The Haitian men's national team was cruising when Derrick Etienne was subbed out of its Caribbean Football Union Gold Cup playoff match against Suriname on Friday, January 6. Up 3-0 with about 15 minutes to play, Les Grenadiers' head coach Jean Claude Josaphat pulled the New York Red Bulls attacker out of the game. The decision did not seem to sit well with the player, who larruped a water bottle across the damp ground at Ato Boldon Stadium and needed a consoling arm from a member of the coaching staff and a run at the far end of the stadium to cool off.
But he was back on the bench with his teammates within a few minutes, just in time to watch fellow starter Kervens Belfort react with similar distaste to his own substitution from the game. Cheerful and composed after what turned into a 4-2 win for Haiti, Etienne calmly rejected any suggestion of trouble in the camp, attributing his reaction to being subbed to the high standards he and his team demand: "[I was] mostly upset with the way we played. We're very demanding players and we feel that when we step on the field we should be top guys. [There were] simple things that we messed up - that's how it is. At the end of the day, we're all happy that we were able to get the win."
It could have and should have been a bigger win. Shortly after Etienne exited the game, Les Grenadiers added a fourth goal and Suriname had a man sent off. At 4-0 up, Haiti didn't just have Suriname beaten, it had taken a step toward winning the tournament: next opponent, Trinidad and Tobago, effectively has to beat Les Grenadiers by the same margin that they beat Suriname. In effect, a four-goal lead for Haiti against Suriname was also a substantial lead over T&T in advance of the next game.
But the challenge of containing 10-men with nothing to lose proved more difficult than might have been imagined. Haiti, dominant for most of the middle hour of the match, finished the game effectively hoping four goals would be enough to keep Suriname's revival at bay.
It's not an unfamiliar phenomenon in soccer: short-handed team draws strength from adversity and takes the game to its opponent with renewed vigor. Defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste was respectful of his opponents' drive and persistence: "I've seen a lot of teams that did it: played better when they have a man down. And that's exactly what they did, and they punished us. Luckily for us, we got a 4-0 lead on it."
It is a relatively young, inexperienced - at international level - squad that Haiti has brought to this tournament. The players have spent two weeks (more or less: AJB, for example, joined the roster on New Year's Day) training in Trinidad, and the work has paid off: Haiti is exactly where it would have hoped to be at this stage of this tournament - heading into the game against host T&T with a modest advantage and some positive momentum.
As the reactions of (20-year-old) Etienne and (24-year-old) Belfort to substitution perhaps illustrated, Haiti's players see the room for improvement in the team's performance as well as anyone. "Suriname are a good team that like to keep the ball, but I felt that we were clinical in front of goal," said Etienne, "A couple of things we need to work on - giving up two goals after we're up a man. After 4-0, we definitely should kill off the game, but these are things that will come, [things] that come along with a new team with younger guys."
Jean-Baptiste was a little less forgiving: "After the red card, I think some us got complacent. I think we were just a little too happy that they got a red card and it's like "Oh, OK, they got a man down".
The Trinidad and Tobago coaching staff was paying close attention to the game, and will have noted that at least three of Haiti's goals owed much to Surinamese mistakes.
Charles Herold Jr's opener came from a soft clearance that handed Les Grenadiers the ball in the final third. Herold, forward Jonel Desire, and Kervens Belfort combined well to create a clear scoring opportunity, but they really shouldn't have had the ball at all at that moment. Desire's goal - Haiti's third - was the result of a catastrophically misjudged back pass that handed the Haitian striker a one-on-one with the 'keeper. And Les Grenadiers' fourth was an own goal.
But the Soca Warriors will also have noted the Haitians rained chances on Suriname. Etienne was responsible for at least two: a cross in the early stages of the game seemed perfect for Desire to tap in, but the forward's run was a fraction off and the ball skipped away to safety; toward the end of the first half, the RBNY Academy product essayed a graceful lofted shot at goal that drew an acrobatic save from 'keeper Claidel Kohinor.
Etienne's saved effort set up the corner from which AJB scored his first goal for his country. And the ex-RBNY center back almost had a second in short order: "I had a clean header. I thought it was going back post, but he [the Suriname defender who deflected the shot] blocked it. I thought, "Two goals in five minutes: Oh my God - great way to start 2017."
Haiti got the start it wanted to 2017 anyway: the win over Suriname was essential to keep hope of qualifying for the 2017 Gold Cup alive, at least until the game against T&T.
On a wet Friday night in Couva, Ato Boldon Stadium had enough spectators to constitute a crowd at a bus stop, but not so much at an international soccer match. Sunday's game against the Soca Warriors should be a little different. Les Grenadiers and their past (AJB) and present (Etienne) RBNY players will likely have to contend with a much rowdier stadium. Even the few who turned up to watch Haiti play Suriname created some noise toward the end of the game, when they were effectively cheering the reduction of Les Grenadiers' goal-difference advantage over T&T.
Both sides have their issues. Soca Warriors head coach Tom Saintfiet has had an uncomfortable start to his new job, wrestling with issues on and off the field. In his brief time in charge, he has opted to leave out several senior players for a variety of reasons: tactical (Kenwyne Jones), disciplinary (Joevin Jones), and fitness-related (Kevin Molino). And he has watched his transitional T&T squad lose twice in three games on his watch (to Nicaragua and subsequently to Suriname). Furthering his list of concerns, the coach has told the press he has four injury-worries heading into the game against Haiti.
The home team should draw a decent crowd, and it will have that crowd behind it unless the game tilts irrevocably Haiti's way, but it is not without challenges at the moment.
Nor are Les Grenadiers, who have not been given a lot of time to recover between games in this tournament. Though the schedule only permitted Haiti one rest day between its matches, AJB at least had a premonition that his team will have plenty left for the big match against the Soca Warriors. "The fact I got my first goal today, I mean I did say it in the hotel today to [Kervens] Belfort: he was going to get two, and I was going to get one. And, you know, he'll get it. I didn't say when he'll get it, I just said he'll get two - he's got another 90 minutes to get it."
After the loss to Suriname, Santfiet explained he had been deliberately pursuing a counter-attacking strategy that permitted the opponent time and space on the ball. To do so against Haiti would seem to be invite disaster. The team's clear strength against Suriname was the interplay of the attacking quartet - Desire, Belfort, Etienne, and Herold, who punched into the front three effectively and often. Throw in forward-thinking full backs, and it's not the best idea to cede possession to this Haiti squad.
Les Grenadiers' back line was caught flat several times by Suriname, and the goals Haiti conceded were mostly the result of goalkeeping errors and a defense that maybe over-compensated for earlier lapses by sitting too deep. One would expect the Soca Warriors to seek to apply heavy and constant pressure to Haiti's defense, rather than playing a more selective, countering game. And expect the Haitians to rely on a lively and intelligent attacking unit to push an experienced but perhaps heavy-footed Trinidadian defense around the field.
The game between T&T and Haiti will have a result. CFU rules for this tournament provide for extra-time and penalties, if necessary. Derrick Etienne and Andrew Jean-Baptiste will hope the game flows their way and Les Grenadiers can keep a promising start to 2017 going for at least another match.