Hart’s Gold Cup blueprint

Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team head coach Stephen Hart is anxious for more international games in 2015 to offset his players’ shortcomings due to a lack of playing time in intense conditions.

The Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) announced an international friendly against Panama on Friday March 27 at the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain. However, it is Trinidad and Tobago’s only scheduled fixture at present before the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup in the United States.

In contrast, many of Trinidad and Tobago’s rivals, like Panama, would have played five times before the Gold Cup kicks off in July.

“Ideally, you want to play as many games as possible and teams like Panama and the United States have been able to play outside of FIFA dates,” Hart told Wired868, “but we struggle to do that because financially we are just not able to. Guatemala and El Salvador are two other nations who play continuously.

“Considering we are in a World Cup qualifying year, we need to be active constantly.”

Hart said the benefits of a more taxing international calendar went beyond team building for the “Soca Warriors.” He believes that, at the 2014 Caribbean Cup tournament, his squad suffered because many of his players were not playing regularly enough for their clubs abroad or not in an environment that was suitably intense to prepare them for international competition.

Trinidad and Tobago lost on penalties to Jamaica in the Caribbean Cup final. As a result, the “Reggae Boyz” will represent the region at the prestigious 2016 Copa America tournament.

“Sometimes when we go into international tournaments, we find players can play one game extremely intense but then drop off after that,” said Hart. “They are just not playing enough football games and at 90 minutes to endure high intensity competition. That is a problem at the moment for our national team.

“Too many players are playing 20 minutes here and there and less than 35 games a season and it is hard for them to keep up their intensity (at international level) for 90 minutes.”

Hart suggested it was not a simple matter of selecting more Pro League players to compensate for the exports who were not getting enough playing time since the local league is just not strenuous enough.

The Pro League is run over roughly eight months with 24 league matches whereas a professional player based in Britain would play between 38 to 46 league games—both exclusive of knock-out engagements—in a 10-month long season.

“I would like to see us have a 10-month league because that is what we are competing against,” said Hart. “Maybe the reintroduction of (zonal competitions with) the north, south, east and other select teams in some sort of round robin would help. Because we need something to extend the playing time of football.

“We will be going into the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifiers with a number of players who won’t be playing enough football.”

At present, Hart has a small pool of international players. Only 19 players have appeared more than four times for Trinidad and Tobago in his two-year stint as coach and just three of those players current earn their living in the Pro League.

But the former Canada-based coach insisted that he has no qualms about giving local-based players an opportunity.

“To be fair, more local players were utilised (during my time) but some have left the country between the time they played and now,” said Hart. “So I don’t think that stat speaks to my view on the Pro League… If a player is performing, I will select him no matter where he is playing.”

However, Hart used the example of a recent top of the table Pro League affair between leaders Central FC and defending champions DIRECTV W Connection to explain his concerns with the domestic game.

“The first 40 minutes of the game was modern in that it was fast and played in tight space and people didn’t have much room to play,” said Hart. “There were a lot of errors because players were struggling to cope technically but I thought it was very good and a step in the right direction.

“But, by the 60th minute, the game stretched to 65 yards from back line to back line and became more athletic but had less focus and intensity. So it gave (supporters) a false sense of action.

“If every (Pro League) game can be like the first 40 minutes that would be fantastic. But it goes to show that mentally they couldn’t keep up their concentration to keep up that high press and take away space from their opponent. Or, physically, one or two players couldn’t keep up and the (defensive) lines needed to be readjusted.”

Hart has already promised to use more Pro League players in the upcoming friendly against Panama. He admitted that the initial plan was to have two international games so the players would be observed for a longer period of time while he could alter the squad after the first match. However, the TTFA was unable to put that together.

What could he expect from the Pro League players with just four days to prepare for a full-strength Panama team?

“I am not looking for anything exceptional,” said Hart, “I have to be realistic. I am just looking to see how they can adapt.

“You do know that some players look good in the Pro League but, in a high stress environment, it will be much more difficult for them. I want to see who can pick things up quickly and are trying to fit in to the structure of our organisation and team.”

Hart noted that his immediate focus is on a strong showing at the Gold Cup and, as a result, he would not rule out using some players who might be too old for the upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Thirty nine year old Central FC utility player Marvin Oliver has already scooped up two Pro League Player of the Month awards and is his club’s second highest overall scorer despite playing primarily as a defensive sweeper or holding midfielder.

Would Oliver and other veterans be considered when Hart looks at his Pro League options?

The Warriors coach said he would decide based on the characteristics of the players available and that included qualities like endurance and athleticism.

“I am looking for players who are in the best form but you have to be realistic because you are only allowed three subs in international games,” said Hart, “and you cannot use players who can only play 20 or 30 minutes at that level. But if a player in showing exceptional form, then you have to look at them…

“Marvin (Oliver) has looked good in games in short periods of time but I cannot say he is playing strong over 90 minutes… Right now, I am looking for a very competitive, athletic midfield. I think we have good ball players but sometimes we struggle against athletic teams.”

Another intriguing prospect is 26-year-old Defence Force utility player Curtis Gonzales who has not been capped since November 2013. Gonzales, who played at right back and sweeper in two World Youth Cups, has played in three different positions for the “Teteron Boys” and Hart suggested that his versatility might also be a curse.

“Curtis is utilised all over the field and he is a young player and has to reach a situation where he is allowed to settle in and really learn a position,” said Hart. “Every time you go to evaluate him, he is playing in a different position.”

There was not encouraging news either for the Trinidad and Tobago National Under-20 players who are struggling for playing time at their respective Pro League teams like national youth captain Shannon Gomez and winger Aikim Andrews and gifted attacker Levi Garcia.

Garcia has agreed to join Eredivisie outfit, AZ Alkmaar, in November 2015 but continues to remain AWOL from his Pro League employers, Central FC, while Gomez and Andrews have failed to win regular starting positions with W Connection.

“It will be very difficult to select players who are not playing for their clubs,” said Hart. “If they are not playing for their clubs but in a strong reserve league you might consider it. But unfortunately we do not have that kind of environment (here).”

Hart said he hopes to kick off preparations with the Panama friendly in March and then hold further camps with local-based players in April and May. He would love to have international games in both months but accepts that he will be lucky to get just one game during that period.

The Pro League is scheduled to end on May 22 and the coach wants to have an extended camp from that date which leads into the international FIFA match day window between June 8 and 11. The Warriors should then have a break and return for pre-Gold Cup preparation in late June.

“I have laid out the program as I would like to see it,” said Hart. “I plan to have players go through an education process and an individual physical assessment program. And then we would have a series of tests and evaluation of performances leading up to selection for the Gold Cup…

“It is up to the Association to get the funding to make it happen."