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2015 Women's World Cup

Four Caribbean teams advance to next round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers

Antigua & Barbuda, Martinique, Bermuda and Haiti have all advanced to the Caribbean Cup Finals in Trinidad & Tobago this August as winners of first round groups, with one group still to be determined and two second-place qualifiers from the five groups still to be formally named. We will focus on two group winners; Haiti’s expected advancement over Cuba and Surinam at home (Group 4) and late entry Bermuda’s surprise win in the Turks and Caicos (Group 3).

An ale Ayiti! (Let’s Go Haiti)

Haiti’s advancement from Group 4 (held from May 28-June 4) was not a surprise. Besides the fact that they hosted the three-team group—with Guadeloupe’s withdrawal after the initial draw–the Haitian Football Federation have taken a much different approach to overcoming the lack of structure and organization found in many nations who are just beginning to invest in their women’s programs. In February of 2012, FC Indiana coach Shek Borkowski was named coach of Haiti’s women’s national team. Borkowski essentially has transported their national side to South Bend, Indiana, for six-month camps each year during the spring and summer, even providing the core for FC Indiana in WPSL Elite in 2012 against professional sides such as the Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars and the Western New York Flash—all formerly of WPS and founding members of NWSL.

Though they won just one out of fourteen WPSL Elite games that season, that experience, along with games against top college sides–including Notre Dame and Brigham Young University–during their stays in the United States, helped the coaching staff institute tactical and organizational structure. The coaches would see the dramatic difference when the players returned to Haiti for the fall and winter. Playing for their local clubs, practices started late and were disorganized, with frequent interruptions by fans and club officials.

Borkowski’s goal for three years has been 2015 World Cup qualification and the recent tournament in Haiti was the first step. The Haitians defeated Surinam 3-0, while Cuba also defeated the Dutch heritage nation from the northeastern coast of South America, by 2-0. A draw would clinch the group for the hosts and a berth in the Caribbean finals in August, but they finished with the win from a late own goal by Cuba, when a defender powered a long Haitian cross from 45 yards out into her own net when challenged by two Haitians.

Borkowski explained that, in the first game, Haiti attacked Surinam relentlessly and could have scored more. With so much on the line, they took a much different strategy against the Cubans, after seeing their win over Suriname, and began the game much more cautiously. Borkowski said that Cuba had four players with tremendous technical ability and felt that they were quite a good team. Haiti controlled much of the play, however, and their tactical discipline paid off, as well as their fitness. Cuba tired in the second half and didn’t have any threatening shots on goal during the entire match.

One aspect of the tournament that pleased Borkowski was that the two matches represented the first time that Haiti’s women’s national team had played competitive matches at home in seven years. Winning the group not only helped to prove the concept of exporting their national team abroad for six-month training camps every year to FFH officials—who have been strongly supportive of Borkowski and his staff throughout—but showed that the investment in time and money is paying off. For the fans, they saw a triumphant women’s team play a disciplined and adaptable style of play, much different than the undisciplined “run and shoot” approach that Borkowski inherited, relying rather on a strong defensive base and rapid counterattacks. Almost 3,000 watched the Cuba match, constantly shouting “An ale Ayiti” (Let’s go Haiti) throughout the match, which was also broadcast nationally.

The core of the national team, 10 of whom have been coming to Indiana for three years, along with four from the U-20 team, have returned to WPSL play this summer with FC Indiana. On Friday, June 13, they defeated the previously undefeated Motor City FC, 5-4—a strong first-year franchise utilizing a strong base of local Michigan collegiate players from the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Oakland University–with two goals by Manoucheka Pierre-Louis.

“For the past two years, we completed focused on defending,” Borkowski said. “Now I think we have a pretty good platform by a Caribbean standard of defending and are pretty disciplined defensively now. This year we have started emphasizing how we are going to attack and score goals. This win over an undefeated team was a good confidence builder.”

