with a low, angled effort straight at him.
Then, in the 32nd minute, came the first flashpoint. Molino picked up the ball on the counter and slipped it into Joevin’s stride to his left. And the Seattle Sounders wing-back sent a spanking left-footed effort past Talavera.
Jamaican referee’s assistant Richard Washington had his flag up early, though, and his compatriot, Valdin Legister, disallowed the item for offside. It was a terrible decision by the Jamaican pair. So much for the benefits of Caribbean free movement.
Goalless at the end of the half, the Warriors took some time to settle in after the resumption.
Just one minute into the second half, Herrera rapped the far post with a low effort from a ridiculous angle. And, in the 55th minute, Molino was incensed by a comment from Hernandez and got himself booked as players from both teams squared off angrily in the middle of the field.
The mood was still tetchy as Mexico won a corner kick, in the 57th minute and Osorio took the opportunity to introduce former Arsenal attacker Carlos Vela.
For an instant, Trinidad and Tobago minds might have wandered off. And the damage was done. Gonzales spotted the danger in Reyes’ run too late, as the defensive midfielder met Miguel Layun’s corner kick with a powerful header that flew past Williams at his near post.
It was the first goal conceded by Lawrence’s team in 237 minutes of football.
The Warriors tried to claw their way back as Joevin stepped on the accelerator. Mexican right-back Carlos Salcedo was booked for a desperate grab on the former W Connection attacker in the 61st minute while, 10 minutes later, left back Luis Reyes also saw yellow for hauling down the Trinidad and Tobago winger.
But Trinidad and Tobago were not making up much ground otherwise. Molino was crowded out and forced to the fringes of the action while substitute Jamille Boatswain, who replaced Kenwyne Jones in the 65th minute, was totally ineffective.
Forward Willis Plaza, who entered the fray in the 80th minute, did add some bite. But Lawrence’s substitutions thus far have not worked well nearly as well as his starting teams.
Encouragingly, the Warriors fought to the last whistle. But it was not enough, as they slumped to the bottom of the Hex.
Trinidad and Tobago’s next two outings are away as they travel to the United States on 8 June and then to Costa Rica on 13 June. Neither nation holds good memories for the Warriors as visitors. But failure to pick up a point or two would be disastrous.
Even if Trinidad and Tobago contrived to win their remaining home fixtures against Honduras and the United States, it would not be enough to get to Russia unless they can also snatch three to six points on the road.
From here on in, it is do or die.
Trinidad and Tobago (4-2-3-1): 21.Jan-Michael Williams (GK); 2.Aubrey David, 25.Curtis Gonzales, 5.Daneil Cyrus, 17.Mekeil Williams; 19.Kevan George, 8.Khaleem Hyland (14.Andre Boucaud 65); 7.Cordell Cato (15.Willis Plaza 80), 10.Kevin Molino, 3.Joevin Jones; 9.Kenwyne Jones (captain) (20.Jamille Boatswain 65).
Unused substitutes: 1.Marvin Phillip (GK), 22.Glenroy Samuel (GK), 4.Sheldon Bateau, 6.Radanfah Abu Bakr, 11.Carlos Edwards, 12.Hashim Arcia, 13.Hughtun Hector, 16.Levi Garcia, 23.Leston Paul.
Coach: Dennis Lawrence
Mexico (4-2-3-1): 12.Alfredo Talavera (GK); 3.Carlos Salcedo (17.Jesus Gallardo 66), 2.Nestor Araujo, 15.Hector Moreno (captain), 22.Luis Reyes; 5.Diego Reyes (21.Orbelin Pineda 74), 23.Jesus Molina; 9.Raul Jimenez (11.Carlos Vela 56), 16.Hector Herrera, 7.Miguel Layun; 14.Javier Hernandez.
Unused substitutes: 1.Jesus Corona (GK), 13.Guillermo Ochoa (GK), 6.Oswaldo Alanis, 8.Jonathan Dos Santos, 10.Luis Nontes, 18.Elias Hernandez, 19.Oribe Peralta, 20.Jesus Duenas.
Coach: Juan Carlos Osorio
Referee: Valdin Legister (Jamaica)
CONCACAF Hex results
(Tuesday 28 March 2017)
Honduras 1, Costa Rica 1 in San Pedro Sula;
Trinidad and Tobago 0, Mexico 1 in Port of Spain;
Panama 1, USA 1 in Panama City
CONCACAF Hex Standings
(Tabulated as Played-Won-Drawn-Lost-Goals For-Goals Against-Points)
Costa Rica 4-2-1-1-7-3-7
United States 4-1-1-2-8-7-4