With a group game to spare, hosts Trinidad and Tobago were yesterday eliminated from the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship tournament. Canada produced a come-from-behind 4-1 victory at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva to send the Junior Women Warriors crashing out in the first round despite their home advantage.
The 16-year-old forward Jordyn Huitema bagged a hattrick to position herself at the top of the goal-scoring charts with five goals. And, in doing so, she propelled the North American women giants into the semi-final round.
There they will join Haiti who had earlier conjured up a nervy 3-2 win against Costa Rica after “Los Ticos” battled back from 0-3 down at the end of the first half.
Canada and Haiti are now perfect on six points each and face each other in tomorrow’s penultimate Group A encounter with the all-important first place up for grabs. Finishing atop the group is not just important for keeping momentum but it is also likely to mean earning the bonus of avoiding perennial champions, USA, in the semi-finals.
“I think that internally we are very clear that we want to win the group,” Canada’s head coach Beverly Priestman told the media at the post-match briefing. “I think it sends a statement about where we are at as a nation and, with that, we know what we need to do to get the three points from Haiti.
“I think tonight’s game brought some great challenges that we feel we will learn from. Haiti […] would be a similar style of opponent (so) we’ll take care of that and make sure we’re ready.
“This goal is about qualifying for a World Cup and then, internally, we want to go all the way and win this tournament!”
In complete contrast to the confidence of the Canadian coach was the resigned demeanour of Trinidad and Tobago head coach Jamaal Shabazz in his post-match assessment. His long experience led him to believe that what had once again proved his team’s undoing was lack of consistency over extended periods of time and the sheer superiority of their opponents.
“We started well but we’re not able to keep pace with the opponents,” Shabazz offered. “Canada is a superior opponent and we couldn’t be very open. It bore fruit for us as we were 1-1 at the end of the first half.
“The ability to be consistent […] and stay in battle is something that we need to work on. But certainly, we’ve shown the ability to get our goals in front and it’s a very positive thing for us.”
The performance in the tournament will not have lifted spirits but one area about which few will have any complaint is the scoring of early goals and brilliant ones at that. The Junior Woman Soca Warriors provided the roughly 2,200-odd supporters with some déjà vu, as they were once again treated to the spectacle of a Prince celebration wheel-away after a 3rd-minute strike.
Dennecia Prince, scorer of the first goal against Haiti on Thursday, turned provider this time, serving up a low corner which her namesake, Aaliyah Prince, swivelled and hit a beauty of a first-time shot which curled in for the opening goal.
Prince (A), one of the youngest members of the squad at 16, was promoted from the Under-17 National Team. She was largely frustrated against the Haitians but she found her feet and her goal-scoring boots against the fancied Canadians.
The visitors are not short on confidence—and with good reason. Within six minutes, they responded with an equaliser, Huitema recording her first goal of the evening after an error by T&T custodian K’lil Keshwar.
Despite her slip-up, Shabazz describes Keshwar as having “a very bright future.” The reason is that, had it not been for her, the score-line would have been much worse heading into the interval.
And Shabazz saw the team’s inability to settle down and take charge of the game as the result of their trying too hard to live up to the home crowd’s expectations.
“I thought when they [T&T] got ahead, the burden of responsibilities, [of] playing at home [affected them]. The girls are very emotional,” said Shabazz. “They feeling too much like ‘Okay. If we don’t win, we let down the country.’ I think they focused too much on the result.
“The result comes at the end, the performance is here and now. We want them to play in the here and the now and to stay in the moment.”
Heading into the tournament, Shabazz had said that he hoped the team could embrace the pressure and give T&T supporters and the nation at large something to smile about.
Shabazz’s counterpart in the opposing dugout also felt that her own team’s less-than-perfect performance in the first half was attributable to the fervent support by the excited crowd on hand.
“We played in front a lot of home fans and that brought some chaos I felt in the first half,” said Priestman. “These young players, they let that get to them in the first half but, second half, I felt that we brought our style of play and stuck to our process and I thought we dominated the second half.”
At the interval, the English coach brought on her rested captain Gabby Carle, who had been given a breather with an eye towards going all the way in the tournament, to help settle the team and turn the tide in their favour.
She did just that.
Carle, a 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medallist, began to set the tempo and ensured that Canada were able to head off any further threat from the speedy T&T attackers.
Huitema, the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals, also credits Carle with enabling them to return to playing their brand of football and rallying to claim the victory.
“It was very chaotic but we brought down the tempo and played our style of soccer,” Huitema told the media post-game. “As far as goals, I can’t do it without my team so I’m just happy for the support from them.”
The hotshot striker ran the T&T defence ragged and produced a clever improvised finish in the 50th minute to give the visitors the lead. Just before the end of regulation time, she notched her third after outpacing her markers to pounce on a loose ball.
Sandwiched between Huitema’s items, Carle dispatched a penalty after T&T captain Natisha John was adjudged to have handled the ball in the box and was subsequently given her marching orders by the official.
On the balance of play, John’s sending-off may not have altered the overall result but it is certainly no understatement to say it was harsh—it being virtually impossible for her to have prevented the ball from hitting her hand.
In the opening encounter in Couva, though there were some moments of genuine concern for the Haitians, there was no such controversy.
Star Haitian forward Nérilia Mondésir was not even needed on the score sheet as Roseline Éloussaint, Nelourde Nicolas and Melchie Daelle Dumonay punished some charitable and sometimes downright suicidal defending by the Costa Ricans.
It was the tenacious and skilful midfielder Dumonay who produced the best of the lot, though, with an expert header from a right-side free-kick to cap off a fine first-half performance. Haitian head coach Marc Collat concedes that, in the 15-year-old, he has a special talent on his hands but he was quick to point out that she is still quite young and has more developing to do.
“Dumonay is very young, very young but is a good player and has what it takes to go the distance as she is very talented,” said Collat, via a translator.
In the second half, with Mondésir consistently on the end of some rugged challenges and Dumonay’s influence waning, Costa Rica threatened an unlikely comeback.
On the heels of Daela Coto’s fortuitous free kick that floated straight in, Hillary Corrales produced a remarkable run and finish to reduce the arrears to one. What followed was a frantic 15 minutes for the Haitians but, to Collat’s relief, they were able to weather the storm.
Costa Rica head coach Amelia Valverde admitted after the game that she would be looking to give opportunities to the younger players in her squad for the final group game against T&T on Monday.
With injuries and suspension a concern, Shabazz is also expected to shuffle his pack since he wants his team “to continue to play and give credibility to the tournament and the country and come out and give 100%.”
With much more on their plates and on the line, however, Canada and Haiti can be expected to give perhaps even more than that.