Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 Team coach Russell Latapy admitted that a good showing—rather than qualification for the Poland 2019 Under-20 World Cup—is the realistic aim for his squad, with least than a week together, as they prepare for next week’s Concacaf Championship in the United States.
Trinidad and Tobago are grouped with St Vincent and the Grenadines, Puerto Rico, Suriname, the US Virgin Islands and defending champions and host country, United States.
USA, led by veteran youth team coach Tab Ramos, have had five camps and played seven internationals since March. Fifteen of their 20-man squad represent professional clubs in Belgium, Germany, Portugal and their own Major League Soccer (MLS).
In contrast, Latapy had one session with his local-based players—on Wednesday morning—before he had to submit his final team list to Concacaf, since the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) already missed the deadline by 24 hours and needed special dispensation to be registered at all.
The Under-20s were inactive since the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games in July, as the TTFA—due to financial issues—stalled over Latapy’s proposed preparation programme for the team along with salaries/stipends owed to staff members.
“Going by these last two days, our fitness levels are average and some players are carrying knocks but we are working with them to get them 100%,” said Latapy. “I think it goes without saying that our expectations would be to do the best that we can and really give these players the chance to be in the shop window, as there would be lots of clubs, coaches, scouts and schools looking for players.
“In terms of moving forward with the USA in our group, was always going to be an uphill challenge; and the lack of preparation makes it even harder. But I’ve said to the players that we have a unique opportunity in that we can play without the added pressure of expectation.
“Again, we are going to do the best that we can.”
Trinidad and Tobago open their campaign next Thursday against St Vincent and the Grenadines at the IMG Academy at Bradenton, Florida. The lack of preparation time meant, according to the Under-20 coach, that late bloomers like St Augustine Secondary forward Kesean St Rose, who leads the SSFL Premier Division with goals, and San Juan North Secondary midfielder Elair Brewster were unable to get a look in.
“I had to stick to the players that I worked with before because I know I can get them to play in a particular way,” said Latapy. “With less than a week, we have no time to do defensive and offensive organisation [in training]. So I have to go with the players I know.”
Even then, Latapy had to go on blind faith at times. He recalled 18 year old Canada-born utility player Luke Singh, despite not seeing him in two years. Singh played midfield for Latapy at National Under-17 level but, now standing at six foot two, has since refashioned himself as a central defender for Toronto FC II.
Diminutive playmaker Che Benny has not represented his country in this calendar year either but, at present, is a member of the Leixões set-up in the Portugal Second Division. Latapy admitted that he doesn’t know much about how Benny is getting on—the former St Ann’s Rangers midfielder and St Anthony’s College student is believed to be representing the Leixões second team.
However he thinks the technical ability of Benny and Singh as well as the competitiveness of their current arenas should make them valuable additions to his team.
“These are players I have worked with over the past year or two,” said Latapy, “and because we didn’t have a lot of time for organisational work, I decided to go with them because of their technical ability.”
Latapy said the entire Under-20 Team technical staff agreed to rejoin the team, although it is uncertain what concessions were given by the football body since they all appeared to have separate agreements with president David John-Williams.
Latapy said he did not get involved in negotiations between his staff and the TTFA.
“Everyone has different life situations they are dealing with,” he said, “so I let the staff make the decision for themselves. Everybody has to live and stand by the decision they make.”
Latapy, a Trinidad and Tobago Sports Hall of Fame inductee and a recipient of the Chaconia Medal (gold and silver) and Hummingbird Medal (gold) national awards, said his motivation to resume coaching was the teenaged players, who could use the tournament as a springboard. However, he also noted a new agreement with John-Williams.
“In my personal situation, I haven’t received anything yet but I am here because I have made a commitment to these young men and I believe I know them and can get the best out of them,” said Latapy, a former professional with Porto, Boavista, Glasgow Rangers and Hibernian and a World Cup 2006 player. “I have made an agreement with the TTFA and if they live up to that then I am all in. But before the plane leaves, they have to do something…”
Latapy does not want to contemplate his response if the John-Williams-led body fails to keep its word again. With barely a week left before the Concacaf competition, he hopes to be able to focus on getting the best from his squad.
“My job is coaching, so now I have to try to get the best out of the players in that short space of time,” said Latapy. “I do not want to take the focus away from that at this point in time. About eight weeks ago, I revealed some of our issues as I felt that there was still enough time to get the team ready.
“I was hoping the [TTFA] administration and the stakeholders would jump on it and make things happen; but that didn’t materialise and we are where we are.
“[…] Now we are going into a Concacaf showroom and I am going to try to get the best out of them and I won’t want to focus on anything else until after the tournament.
“If we can get a few players to get the opportunity for scholarships and professional trials, for me that would be a successful outcome.”
Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 Squad
Goalkeepers: Denzil Smith (W Connection), Jabari Brice (Unattached);
Defenders: Kerdell Sween (Trinity College East), Jerrin Jackie (Presentation College), Justin Homer (Kean University—US), Mikel Mieres (Morvant Caledonia Utd), Luke Singh (Toronto FC II), Matthew Beal (Shiva Boys Hindu College), Derron John (Club Sando);
Midfielders: Jabarry Francis (Club Sando), Judah Garcia (Point Fortin Civic), Shaqkeem Joseph (Moruga Secondary), Ethan Bonaparte (St Augustine Secondary);
Attacking midfielders: Che Benny (Leixões—Portugal), Kishon Hackshaw (St Ann’s Rangers), John-Paul Rochford (QRC), Nickel Orr (San Juan Jabloteh), Mark Ramdeen (Naparima College);
Forwards: Jaydon Prowell (North East Stars), Isaiah Lee (Monroe College—US).
Technical staff: Russell Latapy (head coach), Alexandrine Elliot-Procope (manager), Caleb De Souza (assistant coach), Kevin Graham (goalkeeper coach), Otis Hislop (therapist), Devin Elcock (equipment manager), Dexter Thomas (trainer), Dr Kavi Ali (doctor).