When Gustavo Quinteros’ Ecuador takes to the field versus Trinidad and Tobago in Guayaquil, the encounter will enter the history books as the first match between the nations at full international level on the men’s side of the game. However, in the Quinteros era, March 2015 to present, it will not be the first occasion on which Ecuador has faced CONCACAF opposition. Of thirty matches during his mandate, both friendly and “competitive”, Ecuador has on ten occasions engaged teams from CONMEBOL’s neighboring confederation, facing six specific CONCACAF opponents (El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and the United States). While the latter four teams have each engaged the Ecuadorians twice, Haiti and El Salvador have played one match apiece in losing ventures versus Ecuadorian opposition (4-0 and 3-0 respectively).
The United States are the only nation from within CONCACAF to have won both of their matches against Ecuador during the period under review (a 2-1 victory during the Copa America Centenario in 2016, and a 1-0 result produced during a friendly in immediate anticipation of that tournament). Mexico, who provided Quinteros his first international opponent in March 2015, won that initial encounter, a friendly, before an effectively partisan crowd in Los Angeles, but subsequently lost to the Ecuadorians during the Copa America in Chile. In June 2015, Panama played back to back friendlies versus Ecuador in a home and away series. The Canaleros drew the opening match (1-1) but lost the following encounter by four goals to nil in the same stadium in which Trinidad and Tobago will face Ecuador tonight. Henry Gambetta Avalos, the Peruvian referee who officiated that match, has been tasked with presiding over the friendly against the Soca Warriors. It will be his 180th match since debuting in 2001.
Honduras who incurred defeats on both outings versus Ecuador (2-0) and (3-1), in the second of the two encounters, also suffered a loss at the same Guayaquil venue, despite leading 1-0 at halftime. On that occasion, Jose Francisco Cevallos (included in Ecuador’s training squad for this game) put the affair out of the reach of the visitors with an 81st minute right-footed strike. That match was Ecuador’s first international friendly for 2017. Trinidad and Tobago’s encounter versus the hosts will constitute the South Americans’ fourth international friendly of the year, but only the second on Ecuadorian soil. While Haiti succumbed to Ecuador during the Copa America Centenario, El Salvador capitulated to the Ecuadorians during one of the two international friendlies Ecuador have contested in the United States in 2017.
Ecuador’s record versus CONCACAF opponents during the Gustavo Quinteros era reflects six victories, three losses, and one draw (6-3-1). Tonight, accept it or not, Trinidad and Tobago will be tasked with bettering the on-field image of the CONCACAF football product, as viewed through the lenses of the prototypical South American fan. It will be a difficult task on a continent on which the quality of Mexican professional and national team football – an unquestioned reference of superiority within CONCACAF – is regularly dismissed and ridiculed.
In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, contemporary national team performances in South America versus Argentina, Peru and Uruguay at senior international level (3-0, 4-0, and 3-1 respectively), and unfortunate renditions during the 2015 Pan American Games in Canada against Paraguay and Uruguay (5-1 and 4-0 losses respectively) have made for challenging conversations while eliminating nascent seeds of credibility. As an example, the respectful but frontal and objective commentary of Uruguayan radio announcers during Trinidad and Tobago’s introductory appearance at the Pan American tournament embodies the harm affecting the national team product when perceptions become stereotypes and preparations are superficial, cosmetic and no deeper than sub-cutaneal. Nonetheless, one supposes, that was then and this is now and as Sinatra crooned, “what’s now is now and I’ll forget what happened then.”
The cold hard truth of the present is that although the Ecuador v. Trinidad and Tobago friendly is occurring, it is occurring as an arrangement of default, rather than as an arrangement of preference. Lamentably, Trinidad and Tobago football is not at the organizational stage at which coordinated planning and liaising of technical, administrative and resource elements permit the identification of friendly opponents with a view to consistent medium-term or long-term scheduling. Living in the short term, Trinidad and Tobago are playing Ecuador out of the good fortune provided by logistical hurdles that prevented Argentina and Ecuador from coinciding on a fixture. Ecuador is playing Trinidad and Tobago because it could not identify interested, logistically-disposed, better opposition who possessed the wherewithal to travel to Guayaquil and because it desperately needed to identify an opponent. Some may question the assertions, but their credibility rests on comments directly attributable to the coach of the Ecuadorian national team. According to Quinteros, “the only [prospective] opponent that agreed to come was Trinidad and Tobago.” It is what it is. Reality can be imagined, but it is less easily invented.
Unlike most of the matches that have contributed to the performance record between Ecuador and its CONCACAF opponents, one of the distinguishable aspects that will characterize, and perhaps punctuate, Trinidad and Tobago’s friendly versus Ecuador is that of both teams’ reliance on home-based players. Aside from the inclusion of three foreign-based players (Jomal Williams who represents Murciélagos FC in the second flight of professional football in Mexico, and defender Carlyle Mitchell and forward Willis Plaza of East Bengal FC in India), Trinidad and Tobago’s squad will be drawn entirely from the domestic league environment. As such, if on no other occasion, the confidence expressed by Dennis Lawrence in Keron Clarke (FC Santa Rosa, Trinidad and Tobago Super League, the second tier of national football in Trinidad and Tobago) corresponds with the qualities and rationale of a match impacted by its occurrence outside of the dates reserved by FIFA for the release of players. However, it is uncertain that the Trinidad and Tobago head coach would have been as enterprising under conventional circumstances. Nonetheless, the stage and conditions are set for exploration of the degree to which the friendly constitutes a proportionately useful exercise, or merely yields repeated confirmation of methodological and technical deficiencies in our training environments, and a chorus of the familiar indictments of player quality expressed by Lawrence’s predecessors. At the end of the day, the cold hard truths must be confronted because the finite player resources available to Trinidad and Tobago national team selectors shall remain finite.
