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Grainey: Twenty-four hours with Haiti

Haiti didn't advance to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Women's Championship, but the team's win over Guatemala was a proud moment for the country. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Haiti didn’t advance to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Women’s Championship, but the team’s win over Guatemala was a proud moment for the country. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Equalizer was invited to join the Haitian National Team staff and players in the lead-up to their first game of the CONCACAF Women’s Championship on Oct. 15, in Kansas City, Mo. Haiti did not advance to the semifinals of the tournament, but did pick up three points in a win over Guatemala.

Tuesday October 14th—Dinner and CONCACAF Meeting

After an hour-long practice at Swope Soccer Village in Kansas City, the Haitian team and staff gathered for their team dinner at the Crown Plaza Hotel in downtown Kansas City. The team has a core of 15 players who grew up on the island nation, while five are from the United States but qualify through Haitian parents or grandparents, including:

Kim Boulos–Forward (ex-University of South Carolina/Fordham
University/Sweden’s top two leagues)

Shanna Hudson–Defender (ex-University of Southern California/Cal State
Northridge and Pali Blues/L.A. Strikers/L.A. Blues in the W-League)

Samantha Brand–Midfielder (ex-University of San Francisco/Iceland/Bay Area
Breeze of WPSL)

Lindsay Zullo–Midfielder (ex-Flagler College)

Generve Charles–Forward (senior at Drake University)

The two groups mixed well and were quite comfortable with one another—much like an experienced club side, which is what they essentially are. Unlike many national teams, Haiti practices two or three times a day during their 6-month long camps in South Bend, Indiana every spring and summer. Some of the Haitian natives have been in training in the U.S. since 2012, like goalkeeper Geralda Saintilus and midfielders Wisline Dolce and Manouchka Pierre-Louis.

Head coach Shek Borkowski said this tournament carries huge meaning with a Women’s World Cup spot on the line: “This is for the future generation of Haitian players,” he said. “The players have a huge responsibility for the Haitian nation, for all Haitian girl players and for themselves.” After dinner, the team welcomed two players who arrived that evening from Port-au-Prince along with federation president Yves Jean-Bart. CONCACAF officials came to check the players’ passports and passed out their credentials. By 11:30 pm, the players and staff had left for their rooms.

Wednesday October 15th–Game Day

A team breakfast began with assistant coach Kristin Eggert (who played goalkeeper at Wheaton College and professionally in Norway) giving the team prayer from the Book of Psalms (in English), followed by a shorter prayer in French.

After the meal, Jake Strom of Toms – which sells clothes, coffee, eyeglasses, and shoes – made a presentation to the team. Strom showed a video presentation from Toms founder Blake Mycoskie; the company is known for donating a pair of shoes to a child in need globally for each pair purchased. Mycoskie told the team how he read about the team’s well-documented struggles with fund-raising.

“Haiti’s attempt to qualify for the Women’s World Cup, at odds that don’t seem possible, is something that matters and Toms wanted to help,” he said.

Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world and was devastated by a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January 2010. The Haitian Football Federation provides little financial assistance to the women’s national team, which essentially is on its own when it trains in Indiana; the players pay their expenses through fundraising and their own resources.

Toms is strongly committed to Haiti, having started a shoe manufacturing plant in the country the year before. Besides a cash donation of $20,000, Toms provided the players and staff with full warm-up suits and a pair of shoes and sunglasses to each player. After the game, one player told Strom: “We had confidence. We looked good. [Your gift] helped us very much.” Toms had a film crew follow the team all day for a video that the company is producing.

To a team that donated their savings of $1,300 from their own fundraising efforts the previous week to a group opponent because Trinidad and Tobago’s women’s national team was even in more dire financial straits, it was a welcome gift. (Trinidad and Tobago kindly returned the money after receiving other donations and help from its federation.) The Haitian players actually came to the coaching staff, moved by Trinidad and Tobago’s desperate situation—they could so fully relate—and requested that they send their extra money to their opponents. Haiti’s women’s national team is close to finalizing another major funding arrangement with a NGO that would provide multi-year resources through the next World Cup cycle.

[MORE: Haiti overcomes hurdles on road to World Cup  |  T&T’s financial struggles]

At 11:00 a.m., Borkowski held his pregame briefing. He presented his coaching staff’s scouting report on Guatemala, including their team playing style and the individual tendencies of dangerous players. He then stressed Haiti’s defensive responsibilities in their 4-1-4-1 formation and then their offensive approach. Borkowski reviewed seven key elements: kickoffs, throw-ins, corner kicks, free kicks, goal kicks, punts and changes of possession. The players asked a few questions but again, like a club team, they had practiced many of the instructions and were quite comfortable and confident.

Shanna Hudson, who won a W-League title with L.A. Blues this past summer, explained: “The girls are an example of mental toughness at its finest. That would see them through.”