All through the process, Borkowski and his coaches have had tryouts for Americans and Canadian collegians of Haitian descent. With their recent success, undoubtedly more will be interested in trying to make the team. Forward Lindsay Zullo was an early addition to the Haitian cause; a native of Florida, she played at Flagler College in St. Augustine. One of Borkowski’s original Haitian players, midfielder Roselord Borgella, will trial with Olympique Lyon of France for two weeks next month. The 21-year-old midfielder has dreams beyond her soccer career, however. she has stated that: “I would one day lead the football my country to help improve its structure…I want to become President of the Republic of Haiti.”

The long-term vision of the Haitian Federation implemented by Borkowski and his FC Indiana coaching staff has taken Haiti to the next round of World Cup Qualifiers—the Caribbean Cup in August in Trinidad and Tobago. The top three teams will advance to the Gold Cup, to be hosted by the U.S. in October. The top three finishers in the Gold Cup advance directly to Canada 2015, while the fourth-place team will contest a last World Cup spot versus the third-place team in CONMEBOL, likely to be either Colombia or Chile.

Head Coach’s Change of Mind is a Winner

The biggest surprise winner from the four groups completed so far had to come from Group 3 in late May, with Bermuda winning a slot in Trinidad from a tight and exciting group hosted by Turks and Caicos, after initially not being part of the original 19-team draw in mid-April.

Coach Naquita Robinson explained how she initially declined to play and then changed her mind the next day: “I was asked by the technical director on the deadline entry day if I would like to enter the women into the tournament.  At first I declined but then had a thought and prayed about it and decided ‘why not?’ I reached out to a few of my senior players and asked them if they were interested.  They said yes and we started the ball rolling. Some of the girls had been in training since last summer and we were under the impression the qualifiers were not until November.”

In essence, coach Robinson, a native of Bermuda who captained her country in her playing days, discovered that they only had a little over a month before the first-round qualifiers started on May 21. She went into a fast track mode and utilized the time well, training the side six days a week with three of those being double sessions.

“Fitness was an issue so we spent many morning sessions doing football fitness sessions. Most of my preparation was on technical proficiency,” she said. In terms of scouting her three opponents—St. Kitts and Nevis, the favored Cayman Islands and host Turks and Caicos, Robinson explained that: “I did a bit of homework and studied the opponents based on some YouTube clips. I didn’t spend too much time on that because I believe in my teams playing football our way. I like to focus more on teams’ weaknesses and exploiting that as opposed to looking at their strengths and trying to defend against that.”

Their first game was against an inexperienced Turks and Caicos side playing their first international at home, which turned out to be: “a really good opener for us.”  Robinson said: “It was the first time I had my starting eleven together because I had to pick up a couple players in transit. Our game plan was really to get a feel for the surface and work as a unit. That game was used to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Bermuda won easily, 5-0, staking a 3-0 lead within the first half-hour, with two goal games from captain Cheyra Bell (who played at SUNY-Buffalo and Howard University) and Shuntae Todd.

For the second game against the Caymans, after watching their first match against St. Kitts and Nevis, who shocked the Cayman Islanders 5-0, Robinson explained: “I felt very confident that we could exploit their weaknesses, which I found to be their lack of possessing the ball. Our strategy was to go out hard and score early and control the match. I felt we possessed the ball extremely well and controlled the game.”

Bell and Todd again scored but the Caymans fought back with two goals in the final 16 minutes for a 2-2 deadlock. Robinson and her coaching staff had to pick the team up before the crucial last game with St. Kitts and Nevis.“The girls were down on themselves and felt like they lost the game.”

St. Kitts and Nevis entered the game in the driver’s seat, leading Bermuda on points (6-4) with a goal difference of plus-four. Robinson, who has coached for five years, but was in charge of her first CONCACAF team tournament squad after guiding the side to the Islands Games title last summer (an unofficial multi-sport competition usually involving FIFA non-aligned nations in the men’s and women’s football tournaments, which Bermuda hosted last summer and defeated Greenland and the Norwegian island of Hitra for the crown), explained that she was optimistic.

