“Once we defend well against Guatemala, we will win,” said Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 team head coach Derek King. “The most important thing is to limit the mistakes and defend well for 90-plus minutes.
“Going forward, we will not have a problem. Opportunities (to score) will not be a problem.”
There is a quiet confidence about the Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 squad that belies their shambolic pre-tournament preparations.
While teams like Canada and the United States toured Europe and CONCACAF for months, King did not get his Caribbean Cup winning team together until roughly three weeks before its opening World Cup qualifying match. Even then, he was without his first choice goalkeeper, Johan Welch, until January 3.
But if the “Soca Warriors” defeat Guatemala from 4 pm today at Jamaica’s National Stadium in Kingston, Trinidad and Tobago will move six points clear of the United States—albeit with a game in hand—and will be favoured to at least get a play-off spot against, probably, either of Canada, Honduras, Haiti or El Salvador from Group B.
The two group winners qualify automatically to the New Zealand 2015 FIFA Under-20 World Cup while the second and third place teams from each six team group will battle for the two remaining spots.
At present, Panama, Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago are the only unbeaten teams in Group A. But the United States outfit is expected to start its revival today against table propers, Aruba, and there remains the feeling that Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago might be fighting for third.
It is not a feeling that King shares.
“I am watching this as four teams competing for three spots,” King told Wired868. “We are not aiming for third. The most important thing is a win against Guatemala and then we are going for Panama and the US. We are going for them.”
There is more to this bunch of talented teenagers that meets the eye. But then the same can be said of its coach.
At 34, King is the youngest member of his technical staff and the baby of the head coaches at this tournament. He rarely wears a suit and is not the sort for witty soundbytes or provocative analogies.
It might be easy to miss the fact that he is a former Pro League Coach of the Year and the only coach to take a clean sweep of titles in Trinidad and Tobago’s domestic professional era while at Joe Public.
King might also be the only Trinidad and Tobago coach to win a competitive fixture against a Mexican team in hostile territory. In 2009, he led Public to a 1-0 CONCACAF Champions’ League group stage victory over Atlante at the Estadio Andres Quintana Roo in Cancun. Incidentally, Atlante went on to win the entire competition.
King also holds the UEFA B coaching licence and did the first part of his UEFA A licence to go along with his local C and D certifications. He hopes to complete his UEFA A licence later this year although there is the matter of roughly TT$60,000 in fees along with, presumably, airfare and expenses.
The Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) promises its youth coaches a stipend of between TT$3,000 to TT$4,000 per month but no one has been paid in about two years.
King would probably be accustomed to doing things the hard way by now. At 24, the promising central defender—King was slow but a perceptive reader of the game with a decent passing range—saw his world come crashing down in a league match for Public against Stokely Vale in the Marvin Lee Stadium, Macoya.
“I was in possession and (the Stokely Vale captain) came in with a two footed tackle,” he said. “All I knew after that is I was heading to Medical Associates with a twisted knee cap.”
It was February 2005 and King, who had 33 international caps and captained Trinidad and Tobago in a friendly against Azerbaijan that January, had big hopes for the country’s 2006 World Cup campaign.
But he never played competitive football again and he was still in crutches, a year and a half later, when his teammates lined up in Dortmund to make history as the youngest nation to play in a FIFA senior World Cup finals.
Soon after, controversial ex-FIFA vice president and Public owner, Jack Warner, gave King the news he dreaded.
“Jack called me into a 5 am meeting and told me to forget playing football,” said King. “He said I would work with (Public technical director) Keith Look Loy as assistant technical director and I started working with the Under-16 team after that.”
King, who did an ACL reconstructive surgery and has two screws in his knee, did his first coaching course in 2008 and the once thoughtful player became an equally studious coach. He did half his coaching badges under Dutch coaches and the rest with British tutors—his classmates for his UEFA A licence included current Manchester United assistant manager Ryan Giggs and ex-FA head of elite development Gareth Southgate—and he claimed to have adopted ideas from both while he is a big fan of Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola.
“I like my players to be fit and I like good ball movement and winning the ball higher up (the field),” said King. “Everything (the Dutch coaches) do is with the ball and when you analyse their patterns of play they are always using triangles and so on (while) their style of play utilises the width of the field too…
“The English are more disciplined and rigid in the way the play and more direct. They don’t alter their shape no matter what and I like my back four to be like that.”
King’s Warriors play with a solid back four that gives licence to captain and right back Shannon Gomez to bomb forward. He usually uses two midfield shields with wingers and split attackers.
His wingers are fast and skilful, his central players are inventive and always interested looking for the ball and his team is equally adept at attacking down either flank or through the centre.
On Friday night, they treated Jamaica to an almost perfect hour of football as striker Kadeem Corbin had the “Reggae Boyz” chasing shadows, playmaker Duane Muckette controlled central midfield, left winger Akeem Garcia mesmerised with his stuttering dribble moves and ability to go inside or outside his marker while Gomez and Aikim Andrews were so dominant down the right flank that opposing coach Theodore Whitmore used four different combinations to try to stop them.
