The TT men's football team surged to the top of their Concacaf Nations League (CNL) A group last night, as they got a hard-fought 3-2 win against El Salvador at the Nacional Jorge Magico Gonzalez Stadium in El Salvador.
TT fell behind as early as the 17th minute, as El Salvador defender Eriq Zavaleta headed past goalkeeper Denzil "Peng" Smith from a Dustin Corea set piece. Trinidad and Tobago were soon on level terms, as flanker Ryan Telfer sent a powerful left-footed blast into the net in the 22nd minute after receiving a precise pass from the left by Reon Moore.
The teams went to the break tied at 1-1. However, the visitors took the lead in the 51st minute through a clinical penalty by Canada-based Malcolm Shaw. The TT attacker was bundled over in the area after receiving a clever square pass from halftime substitute Duane Muckette, and his spot kick gave El Salvador goalkeeper Thomas Romero no chance.
Smith was in great form between the uprights, making a string of remarkable saves. Smith's defenders fell asleep after Shaw's goal, though, and the hosts were back on level terms just two minutes later as Brayan Gil beat the TT goalkeeper from point-blank range after being left unmarked from a Corea corner.
Despite conceding 63 per cent possession to their hosts, who had a whopping 26 shots at TT goal, coach Angus Eve's Soca Warriors team stayed resolute and disciplined.
"We knew we were going to suffer for a bit. Possession doesn't win matches," Eve said after the match. "We have a plan. We have a way we want to play and the guys executed to a T.
"The guys are extremely disciplined, and there's a oneness in that dressing room there. Besides the talent and the discipline the team has, that's what is taking us through."
In the 71st minute, the togetherness and jubilation were there for all to see, as towering Defence Force defender Justin "Shiggy" Garcia beat Romero with a looping header to the far post after meeting a deep free kick by Telfer. Garcia
scored ten goals from his centre-back position as Defence Force won the inaugural TT Premier League and its knockout cup. He was one of several local-based players overlooked for the 2023 Concacaf Gold Cup.
In San Salvador, El Salvador, Garcia's value in national colours was evident.
"Justin Garcia has been scoring those headers for fun with Defence Force, so I took something from (Defence Force) coach Hutson Charles and they, and I had him spin around at the back post," Eve said. "He's very effective."
As TT edged to their first-ever win in El Salvador at senior level, Eve decided to protect the three points at all costs as he inserted defenders Kareem Moses and Andre Raymond, as well as central midfielder Michel Poon-Angeron in the latter stages of the game. The front three of Moore, Telfer and Shaw were withdrawn, with TT switching from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a more compact 4-5-1 shape.
Despite TT's defensive approach towards the end of the game, the hosts fashioned two great opportunities and would have equalised if not for Smith's brilliance.
In the 76th minute, the 23-year-old Smith, who injured a finger
during the first half, sprawled to his right to stop an effort by Gil. In stoppage time, the former Shiva Boys' Hindu College standout came up huge for TT once more, as he made a flying save to his left to keep out a precise header by Zavaleta.
"I could call 15 man-of-the-match winners, but I'll give Denzil because he was spectacular," Eve said. "People may not know that he did his finger in during the first half. For him to save the whole game (was excellent). We tried to take him off and he said he didn't want to come off.
"That's the kind of fight and grit we will need to have to build back TT football."
As the five minutes of stoppage time elapsed, the TT players and staff members were in an ecstatic mood as they wildly celebrated their historic victory on El Salvador soil.
Eve, whose tenure as head coach was extended to March 2024, defended his team's style of play.
"I've seen big coaches like (Jose) Mourinho, David Moyes and Claudio Ranieri – when he won the English Premier League with Leicester City – have like 35 per cent possession (when their teams played)," Eve said.
"We think we have good wingers. We have good, fast forwards, so we think that we can soak up pressure, because defensively we are very solid.
"We think we can play on the break and play this counter-attacking game we have been playing. It's working for us."
Eve said his players lose their focus and discipline when they try to play a more open game, and this group has now bought into this style.
After two group A matches, TT sit atop the six-team table with a maximum six points. Panama and Guatemala (both four points) are in second and third spot respectively with two group matches left. With the top two teams in the group progressing to the Nations League quarterfinals, TT are in an advantageous position at present.
These quarterfinal matches will see the top two teams from groups A and B facing off against the top-seeded Concacaf nations in Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico and the US, in a home-and-away format in Fifa's November 2023 match window. The four winners of these quarterfinal ties will advance directly to the Nations League finals, as well as coveted places in the 2024 Copa America – South America's premier continental competition.
There will be two other Copa spots up for grabs, and this will be determined via a single-match playoff between the four losing quarterfinalists in March 2024.
TT's remaining Nations League group matches are home versus Guatemala (October 13) and away to Curacao (October 17). Eve could be forgiven for starting to dream of a Copa 2024 spot against the likes of Argentina and Brazil.