Trinidad and Tobago national football team captain Aurtis Whitley yesterday warned future opponents that the "Soca Warriors" are much stronger since their shaky Concacaf qualifying win over Bermuda in June thanks to the return of six 2006 World Cup players and the introduction of W. Connection teammate Clyde Leon.
"I won't say we are as strong as four years ago," Whitley told the Express, "but there is a lot (for the fans) to look forward to. I think with the coming of Densill (Theobald), (Chris) Birchall, Avery (John), Cyd (Gray) and the other World Cup players and also Clyde (Leon), we are much stronger.
"We are still gelling but the team has more love now. And remember there is still Stern (John) and the others to come in.
"It is a hard team to pick right now."
Whitley missed Trinidad and Tobago's friendly wins over Guyana and Netherlands Antilles with a hamstring injury and returned to face Haiti on July 30 only to be ruled out by an injury in the pre-game warm-up. The Connection playmaker is suffering from a suspected pinched nerve in his ankle and should know his short-term future today when he meets the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (T&TFF) medical staff.
Despite his sudden return to the national fold and promotion to team captain, the 31-year-old Whitley has endured a patchy 2008 season thus far because of injuries. He featured in seven from 12 games since his national recall but barely managed four games from a possible 15 with Connection.
Last season, Whitley made a superb start to his career with the "Savonetta Boys" who he steered them to the First Citizens Bank Cup after being released by Clico San Juan Jabloteh.
"This season has been frustrating," said Whitley. "I am not accustomed to being injured since the (2006 World Cup) qualifiers. I am now getting back in the thick of things and it has been great with Connection, so far, but the start and stop has stopped me catching form for them (this year).
"They welcomed me with open arms down there and showed me a lot of love. I want to give something back."
It would be music to the ears of Connection president David J Williams who lauded Whitley's impact last season and has been patient this year.
Connection are in second sport and within four points of Pro League leaders Jabloteh after a stretch of five successive victories with as many clean sheets. Williams feels certain that his squad will be even stronger for the return of last season's top scorer Jonathan Frias and Whitley from injury.
"I am a bit disappointed with the amount of games we have gotten (from Whitley)," said Williams, "but he has good reason because they were genuine injuries. I guess it was just a case of bad luck for us that he picked up the injuries when we were in competition and was often okay when we were on break and the national team was playing.
"He delivered the goods when he joined us last year and we expect to get the same high standards (this season)."
Whitley hopes to deliver at international level too and is anxious for good medical news.
The introduction of Birchall and Leon means that Maturana could use Whitley in a more attacking role, if he chooses, rather than leaving the skillful midfielder as a shield for his back four. However, the Connection player insisted that he is happy to play wherever his country needs him.
"Everybody knows me as an attacker," said Whitley. "But I can play anywhere in the midfield. It doesn't really matter. I have always gotten a more defensive role (for the national team) with (Ian) Porterfield, (Rene) Simoes, (Leo) Beenhakker and now Maturana.
"Even though I am playing as a defensive midfield, I can still go forward and make things happen. I think I am best attacking but it is up to the coach."
The inclusion of a handful of central midfielders affords Maturana the opportunity to spring a surprise against Cuba if he wishes. Whitley is grateful for the new company.