In the bowels of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Wednesday night, Kenwyne Jones had all the time in the world.
Smiling, he told a small group of reporters: “I have absolutely nothing to do tonight.”
The Trinidad and Tobago captain was pleased. Who could blame him, following his side’s surprising 4-4 draw with Mexico, which secured the country’s first ever group-topping performance in the Gold Cup.
“I was just happy to be part of the team tonight,” Jones said. “I think we showed a bit of steel, of character to come back from 2-0 down to almost win the game and then draw the match out.
“Also for us it’s an amazing achievement. First time we’ve topped the group (in the Gold Cup) and first time from us coming back from 2-0 down. There was a whole lot of first tonight and I can’t really reel all of them off. But it’s been wonderful.”
Jones and the Soca Warriors aren’t the only team that has to be feeling wonderful right now. The draw was an exciting exclamation point on a group stage that saw plenty of success for the teams considered second class in CONCACAF, while it also featured worrying signs for the favorites.
It was a tournament that was expected to be pretty straightforward, as Gold Cups usually are. Most times it’s the regional giants, the United States and Mexico battling for the trophy (only once has one of those teams not won the tournament), with an occasional other finalist mixed in. That wrench was supposed to be Costa Rica potentially knocking out the United States in the semifinals, before a date with Mexico, which had the easier road, in the finals.
Costa Rica and Mexico will meet in this Gold Cup, but it will be far from the final. This Sunday, one will continue what has been a mediocre tournament with a chance at redemption - the other will close the book on an effort that will no doubt be branded a failure.
The U.S. will likely be in the semifinals as it faces a Cuba side which, in all honesty has pulled a mild upset just by making it out of the group stage. Facing a pair of defections and a host of visa issues entering the tournament, Maikel Reyes’ shirt-off celebration of his winner against Guatemala showed what just getting to the quarters meant to him and his teammates. Even if the road ends in Baltimore on Saturday for the Cubans, given the circumstances, it’s been a successful tournament for them.
Meanwhile, either Jamaica or Haiti, and either Trinidad and Tobago or Panama will be one game away from a date in the final.
The Jamaicans are a mild surprise in their own right. The Caribbean champions acquitted themselves well last month in the Copa America against Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, losing all three games by a 1-0 score line. But unlike Mexico, which sent two separate teams to these tournament, the Reggae Boyz had to send largely the same roster to both affairs.
Any fatigue or hangover from South America’s premier event didn’t show up in the Gold Cup, as Jamaica drew Costa Rica 2-2 in the opener, then took Group B with a pair of 1-0 wins over Canada and El Salvador.
Yet the Reggae Boyz success is almost an afterthought given the performances of other teams in this tournament.
Haiti opened its Gold Cup by snatching a draw from a Panama team some considered a dark horse after its near miss in World Cup qualification. Then, after a spirited 1-0 defeat to the U.S., Haiti grabbed second place in Group A with a 1-0 win over Honduras.
Jamaica won’t be easy for the Haitians - the Reggae Boyz eased to a 2-0 victory in their Caribbean Cup meeting in November, but after going toe-to-toe with the the U.S., in the U.S. for that matter, there has to be a belief among the Haitians they can get it done.
Either team could look at the U.S., though the most successful of the favorites so far, as vulnerable.
Even Panama, which finished the group stage with three draws, has to feel it has a chance. After dominating the first half against the U.S. in a 1-1 result, Panama gets Trinidad and Tobago. Despite the Soca Warriors excellent performance so far, they are far from unbeatable. If Panama can snatch a victory there, either of the wobbly favorites in Costa Rica or Mexico has to feel like a beatable opponent in the semifinals.
Then, of course, there’s Jones and the Soca Warriors - arguably the story of the tournament’s first round. With few expecting Group C to be anything but a Mexico cakewalk - El Tri was considered the surest group winner of all - Trinidad and Tobago snatched two victories and then stunned Mexico with an equalizer at the death in the game of the tournament so far to steal the group.
It’s a moment Jones won’t forget anytime soon.
“As I was saying in the dressing room, the last time something special happened for the national team was 10 years ago, when we had to try to beat Mexico to make it to the playoff, to try and qualify for the World Cup,” Jones said. “I don’t think they (some of his teammates) understand, for them, the magnitude of not only the result but the way we came back and the way we were leading. The entire 93 minutes, I don’t think they understood it or maybe it hasn’t sunk in as of yet.
“But for me it is really important and it is a special moment because sometimes when things like this happen, sometimes you go onto even more special things. So we’ll see what happens.”
Jones isn’t alone. There have been special nights a plenty for the teams generally considered second class in CONCACAF so far. At least two more will get another this weekend. And with any luck, one of them might just be able to make history.