Currently ranked 92nd in the world, 10th in CONCACAF and 3rd in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago is focused on rebuilding its national team. Once upon a time, they were the undisputed kings of football in the Caribbean and the smallest country to qualify for a FIFA World Cup. These days the Soca Warriors are on a quest to regain respectability in the eyes of their CONCACAF opponents and the football world at large.
Under the stewardship of Stephen Hart, they performed creditably at the 2013 and 2015 Gold Cups, reaching the knockout stage on both occasions. In 2015, they topped Group C after brushing by Guatemala and Cuba and imposing a 4-4 draw with eventual champions, Mexico. After Hart was sacked, the Soca Warriors failed to qualify for the 2017 edition of the tournament. During the course of three calendar years, the national team’s ranking has plummeted almost 50 places. Nevertheless, the squad’s rank is not exclusively a complete reflection of Trinidad and Tobago’s quality on the field, or of the program’s budget limitations, but is also indicative of internal policies that are not strategically directed to the key indicators that most influence positive movement in the rankings.
The team’s comprehensive preparations for the Gold Cup have been far from ideal. The national federation is in a state of administrative turmoil with public evidence of contention among its principal actors. Multiple matters brought by past and present stakeholders against the federation are in litigation before the courts. On top of those distractions, no professional matches have been played in the country since the December 2018 conclusion of the most recent season and, concurrently, the organizational structure of the first and second tiers of the domestic game are being restructured by a UEFA-advised League Commission, with the aim of achieving a regime of best practices. Nonetheless, in spite of the challenges and hurdles off the field, Dennis Lawrence and his charges are expected to give nothing less than 100% at the confederation’s showcase tournament.
Lawrence assumed the role of coach of Trinidad and Tobago in January 2017. Commencing March 10, 2017 against Barbados through March 20, 2019 versus Wales, the team’s record during his tenure stands at 21 matches played, 5 wins, 4 draws, 12 losses, 18 goals scored and 28 goals conceded. Following a playing career in England and Wales, the 44 year old Lawrence returned to the Trinidad and Tobago national team set-up after having spent several years working in various capacities with Roberto Martinez, for whom he played at Swansea, before transitioning into coaching roles at Wigan Athletic and Everton. He arrived in Trinidad and Tobago with Martinez’s blessings, having interrupted his duties as a first team scout of the Belgian national team. The Trinidad and Tobago coaching job is Lawrence’s first responsibility as the maximum coaching authority of a club or national team. He is regarded as disciplined, cautious, committed and ambitious, but not much is known in the public domain about him with respect to his tactical identity and philosophy of play.
Trinidad and Tobago under Lawrence has typically played in a 4-2-3-1 structure that has generated little attacking creativity and imagination; produced relatively few goals, revealed - particularly on the left band - a lack of consistent exploitation of the flanks by the flank defender; demonstrated an absence of seeking verticality through incisive play on the ground from central areas, in deference to a preponderance of ‘long’ or lofted balls to pursue tactical encroachment into the opposing team’s territory; shown frequent self-imposed isolation of the number 9 from his supporting cast; and, manifested an absence of positional play between the lines of the opponent. In general terms, no clearly coherent expressions in performance of a cohesive tactical scheme that is balanced in terms of both attacking and defensive ambition, or an overarching collective branded understanding of approach play that is not opportunistic or individualized, have been evident.
Lawrence’s ideas have been clearer in constructing the work of the back line and its passing relationships with the organizing central midfielders, but have been less imprinted in presenting a systemic coordinated interaction between those central midfield pivots and the four players positioned in advanced positions beyond them. The operation of ball circulation, as it stands from the collective template of the 21 matches under Lawrence’s belt, suggests that more penetration with the ball is needed in central channels and that the number of vertical passes and unbalancing movements in these locations need to increase for success to be had in a tournament that requires point accumulation in the group phase of competition and goals to fend off elimination from the competition during the knockout rounds.