The long journey to reach the CONCACAF Women’s Championship finals has seen the team become a more disciplined squad than that which scored only 8 times and gave up 33 goals in 14 games (one win, two ties, and 11 losses) in 2012 while participating in WPSL Elite as the vast core of the FC Indiana side. “It was never a technical issue; the Haitian players had great skills,” Hudson said. “It was tactics and learning how to play together. That’s what they have now.”

After lunch and an hour or so to rest, the players met for the bus ride to Sporting Park, home of Sporting Kansas City, at 2:45 p.m. Marc Demu, a Haitian supporter from Indiana, brought two dozen roses for the team members, who were dressed in their brand new team kit from Tom’s.

Haiti versus Guatemala—Sporting Park—5:00 p.m.

Shek Borkwoski doesn't get paid to coach Haiti, but he has big plans for the team. (AP Photo)

Shek Borkwoski doesn’t get paid to coach Haiti, but he has big plans for the team. (AP Photo)

Less than three hours later, Haiti’s World Cup hopes seemed to have gone up in a puff of smoke when starting goalkeeper Cynthia Chery received a red card from referee Quetzalli Alvarado of Mexico in the 17th minute. Chery pulled down Guatemalan forward Ana Lucia Martinez in the box after failing to hold the ball just outside her goal. Martinez collected the ball and moved past Chery towards the open net before the 20-year-old goalkeeper yanked her back off the ball.

Goalkeeper Geralda Saintilus—who has played the majority of Haiti’s games over the past few years—came in and was immediately impactful, diving to her left to stop defender Marilyn Rivera’s low penalty kick. The other Haitian players dived onto the prone Saintilus in a celebration that was exuberant but not typically seen beyond the youth level. (Borkowski later said that he was worried that Saintilus would be injured—Haiti carried only two goalkeepers on the roster—and that the referee would further penalize the team for time wasting.) This was an example of the types of behaviors that the time in Indiana is meant to change. Assistant coach Christopher Castro said that their approach with the players is “total” — not just how they perform on the field but also their growth off of it. In Indiana, they can provide a structure on the field and off.

As a long-time Midwestern, Borkowski is always punctual and has set that up as a standard for his team, with prompt starts to meetings and meals. “A few minutes late here and there can add up to hours lost at training over months,” he says. He understands the cultural differences but part of the reason for the U.S. camp: is “to provide a professional environment.”

This red card and penalty—the key point in the game—deserves a little more analysis. After the game, Borkowski said that he had “no complaints on the red card. It was the right call. We will learn from it.” When Guatemala coach Benjamin Monterroso was asked why defender Rivera took the kick rather than forwards Martinez, Kimberly De Leon or Maria Monterroso (his own daughter who plays Division I college ball in Arizona), he replied: “I don’t solve that ahead of time; I don’t plan who is going to take the penalty kicks. In this particular case, maybe the other players didn’t feel so good about taking the kicks. It’s something they decide internally among themselves, but it was not something that I determined ahead of time.” Monterroso must be in the minority of national team coaches who have no definitive plan for penalty kicks but part of the growing process for women’s soccer in many CONCACAF countries is on the technical and organizational side—beyond the field of play. That’s why these regional tournaments are so important. I would hazard that, in the future, Monterroso gets more involved in his team’s penalty kicks decision-making.

[PHOTOS: Haiti goes out with pride after 6-0 loss to USWNT]

Haiti managed to get out of the first half with a scoreless tie despite an almost complete inability to hold the ball and maintain any possession whatsoever. In the second half, Borkowski went with three defenders and kept his midfield and forwards intact with a 3-1-4-1. Most coaches would have gone with more defenders or holding midfielders in a 10 vs. 11 player situation. “We were not keeping possession so we wanted to bring an additional player into midfield to give ourselves a chance….We needed to win,” he said.

Though Guatemala still had dangerous attacks in the second half, Haiti had more possession and time in Guatemala’s half. Haiti’s goal came in the 69th minute through a goalmouth scramble that Lindsay Zullo turned into the net. Despite hitting the crossbar three times in the game, Guatemala was unable to crack the backline of Haiti, even with seven additional minutes from the referee.

After the game, coach Monterroso was asked why he took out forward Martinez in the 66th minute, as this writer had noticed her grimacing on the bench and wondered if she was injured. He said the substitution was not due to an injury. “It was a technical change; things weren’t working out as they had planned.” (Martinez did not play at all in the second game two days later against the U.S.). To this writer, Martinez was the most dangerous Guatemalan player in the game and the only one with professional level experience as a Houston Dash reserve player last summer. She seemed a curious choice to substitute when Guatemala was up a player and—three minutes later—suddenly found themselves down a goal and chasing the game.

Haiti’s team watched the first half of the U.S. vs. Trinidad and Tobago game and then left to eat and take some therapy. The atmosphere at dinner in the hotel was quite subdued, with very little talking at all. Despite the win, the tone was one of relief, mixed with some embarrassment for their performance, and a healthy dose of exhaustion —“more mental than physical,” Borkowski said. The team had retired to their rooms by 10 p.m.