“The day before the St. Kitts game, we had a very good positive training session. The girls were happy and ready to go. I simply told them that it’s all or nothing in this match and that we are going to leave it all on the field. I explained to them that St. Kitts have not been tested. We had had the challenge by Cayman so we had faced our adversity. We needed to score first and early to get inside their heads. That’s what happened.”

Akeyla Furbert (University of South Carolina–Aiken) opened the scoring for the Bermudians in the 14th minute, which was the first goal that St. Kitts and Nevis allowed in the tournament. Shuntae Todd scored once again from the penalty spot three minutes later. St. Kitts and Nevis pulled one goal back in the 28th minute before Dominique Richardson made the final scoreline 3-1 in the 71st minute, after following up on a rebound from Todd’s shot on goal. St. Kitts and Nevis looks a certainty to advance as well to Trinidad as one of the best second place qualifiers, with six points.

Only one of Bermuda’s player lives abroad full-time: defender Marley Christian, who lives in Baltimore and will play for Rhode Island’s Bryant University in the fall. The rest of the squad lives in Bermuda but a number have attended college in North America including: Jenae Edness (University of Prince Edward Island in Canada), Sari Paul (Saint Leo University) and Keunna Dill (Drexel University). Robinson has leveraged the experience that her college players have brought, calling it a “huge asset.”

Robinson has already seen the benefits of the team’s success in Turks and Caicos at home, through the interest in the national team program by players and their parents.

“I am in the process of preparing both the under-15 and senior team for this summer’s [CONCACAF regional] events,” she said. “The under-15 team is encouraged by the recent success of the senior team and have stepped up their training regime and commitment. I have received many phone calls from parents wanting their daughters to play. We are in the process of kicking off our grassroots program which I feel will be very successful.”

Specifically ahead of the next round in Trinidad, Robinson has ramped-up her training program. “The senior team’s preparation has increased; along with the six sessions a week, a personal trainer has now joined us and takes the girls for 6 a.m. sessions. The girls have also begun yoga classes which they attend twice a week. I don’t want to get ahead of myself but it would be monumental and historic for the women to again advance. We know that we have a tough group to get through but we will come fully prepared and focused.”

Bermuda’s success is phenomenal given that the country does not have an outdoor premier league for women; only an indoor futsal league from January to April, which primarily comprises players who are under 17 years of age, increasing the importance of older players going abroad for college. “Many of our girls are away during the fall and winter months and we spend most of the summer preparing for tournaments,” Robinson said. “Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of coaches on the island who want to work with the female side of the game so a lot gets dumped on the same individuals.”

Naquita Robinson utilized a talented side and on short notice pulled off a tremendous achievement in winning the group title in Turks and Caicos. A clever and articulate coach, it will be interesting to see what her team accomplishes in the Caribbean Cup, having double the amount of time (10 weeks) to prepare her side on the next stage of the road to the World Cup. Opponents would be unwise to underestimate the Bermudians.

Women’s Caribbean Cup 2014 Group 1

Team Points
1 Antigua & Barbuda – W 9
2 St. Vincent & The Grenadines – W 4
3 US Virgin Islands – W 4
4 Aruba – W 0

Women’s Caribbean Cup 2014 Group 2

Team Points
1 Martinique – W 4
2 Puerto Rico – W 4
3 Barbados – W 0

Women’s Caribbean Cup 2014 Group 3

Team Points
1 Bermuda – W 7
2 St. Kitts & Nevis – W 6
3 Cayman Islands – W 4
4 Turks & Caicos Islands – W 0

Women’s Caribbean Cup 2014 Group 4

Team Points
1 Haiti – W 6
2 Cuba – W 3
3 Suriname – W 0

Note: Group 5 begins on Wednesday, finishing on June 22 and involving host Dominican Republic, St. Lucia and favored Jamaica, after Anguilla withdrew.

Tim Grainey is a contributor to Equalizer Soccer.  His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham was released in 2012.  Get your copy today.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey


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