Trinidad and Tobago are through to the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup group stage but it was the narrowest of margins which separated the Soca Warriors from their French Guiana opponents at the Drv Pnk Stadium in Fort Lauderdale this evening.
There were 14 successful penalty kicks taken before Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Nicklas Frenderup dived low to his left to keep out an effort by French Guiana defender Kévin Rimane.
And Defence Force defender Curtis ‘Boyo’ Gonzales’ subsequent kick was worth US$100,000 (TT$680,000) in prize money for the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA), as it propelled the Warriors into the next round and booked a meeting against Group A seeds, Mexico, in Texas on Saturday.
Even as local football fans prepare to see their boys challenge the best nations in the confederation again—for the first time, competitively, since the 2019 Gold Cup—Frenderup was quick to offer a word of caution.
“I didn’t think we [played] a good game,” said the Copenhagen-born goalkeeper. “We need to do a lot better because this was not good. We need to improve a lot more [against Mexico].”
Trinidad and Tobago’s 6-1 win over Montserrat last Friday was a relief to local fans and a return to the eye-catching offensive-minded approach generally expected from the players in red, white and black. However, today was a return to reality.
French Guiana had seven players over 30 years of age and only three with experience at a decent level of the professional game. Yet for roughly 50 minutes, the French islanders were in control and, arguably, were unlucky not to decide the affair in regulation time.
It was not for nothing that French Guiana coach Thierry De Neef made only one substitution in the first 80 minutes of play, before finally making three changes between the 84th and the 87th minutes.
‘Les Yana Dòkòs’ only ever qualified for one prior Gold Cup competition. This evening, they came agonisingly close to their second.
“I was trusting the game plan that we had,” said De Neef . “[…] With a little more luck, we could have won the game.”
Trinidad and Tobago interim head coach Angus Eve has had a lot of things go his way since replacing Terry Fenwick at the helm last month. Injuries are definitely not one of them.
The Warriors lost left winger Joevin Jones to a knee injury a week before the tournament, while left back Triston Hodge was replaced with a groin strain against Montserrat.
Today, there were two more muscle injuries within the first half as Judah Garcia and then team captain Khaleem Hyland pulled up lame. Hyland’s injury was particularly crucial.
After not really distinguishing themselves for much of the first 25 minutes, Trinidad and Tobago struck from nowhere in the 27th—as playmaker Kevin Molino threaded a pass to the overlapping right back Alvin Jones, whose first time shot struck the post only for Molino to tuck away the rebound.
Molino and the Jones brothers, as well as Hyland and Eve, are all from Carenage. Eve, who primarily selected players he had a previous working relationship with, might have smiled to himself.
Incidentally, that was Molino’s 23rd international goal from 52 matches, which is some strike rate for a midfielder. He is now joint fifth on Trinidad and Tobago’s all-time scoring list with forwards Kenwyne Jones and Cornell Glen.
The only midfielders who were more prolific than Molino for the twin island republic were Russell Latapy (34 international goals) and Arnold Dwarika (28 international goals), although Dwarika often played upfront.
French Guiana were rattled and Trinidad and Tobago could have doubled their lead in the 32nd minute, as forward Marcus Joseph ran on to a lofted pass from Molino before hitting below opposing goalkeeper Simon Lugier.
However, the referee’s assistant and VAR declared that Joseph was offside, by a matter of inches at best.
Then, with the Warriors looking good for their advantage, Hyland went down clutching his hamstring in the 42nd minute.
It is worth noting here that current tournament rules allow for five substitutions, but those must be made during three ‘substitution opportunities’ during the match. Changes made during the interval do not count towards a substitution opportunity.
Eve had already made one change, as he swapped Garcia with Andre Fortune II in the 21st minute. If he replaced Hyland before halftime, he would only have one opportunity to make a change during the final 45 minutes.
Was Eve hoping that the Warriors could hold on until the interval before making a change? Or was the technical staff hoping that the team captain would recover sufficiently to carry on?
After two minutes with a numerical advantage, French Guiana mustered an equaliser with a fine volleyed finish by flanker Arnold Abelinti—after defender Jelani Peters failed to get distance on his attempted headed clearance from a Baal cross.
One minute into first half stoppage time, Eve finally made the change as Duane Muckette entered the field for Hyland, just seconds before referee Ismail Elfath whistled for the break.
The Warriors had conceded an equaliser and lost a substitution opportunity.
Eve made another change during the interval, as he replaced his forward, Joseph, with Gonzales, a versatile defender. It was a radical change from the tactics employed against Montserrat, although not unfamiliar for those au courant with the coach’s Naparima College and Club Sando teams.
Eve, by nature, is a pragmatist.
“What we tried to do at the half is get some midfielders who could tackle in there,” he said. “[…] We tried to stabilise the midfield and play on the counter. We tried to break the lines because they sat very deep today.”
Trinidad and Tobago now had two defenders, Neveal Hackshaw and Gonzales in central midfield—although the role was not totally novel to either—while both full backs appeared to have their overlapping passes revoked.
From then on, the Warriors would defend with six players and attack with four. And, other than when they got Molino on the ball, the go-to tactic seemed to be long balls over the top.
It was a tactic that delivered nothing on the offensive end.
