Breaking new ground.
That’s the challenge for Trinidad and Tobago ahead of Thursday’s World Cup qualifier in the United States, or at the very least replicate the achievement of the 1989 team which came away from the duel in California with a 1-1 draw courtesy of Hutson Charles’ equaliser.
After such a shaky start to the final phase of the campaign, there is little breathing space left for the national side unless other results go in their favour the rest of the way. In fact, just breathing properly might pose a bit of a challenge given that the venue for the meeting with the Americans – Commerce City in Colorado – is at an altitude of over 5,000 feet.
If this sounds very flattering to the national team that the Yanks would go to such heights to ensure every possible advantage ahead of a meeting with a side at the bottom of the six-nation standings, there are at least two factors to be taken into consideration.
One, the hosts aren’t exactly in the lap of luxury themselves having also stumbled at the start of the “Hex” with defeats in their first two games before taking four points from the last two, which means they are level with Honduras and just a point ahead of Trinidad and Tobago. So they need every possible advantage that can be squeezed out for that game.
Two, they go on to the even greater altitude of Mexico City just five days later to take on the leaders in full knowledge they have never won a World Cup qualifier in that country and that the full house at the Azteca Stadium will probably be even more intimidating given the highly emotive anti-Mexican rhetoric that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
So there is no risk of minimising the degree of the challenge facing head coach Dennis Lawrence as he prepares the national squad for Thursday’s game, followed immediately by the trip to San Jose where they will also be hoping to sneak a result against Costa Rica the following Tuesday. If this feels like a make-or-break double assignment well, it probably is.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the circumstances that took us from Stephen Hart to Tom Saintfiet to Lawrence in the space of a few weeks at the start of the year, it cannot be ignored that the former national defender has brought about a measurable improvement to the team as evidenced in the 1-0 win over Panama and even the narrow loss to the Mexicans at home in the last two World Cup qualifiers at the end of March.
Whether he has had enough time and resources to mould a competitive team that can surprise Bruce Arena’s side will only be known when the game gets underway. As the vast majority of players who are likely to feature in the starting 11 on Thursday night are overseas-based there isn’t much that can be read into the come-from-behind 2-2 draw in Grenada last month other than our locally-based players having a long way to go before they meet the requirements of top-level international football.
As tight as the race is for the three automatic qualifying spots and the fourth-placed playoff position (third-placed Panama are just two points ahead of T&T), the reason this could be a defining two games for the national team is the potential impact of results with four more qualifying games to come in September and October.
Of course we’re looking for points. Two would be excellent, especially if the other results go our way. Anything more than that would be fantastic and definitely revive aspirations of reaching football’s “Big Yard” for only the second time in the nation’s history.
Realistically though, and especially given the defensive frailties that continue to be exposed never mind the amount of presumably remedial work, those of us fearing the worst will be bracing for defeats in those two games. Yet even in such a scenario, even if we were to remain rooted at the bottom of the table, it will not be a total loss if the Trinidad and Tobago side is able to show the same sort of spirit and effort, and probably even more, against the USA and Costa Rica.
Remember there are still four more games to come, and while translating that into 12 points is extreme optimism to the point of being delusional, there will be something to work with and still build upon if an honest assessment of these two critical fixtures is that there is enough to suggest all is not lost, as yet.
Of course a total defensive collapse and a soulless, disjointed effort will kill off any positive speculation once and for all. Let’s hope our footballers can give us reason to believe.