Haitian federation president Jean-Bart thought that the team played worse than it did this summer in Caribbean Cup rounds in Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago. Nervousness was labeled as the assumed reason, particularly in the first half. Borkowski reasoned: “We demonstrated our lack of international experience. A number of players performed at a level I didn’t expect; they should have played better….We couldn’t keep possession at all and [were] unable to have any buildup in Guatemala’s half. They didn’t seem to be ready. We were fortunate.” He attributed the win to not giving up in very difficult circumstance. “These players come through a lot in their lives outside football. They showed resilience.”

Borkowski wants to bring a half dozen U-17’s to Indiana next year and would have brought in a few for this tournament to give them experience, but the federation couldn’t afford the visa expense and airfares from Haiti. He wants to bring them to the U.S. when they are young, particularly since “at home, from June to August, they do nothing.” Borkowski believes some of the U-17’s could play Division I college soccer, which not only gives them an education, but helps the national team program advance. (Borkowski—a native of Poland—did just that when he came to the U.S. to play at Akron University.)

He realizes that it is not an easy cultural transition for his players when they initially arrive to the United States. “It is a shock to their system when they first come here,” he said. “When we take them to a buffet when they first come, the variety and amounts of food is just shocking to them; their eyes pop out. Early on, it’s really unbelievable for them, when they go into a soccer store for example, the choices of shoes and equipment don’t exist in Port-au-Prince.”

The 51-year-old Polish coach firmly believes that transporting the national team to the U.S. has allowed the team to grow and be competitive. Their U.S.-based training also helps to reduce the social constraints on them from families and friends who insist that soccer is not a game for girls/women. Borkwoski said that some parents say: “‘Proper Ladies don’t play football; they take care of siblings or try to make a living.’ So there is a lot of pressure at home from family and friends. Coming to the U.S. helps to relieve pressure in terms of being in a little more professionalized environment where they can concentrate on playing the game and preparing for events such as this. It makes it a little bit easier….Success in events like this can change minds [at home].”

Another benefit is that, even though the team struggles sometimes on a daily basis to make ends meet, the U.S. still provides more opportunities for fund-raising than in Haiti: “In a situation like ours, the federation always suffers for lack of funds. Being in the U.S., we have access to potential sponsors who look at us, we are interested in supporting what you are doing.”

Borkowski was optimistic that funding and support eventually will come at home and it’s a common theme in many CONCACAF countries as well as in Africa and Asia. He actually sees a model for improvement from the U.S. national team, explaining that the U.S. battled through similar conditions in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. “We have no Title IX [in Haiti]; it has to occur naturally. The U.S. faced similar problems as we’re facing right now, where the U.S. players did not receive the same amount of money as they are receiving now or the same treatment, but because they became successful and started winning titles, that changed. Now they are well-funded and well taken care off. For us it will take success. We define success differently than the U.S. For us, beating Guatemala is success, maybe getting a point out of the game in Chicago [versus Trinidad and Tobago] that is going to be success, keeping the U.S. from scoring five-to-six goals, that will be success because in reality they can score a lot of goals on us.”

The win over Guatemala—sloppy and lucky that it was—was so important to the team and the country. Jean-Bart said that on the evening of the game, there was no electricity in Haiti but people followed the game on radio and were quite happy and celebrating outside at the end. Borkowski echoed his federation president’s thoughts.

“For us the result was huge, getting the three points and the good start was good for players’ morale and good for Haiti itself because it gives people something exciting to cheer on,” Borkowski said. “This event has drawn a lot of attention in Haiti.”

Borkowski would have loved to qualify for the Women’s World Cup next summer but they are now targeting the next World Cup/Olympic Games cycle. “The development of the team is a long-term proposition,” he says. “It’s really the next World Cup cycle that I feel we can get to the level of Costa Rica and maybe even compete against Mexico. But we are still four years away.”

Haiti’s goal in four years’ time is to be able to compete against the fourth-best team in CONCACAF—Costa Rica or Trinidad and Tobago—at an equal level while trying to narrow the gap with the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Note: In their second match against Trinidad and Tobago, which had lost narrowly to the U.S. 1-0 behind a superb performance from goalkeeper Kamika Forbes (Boston Breakers Reserves), Haiti had a better performance. Trinidad and Tobago lost Forbes in the 66th minute to a red card when she aggressively confronted a Haitian forward. This advantage spurred Haiti forward even more, though they had a considerable number of attacks throughout the second half. Kennya Cordner’s (Seattle Sounders Women) goal in the 37th held up for a 1-0 win. Trinidad and Tobago defeated Guatemala 2-1 in their third game in Washington D.C., while Haiti lost to the U.S. 6-0. Trinidad plays Costa Rica while the U.S. plays Mexico in Friday’s semifinal.

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