In Ecuador, the opponent’s technical staff will rely exclusively on a team drawn from the top division of professional football. The 21-man squad is comprised of players from eight of the twelve clubs in the Ecuadorian Serie A, but is primarily infused with players from four of the league’s traditional standard bearers. While the squad has an average age of 25.38 years, that statistic is skewed by Gustavo Quinteros’ selection of two non-goalkeeper players who are older than 30 years old (midfielders Pedro Quiñónez and Matías Oyola, both of whom are favored to start the match). Excluding the goalkeepers and these two players, the squad’s average age declines to 23.43 years. Across playing lines, the average age of each Ecuadorian unit is goalkeepers (30.66 years), defenders (22.83 years), midfielders (25.55 years) and forwards (24.66 years). These figures comport consistently with Quinteros’ idea of exposing young players to the national team environment with the immediate view of integrating them into the four World Cup qualifying matches that remain on Ecuador’s schedule (versus Brazil, Peru, Chile and Argentina).
In comparison, the average age of Trinidad and Tobago’s playing contingent is 27.05 years. By team units, the statistics are goalkeepers (30.0 years), defenders (25.83 years), midfielders (26.77 years) and forwards (28.33 years). While the corps of Ecuador’s defenders is younger, there are not necessarily more inexperienced or lesser experienced than their older Trinidad and Tobago counterparts, due to multiple exposures to continental competitions such as the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana, more intensive exposure to organized football and a greater number of raw minutes of football played across the football calendar. Similarly, the blend of maturity, experience and expansive play in Ecuador’s midfield will stand as a contrast to the undefined understanding in the proposed Trinidad and Tobago midfield. Up front, there is an undeniable gulf in international experience among the players presented by both nations, but this can be mitigated by a tactical posture by Trinidad and Tobago that presents a supportive, dynamic and adventurous midfield. The challenge and result of the match will be determined by whether there exists a meaningful gulf in class between both domestic XIs. Statistics do not necessarily influence what occurs on the field of play, but they go some measure to explain what is on display.
When not forced by circumstance, the idea of using a contingent of entirely home-based or primarily home-based players in an international friendly is not a new one. Although rarely found palatable to fans, or in the echelons of football’s elite national teams, the concept holds value when opponents who would benefit the stage of development of the players selected can be sourced, or when a country’s “A” national team is comprised of only home-based players. The teams deployed by Ecuador and Honduras in February attempted to follow the logic of the first reason. Notably, Ecuador’s only foreign inclusion was that of the then Italy-based Bryan Cabezas, who on the strength of his performance at the South American U-20 Championship was invited into the squad. How the Hondurans fared on the day is on record. Tonight, the Soca Warriors’ will have their turn. It will be intriguing to see whether Trinidad and Tobago’s domestic-based players adapt to Ecuadorian counterparts who are confidently on the cusp of integration into their national team alongside a cohort of foreign-based internationals.
From an Ecuadorian viewpoint, the friendly has been identified as being of utmost importance for several reasons. Some of Ecuador’s seasoned internationals are inactive with their clubs and their uncertain club futures and lack of playing rhythm have created sources of concern and disquiet among the members of the national team’s technical staff. Players in this category include Walter Ayoví (Guayaquil FC), Alexander Dominguez (Monterrey, MEX), Arturo Mina (River Plate, ARG) and Luis Caicedo (Cruzeiro, on loan within the Ecuadorian Serie A). Other players lack viability to contribute on subsequent matchdays due to card accumulation (Jefferson Orejuela, Fluminense and Luis Caicedo, both of whom are unavailable versus Brazil) or the threat of card accumulation (the goalkeeper Esteban Dreer, Antonio Valencia, Jefferson Montero among several others) or due to injury. Therefore, Ecuador’s use of domestic players is to identify players who can mitigate these concerns, while also introducing new players to the technical staff’s tactical scheme. As such, the training squad is comprised of several young and not-so-young players who performed well during the Primera Etapa of the Ecuadorian championship.
Twelve teams participate at the highest rung of domestic football in Ecuador. The league runs from January to December and is disputed across 46 match dates divided into three phases of competition. The first and second phases (known as the Primera Etapa and the Segunda Etapa) feature round-robin competition that comprises 22 matchdays each. In the third phase of competition, the Tercera Etapa, the winners of the first and second phases battle each other at home and away to determine the league champion across the entire playing year. The bottom two Serie A teams are relegated. Demotion occurs based on a tally of the least points accumulated over the first and second phases. Based on an assessment of reports emerging from the observation of the Ecuador national team practice session on Sunday, the following two variations represent how Ecuador is anticipated to be oriented for the encounter versus Trinidad and Tobago.
In Guayaquil, tickets for the match are at absolutely basement prices, but it is unclear whether this has sufficiently incentivized Ecuadorian fans, disillusioned about the quality of opposition, to show up. Time will tell. And, maybe the stats too.