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2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup

Sydney Martinez, goalkeeper heroics, and the déjà vu of Concacaf

Puerto Rico advanced past Haiti in the preliminary game thanks to goalkeeper heroics, sparking memories of Yenith Bailey in 2018

Puerto Rico celebrates a win over Haiti
Photo Copyright Concacaf

Watching Puerto Rico goalkeeper Sydney Martinez in Saturday’s Concacaf W Gold Cup play-in game brought the memories flooding back. Here was a heroic performance between the pipes from an unlikely and largely unknown protagonist, her performance undeniably the catalyst to a huge upset by Puerto Rico — ranked No. 103 in the world — over 2023 World Cup participant Haiti.

Puerto Rico advanced to the final stage of the tournament with a 1-0 victory on Saturday, sending Haiti home in the one-and-done play-in game. Haiti was without several players — most prominently Melchie Dumornay — but was the favored and more experienced side. Everything but the final score suggested as much, but Martinez was the difference on the day. Her 15-save performance and singular heroics were reminiscent of Panama goalkeeper Yenith Bailey, then a 17-year-old, playing the game of her life against the United States at 2018 World Cup qualifying. The difference this time was that Martinez led her team to victory.

The theme was similar, however. Here was a young goalkeeper who had carved a path for herself at the reputable University of South Florida program, then in the USL W-League as a champion with South Georgia Tormenta FC, which earned her a pro contract in the second tier of Norway. To the general public, she was still relatively anonymous prior to Saturday, but a performance like that is one that catches the attention of scouts and teams who will be on the lookout at this Gold Cup for valuable talent they could sign before the rest of the world takes note in a player transaction economy that is skyrocketing before our eyes.

There are other parallels to be drawn, too, which further point to the need for more programming and development within the Concacaf region. Rewind to 2018 again, and a month before Bailey became an internet sensation for her saves against the U.S., and Puerto Rico had come under an international spotlight of its own. Players took advantage of a record home crowd for a friendly against Argentina to stand in protest of their federation for its lack of funding and match programming, which they felt hindered the team’s development.

Martinez was not on the field for that; the Georgia native just joined Puerto Rico’s senior national team in the past year. There has been plenty of turnover in the five and a half years since that protest, which serves as necessary context to what Martinez did on Saturday, and what Bailey did in 2018. Puerto Rico is in this tournament after years of fighting for their own worth, a journey they share with most competitors in the region.

Mismanagement and underinvestment of women’s teams are rife in Concacaf. Bailey was a reminder then that talent exists beyond the confines of traditionally scouted regions or countries, and Martinez serves as another reminder. No, one incredible performance does not make Martinez an all-world goalkeeper; that sentiment held true for Bailey in 2018, too.

Still, there is potential there both in the individual and the collective. Puerto Rico just pulled off an upset that already makes this Gold Cup — the first edition of the new competition, although tournaments by similar names were played two decades ago — memorable and worthwhile. Here is a largely overlooked team suddenly defeating a dark horse of the tournament before group play even begins.

Haiti, and the team’s abundant individual talent, is proof that the investment matters. A decade ago, Haiti was a team with talent but no support. Players relied on donations to purchase food, lodging and equipment ahead of a 2014 Concacaf tournament, a trend that would continue and was not in isolation (at one point they donated what they had to Trinidad and Tobago players going through similar struggles).

Fast-forward nearly a decade, and Haiti is a team with globally recognized talent in Dumornay. Haiti gave the United States’ defense nightmares in group play at 2022 World Cup qualifying, and put in respectable performances in its World Cup debut last year despite losing all three games.

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Whether Puerto Rico — or El Salvador or Dominican Republic, who also won play-in games on Saturday — will follow the same rise as Haiti is a guessing game. Haiti has some exceptional players who were successful at the youth national team level. Whether Puerto Rico becomes a formidable force within Concacaf isn’t the point, of course; what matters is that Puerto Rico or any other team is given the opportunity to do so. That was always the point with Bailey, too.

Even today, in a world far more progressive in its view of women’s sports than a decade ago, federations stand in the way of their own teams. Jamaica is not even participating in this Gold Cup. The Reggae Girlz failed to qualify for the final round or preliminary matches after their 2023 World Cup players boycotted important qualifying matches over a pay dispute. They largely qualified for last year’s World Cup, their second straight, in spite of their federation. Jamaica was the last of six Concacaf teams standing at the 2023 World Cup when the team took the field to play Colombia in the Round of 16.

So, yes, watching Martinez’s performance on Saturday was poetic and triggering all in one. Many of her 15 saves were spectacular, none more memorable than her late-game save of Nérilia Mondésir‘s penalty kick to preserve a 1-0 lead (a lead established by Jill Aguilera first-half penalty conversion). Martinez got some help from the post late, the ball bouncing back toward her in a fateful way.

This is the point of the Gold Cup: competitive games for federations that might not otherwise schedule them for their women’s teams, and the opportunity for previously unknown players to shine and leave their mark. Maybe Puerto Rico won’t have nearly as much fortune against Brazil, Colombia, or Panama in the group stage. Maybe Martinez will look more mortal in those matches.

Or maybe she will continue to shine, and other players on a roster composed mainly of college kids (or younger) and unattached players will be discovered as opportunities — including the launch of the USL Super League, a new, competing first division in the United States — increase.

The challenge, as it has been for decades, is to make that magic last for more than a couple of weeks during a Concacaf tournament.

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