Based on the present iteration of the Trinidad and Tobago national team, it is difficult to foresee the Soca Warriors presenting a consistent attacking threat at the Gold Cup. Yet, while both the statistics and the stylistic qualities of the team’s on-field renditions support this assertion, there is enough individual quality and capacity for improvisation within the roster to rise to the challenge of contradicting the proposition.
Scouting for Talent
Since assuming control of the team in March 2017, with three matches left in World Cup qualifying, Dennis Lawrence has explored 70 players. Commencing the analysis from the goal area moving forward, Lawrence has drafted seven custodians into national duty but only three of the goalkeepers had seen competitive action through the Wales friendly. Of these seven players, four are employed by clubs within Trinidad and Tobago’s domestic league, the TT Pro League. Two of the other three goalkeepers are based in North America and the remaining goaltender is resident in Denmark. Only one of the foreign-based goalkeepers, Greg Ranjitsingh, migrated from the 40-man provisional list to the final Gold Cup roster.
Lawrence, who has favored using a 4-2-3-1, appears to have identified the combination of players he finds most effective individually and collectively in the back line. With the passage of time he has probed seven different combinations of central defenders and has preferred Bateau and Cyrus in the roles. On the flanks, the educated left foot of Triston Hodge and the industry and craft of Aubrey David on the right band had appeared to be the preferred options, but Hodge has been ruled out due to injury.
The Engine Room
Matters of positional concern for Lawrence have been identifying an effective centerforward and achieving a viable synergy among the wingers, the attacking midfield player and space, and the forward without sacrificing continuity and fluidity in moments of transitions oriented to either goal. In terms of the defensive midfielders, despite at least eight or nine permutations of personnel, Lawrence seems to have settled on the characteristics offered by Khaleem Hyland and Kevan George.
Hyland is the most experienced player on the Soca Warriors roster, with 82 appearances and four goals to his name. He has been a constant fixture in the Trinidad and Tobago lineup since he made his debut as an 18-year old against Puerto Rico on January 26th 2008. Presently plying his trade in the Saudi Premier League with Al-Faisaly FC after having played in Belgium for eight years, Khaleem is the ultimate Warrior, ready to place is body on the line in order to protect the defenders behind him. Known for his occasional attacking forays, Hyland is a key factor in the Trinidad and Tobago being able to keep opponents at bay.
Regarding their Group D opponents, Trinidad and Tobago has never beaten the United States or Panama at the Gold Cup, and they have never met Guyana in the tournament. However, although the Soca Warriors are not in sparkling form, none of the matches can be considered a foregone conclusion. Trinidad and Tobago have shown they are quite capable of taking big scalps as occurred when they denied the United States passage to the 2018 World Cup.
Going into recent friendlies against Japan (0-0) and Canada (0-2), Trinidad and Tobago had not conceded more than one goal in a match since a 2-2 draw against Grenada on November 11th 2017; a run of eight matches. Three clean sheets in the last seven games; the most recent being a 2-0 win over United Arab Emirates on September 6th 2018.
Eight of the last nine games have been played outside of Trinidad and Tobago. All of Trinidad and Tobago's Group Stage matches will be held at venues where the Soca Warriors have never played before, although players with MLS experience like Kevin Molino, Joevin Jones, Daneil Cyrus, Kevan George and Mekeil Williams will possess some familiarity with the environments.
Entering the Japan and Canada matches, the Soca Warriors had only scored three goals in the last seven matches, dating back to a 1-0 win over Guadeloupe on March 23rd 2018. Of the 18 goals scored under Dennis Lawrence, only 6 goals have come from recognized strikers. Kevin Molino, a midfielder, is the top joint goalscorer under Lawrence with three goals, although he has not represented the Soca Warriors since November 2017, a span of 18 months. The other player with three goals to his credit, Jamille Boatswain, has not played for Trinidad and Tobago since November 2017, and is not included in the 2019 Gold Cup roster.