“We had a game plan to cover our backs,” said De Neef, in response to the Warriors’ long balls in the second half. “[…] Our players were on notice and we knew we had to challenge the player who was carrying the ball, [and] to play as a block.”
As the game wore on, Trinidad and Tobago looked increasingly like a team trying not to be beaten, while the elderly Frenchmen lacked the legs to do further damage.
“Physically, we had to accomplish an enormous task,” said De Neef, who pointed out that his team had no friendlies and had not played an international match in close to two years. “[…] We were physically spent. It was complicated.”
The game remained tied at one goal apiece after 90 minutes and it was straight to kicks from the penalty mark. Clearly both teams prepared extensively for this eventuality.
French Guiana went first and got goals from Thomas Vancaeyezeele, Carino Atchaliso, Rhudy Evens, Baal, Alex Eric, Dylan Adam, and Jessy Marigard respectively.
Each time, the Warriors responded successfully through Muckette, Hackshaw, Peters, Fortune II, Molino, Jones and then substitute Justin Garcia.
Then up stepped Rimane, an unemployed central defender who once played for the Paris St Germain ‘B’ team.
Up to that point, Frenderup had dived the right way for just two kicks—but was beaten for pace on both occasions. However, Rimane overcomplicated things with a stutter step and Frenderup held his ground before making a crucial save to his left.
And ‘Boyo’ Gonzales, a former World Youth Cup defender, had the chance to be the hero after failing to break into Fenwick’s team during the short-lived 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Gonzales’ first contribution as a substitute was to pick up a yellow card for a foul on opposing flanker Calvin Soga, who clearly mistook him for a cone. And it would be an understatement to say that he did little to help Trinidad and Tobago keep possession—although, to be fair, his aimless long punts looked to be in keeping with a tactical instruction.
From the spot, though, the soldier hit the target.
Trinidad and Tobago played poorly. But they prevailed.
“This was our goal coming here,” said Eve. “We had a very short [time frame] to prepare. We just came out of a failed World Cup campaign and there are a lot of emotions in the dressing room right now.”
Eve and his technical staff will decide on possible changes to his roster over the next two days. Tournament rules dictate that only injured players can be replaced and, even then, coaches can only select players from their initial long list.
Eve, who had 60 players on his provisional squad, is not exactly short of choice. This evening, though, he preferred to focus on the players who got Trinidad and Tobago over the line and into the group stage.
“We have a squad of 23 players and we believe in all of them,” he said. “The local guys lack match fitness and you saw it again today against a well organised team. But they [were] fantastic and they kept their concentration to the end.”
And what about playing Mexico? That’s why we are here, pal.
“We want to be playing against the best teams in the region,” said Eve.
If Fenwick had mirrored Eve’s successes so far, the Englishman would have been due a pay raise to US$25,000 a month along with a two-year extension—courtesy of a secret contract signed by former president William Wallace.
Eve is not nearly so lucky. Even if he wins the whole damn tournament, his contract expires at the end of August and he must then reapply for his job.
His future is very much up in the air then. But he has at least three more games in charge against Mexico, El Salvador and Curaçao respectively.
Trinidad and Tobago’s last brush with Concacaf’s top brass ended with a humiliating 7-0 friendly defeat under Fenwick. Eve will hope to avoid such a spanking against Mexico.
For now, though, the Warriors deserve some respite. Two games with as many wins and a ticket to the next round. That will do—for now.
Trinidad and Tobago (4-2-3-1): 21.Nicklas Frenderup (GK); 16.Alvin Jones, 2.Aubrey David, 4.Jelani Peters, 19.Ross Russell Jr (17.Justin Garcia 69); 8.Khaleem Hyland (captain) (20.Duane Muckette 45+1), 15.Neveal Hackshaw; 11.Judah Garcia (14.Andre Fortune II 21), 10.Kevin Molino (vice-captain), 7.Ryan Telfer (13.Reon Moore 69); 9.Marcus Joseph (5.Curtis Gonzales 46).
Unused substitutes: 22.Adrian Foncette (GK), 1.Marvin Phillip (GK), 3.Hashim Arcia, 6.Radanfah Abu Bakr, 12.Isaiah Lee, 18.Triston Hodge, 23.Jesse Williams.
Coach: Angus Eve
French Guiana (4-1-4-1): 1.Simon Lugier (GK); 12.Gary Marigard, 4.Alain Moges (5.Dylan Adam 87), 6.Kévin Rimane, 14.Grégory Lescot; 17.Thomas Vancaeyezeele; 11.Arnold Abelinti (18.Jessy Marigard 84), 10.Ludovic Baal (captain), 8.Rhudy Evens, 19.Calvin Soga (16.Carino Atchaliso 61); 9.Sloan Privat (21.Alex Eric 84).
Unused substitutes: 22.Noha Pulcherie (GK), 23.Jean-Beaunel Petit-Homme (GK), 2.Inrick Baal, 3.Marvin Torvic, 13.Teddy Adaoude, 7.Regis Leveille, 15.Miguel Haabo, 20.Marc Edwige.
Coach: Thierry De Neef
Wired868 has provided readers with solid, independent journalism since 2012. If you appreciate our work, please contribute to our efforts.
Support Independent Journalism