In the first of a two part series, Trinidad and Tobago head coach Stephen Hart discusses his team’s Gold Cup chances, the Khaleem Hyland gamble, Kenwyne Jones’ tactical adjustments and the extent of Kevin Molino’s absence to the Warriors:
Trinidad and Tobago National Senior Team head coach Stephen Hart declared that he is “cautiously optimistic” about taking the “Soca Warriors” into the CONCACAF Gold Cup’s knockout round for the second consecutive tournament, despite the myriad of problems that have affected the team.
“And, once you get there, anything can happen.”
The Warriors open their 2015 Gold Cup campaign against Guatemala in Chicago on July 9 before playing Cuba and Mexico on July 12 and 15 respectively. The two group winners advance automatically along with the two best third place teams from the three groups.
Mexico have registered a strong squad, which includes Manchester United striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Real Sociedad attacker Carlos Vela, PSV playmaker Andrés Guardado and brothers Giovani and Jonathan Dos Santos.
However, Hart said their opener against Guatemala will probably be the toughest game of the Warriors’ campaign.
“The opening game sets the tone for the tournament and it is always your most difficult game,” said Hart. “The last time, the final game in the group was the most important because we slipped up in the second game (of the 2013 Gold Cup). But the most difficult game is always the first game.”
Hart spent yesterday in Tobago preparing for the funeral of his mother, Monica Hart, who passed away at the age of 92 at the Scarborough General Hospital on June 24. She will be buried in Tobago today.
The Warriors leave Trinidad tomorrow for a pre-Gold Cup camp in Fort Lauderdale.
The senior coaching staff, according to a team member, has not been paid since February while they are still owed match fees from the 2014 Caribbean Cup final against Jamaica.
Hart has been partially paid up by the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) since he is the only national coach with a job contract from the local football body.
On May 22, Sport Minister Brent Sancho promised to resume payments to the Senior Team coaches, leading up to the Gold Cup: “with an initial release to cover two months outstanding salaries for coaches and technical staff of the senior men’s programme.”
Last night, Sancho reiterated that a directive was given to pay the coaches and promised to give more information today.
“We gave an order to pay the funds,” Sancho told Wired868. “But I have no info in front of me, so I can’t give a comment.”
The Warriors face a big challenge already on the playing field, as Hart needs to turn around a team that lost all three outings this year without scoring a single goal against Panama, Curaçao and Jordan.
Hart suggested that he is not reading too much into those results, though.
“I can’t say it worries me because those were exhibition games and there was a lot of experimenting,” he said. “We created a lot of chances against Curaçao and had chances to do something against Jordan, although we didn’t play well.”
After the Warriors’ 3-0 loss to Jordan, Hart described his team’s performance as “awful” while he claimed that several players didn’t deserve the national shirt on the day.
There were few surprises in his final 23-man Gold Cup roster, though, and all 11 players who started against Jordan will travel to Fort Lauderdale. Hart said his squad needed a verbal shake-up at the time. But he remains confident in his troops.
“I spoke to them in the dressing room right after the game, which I never do, and I told them exactly what I told the press,” said Hart. “I love my players but I am not in love with them. I will protect them once I think they have done everything in their power to fulfil their role. But if they don’t, I will be critical.
“Sometimes what I say in the dressing room, I don’t say in the media. But I saw certain things setting in that were a major issue for me.”
Hart admitted for the first time that central midfielder Khaleem Hyland, who was a spectator for much of last season after being frozen out by former Belgium employer Racing Genk, is playing for his squad place after a string of sub-par performances.
“He knows that (he hasn’t played well) and that is the gamble right now,” said Hart. “He and (Andre) Boucaud are playing for their positions and they know that. I was very impressed with how they trained (last week). They give 100 percent all the time.
“I think once they get the pre-tournament camp under their belts and get to the right playing weight, they should come good.”
And what about skipper Kenwyne Jones, whose goal slump coincides with the Warriors’ inability to find the back of the net for five successive games?
Hart said he was encouraged with the Cardiff City forward’s work rate for his last two internationals. And he believes Jones is missing the productive partnership he formed with injured Orlando City playmaker Kevin Molino.
“I thought he worked hard against Curaçao and was unlucky not to come away with a goal or two,” said Hart, “and he did some very good things against Jordan. Like every other striker, he needs to get the right final pass and he needs players to get up to support him.
“He has been isolated too often and I have been talking to Ataullah Guerra about that and trying to get him to play higher up the pitch, so he can get the ball closer to the penalty box.
“Once Kenwyne has someone close to him giving him support, he cannot be double teamed as easily.”
Hart tried to explain the hole left in his squad by the absence of Molino, who was the TTFA’s 2014 Player of the Year.
“I don’t think we have any player who plays like Molino on the squad,” he said. “He has unbelievable ball sense in the speed that he does things, and he plays with a lot of (passing) combinations and is always moving forward.
“He was a player who knew when to plunge (or sprint behind defenders) and lot of my players like to play in front of the opposition rather than try get behind them.
“We want to our players to be more dynamic so they make opposing teams defend by turning around (to face their own goals).”
Hart is trying to compensate by a tactical alteration that will see the Warriors abandon their customary 4-2-3-1 system for something closer resembling 4-3-3. Jones will probably be asked to link up play more often than before.
“I asked him to mix his game up more,” said Hart, “so I want him to run behind the defence as before. But I also want him to come off and get the ball and look to get turns and get the wide players into it.
“I think he did it well against Jordan.”
The Warriors have adapted slowly to the new system so far. Hart spent most of their Trinidad camp working on fitness but there will be much more tactical work in Florida.
Against Jordan, he said the Warriors were most vulnerable when they lost possession because of poor positioning. He intends to tighten up that aspect of their game while also encouraging players to join the attack when possible.
“I haven’t used (the new system) as I would like because they are taking a little while to adapt to it and I don’t want them to be too confused,” said Hart.
The former Canada coach has been here before. He was hired with roughly six weeks to go before the 2013 Gold Cup and managed to steer the Warriors through a group that included Honduras, Haiti and El Salvador.
This time, coach and players know each other better while, unlike two years ago, he also has a pre-tournament practice match against Haiti to further assess their progress.
He explained that Trinidad and Tobago’s players are sometimes thrown off their game too easily and he must make his philosophy sink in before July 9.
“Our confidence is easily shaken when things don’t go our way,” said Hart. “We have mostly done fitness work so far but we will focus more on elements of attacking and collective play now. And hopefully we will get it right when it matters most…
“Once they collectively buy in and do some serious work, they can get to the knockout stage of the Gold Cup.”