By halftime, dozens of Jamaicans had left “The Office” for fear of witnessing a thumping. Somehow, the Warriors let a two-goal lead slip and ended 2-2 after Jamaica’s Junior Flemmings scored a stoppage time free kick.
“I haven’t seen a Trinidad and Tobago team play total football like in that first half against Jamaica,” said King. “After the game, you could throw a pin in the room (and hear it). The players knew they threw away the game.
“We are still disappointed with the (result in the) first game but we can’t cry in the face of the Lord. It done happen already so we have to move on.”
King did not offer excuses for their late lapse. In truth, the Warriors did not have a single international game since last September’s Caribbean Cup. And, in their pre-tournament camp in Fort Lauderdale, he rotated his squad to give everyone some minutes against two assembled teams rather than offer extended run-outs to his likely starters.
It meant that the Warriors are still learning as they go along and substitute Ricardo John, for instance, had never played an international fixture before the Jamaican match.
“In international football, you cannot make certain mistakes that you would get away with in your local league or school football,” said King.
Fortunately, Aruba was next and the inexperienced Dutch outfit was no match for the Warriors. But King was not satisfied with their 5-1 win either as Trinidad and Tobago again conceded a late goal and sometimes played without menacing intent.
“Aruba was playing the ball in the back and keeping it there,” said King. “And when I analysed our mentality it was like we met a side that was not at our level so we dropped the intensity. It is something that I am trying to get out of their heads.
“When I spoke to a few of the guys after, they said ‘coach man but they were not really coming at us’. But that is not the point. If Mexico holds on to a side like that they will kill them off. That is the mentality I want.”
It is not just the natural ability and strength in depth that makes the current Under-20 team such a joy to watch. It is also the tactical flexibility. And King deserves much credit for that.
As the Warriors’ began to coast through the match at 3-0, King altered his team’s set-up by sacrificing a holding midfielder in an effort to press higher up the field. The move reaped two goals within 20 minutes.
King spoke at length about the subtle variations in his midfield shape in response to if an opponent is attempting to build through the back or play on the break and whether they use orthodox wingers or the inverted type who cut inside for shooting opportunities.
Tactically, Guatemala, who has already defeated Jamaica and tied the United States, is an awkward opponent. The Central American team plays a back three with a flat midfield four and three strikers who play at arm’s length from each other when in possession but always seek out pockets of space in anticipation of counter attacks while their teammates defend.
King said he is ready for the challenge.
“Guatemala would probably start like Aruba who held a (defensive) block on their halfline to stop us playing the ball into our midfielders,” said King. “We have stoppers who can play and bring the ball. If they do that we will go direct for 10 or 15 minutes and force them to change and then we can get on the ball again.
“It is not every time you can play the ball from the back and I tell the guys that. Sometimes they might be a little over confident and feel that they can do it but sometimes we have to play direct too.
“We do plenty video sessions and analyse certain situations so that we are ready for them. And, as a coach, I don’t sit down. I’m always giving instructions.”
Andrews, who has two goals, an assist and won a penalty against Aruba, is a doubt for this afternoon after he was substituted with a swollen ankle on Sunday. But King hopes that physiotherapist Saron Joseph and trainer Michael Taylor get the versatile winger ready in time. He described Joseph and Taylor as two of his most important staff member as they try to endure a gruelling competition.
“The length of the tournament with the amount of games for players (who are) under-20 is ridiculous,” said King, whose team plays three of its five group games under overhead sun as opposed to Jamaica, Haiti, Honduras and the United States who play all their matches under lights. “The guys are a little fatigued but we are doing some ice baths and pool sessions and recovery drinks. The physio and trainer are working around the clock.”
King gave credit to the know-how of his technical staff and particularly senior team head coach Stephen Hart, who is in Jamaica as an advisor and does not sit on the bench. King is Hart’s assistant on the senior team and has learned from him as well.
“Hart always gives you a chance to express yourself as a coach,” said King. “He is a boss who listens and makes his entire staff feel important… His coaching method is he breaks down everything and is always happy to explain why he makes his decisions.
“We have a really good understanding and it is the same with Hutson Charles and everyone else.”
A united, meticulous technical staff has been the perfect support for a talented, disciplined group of players who are seeking to become the third Trinidad and Tobago team to qualify for a FIFA Under-20 World Cup.
“It is a tough tournament and the guys are responding well and they know the task at hand,” said King. “They are trying their utmost best to make the country proud.”
A win today would really get the pulses racing as the Warriors aim to make light of scarce resources and inadequate preparation to qualify for the country’s first World Cup tournament in six years.
King urged fans and corporate Trinidad and Tobago to pay closer attention to his squad.
“There is something special about this team,” said King. “With the talent and the ability and the discipline these guys have, this has got to be the future of Trinidad and Tobago’s football. I have seen all the teams play so far and I don’t think anyone is more talented than us.
“Once we can get these guys to believe in themselves, it is eleven against eleven out there and I think we can match any of these teams.”
Guatemala will be the next test of the rising confidence within the Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 team’s ranks.