It came around the 20th minute of the game: Derrick Etienne's first goal for the Haiti men's national team. A quickly taken free kick, no more than a short pass into space, sent the New York Red Bulls' midfielder into the penalty area with the ball at his feet. He curled his shot around the advancing 'keeper, and brought his team back into a match that had seemed to be slipping away from it quickly.
Post-match, Trinidad and Tobago head coach, Tom Saintfiet, said Haiti's (first) equalizer was the result of a "lack of fair play", suggesting Les Grenadiers had not returned the ball to his team after it had been kicked out to stop play for an injury to Soca Warriors captain Carlos Edwards, and had won field position unjustly. As it was, scarcely five minutes after Etienne's goal, T&T quickly regained the lead through a heads-up play of their own: Shahdon Winchester tapped into an empty net while Haiti 'keeper Guerry Romondt was still trying to get the referee to explain what foul he had committed for an indirect free kick to be awarded inside the box. Haiti head coach Jean-Claude Josaphat called both goals "normal": "when the ball goes down you have to be aware and your defense has to be focused," he said post-match.
Josaphat could, of course, afford to be philosophical. His team won.
Haiti didn't have to beat Trinidad and Tobago to advance to the CFU-UNCAF lucky-loser's playoff for a spot at the 2017 Gold Cup. Les Grenadiers could get away with simply not losing by more than one goal. Not that the team went into the game with such diminished ambition. "If they give us two, we should give them three," Josaphat said he'd told his players before the start. In the end, the Soca Warriors gave Haiti three, but Les Grenadiers responded with four to win the Caribbean Cup fifth-place playoff tournament outright, without reference to goal difference, and advance to play whichever team finishes fifth at the forthcoming 2017 Copa Centromericana for a Gold Cup berth.
But such an outcome seemed a long way off for Haiti after the opening minute of the game. T&T winger Nathan Lewis shimmied round his full back and served up a cross that Shahdon Winchester could hardly help but put into the net. The crowd at Ato Boldon Stadium roared its approval, and it seemed as though Haiti's primary task would be to avoid humiliation by the home team.
Indeed, the opening 15 minutes belonged mostly to T&T and the game went from bad to worse for Les Grenadiers when midfield enforcer Sebastien Thuriere limped off in the 18th minute. But Soca Warriors captain Carlos Edwards suffered an injury almost immediately thereafter. Though this observer did not see any gamesmanship from the Haitians, Etienne's goal arrived before Edwards replacement - Alvin Jones (brother of Seattle Sounders' Joevin) - could take the field.
Pep-talk to his team notwithstanding, "I had some doubts," coach Josaphat admitted after watching his team fall behind in the first minute. "But after we equalized, they played the way I asked them to play," he said.
Though Etienne's equalizer was quickly countered by Winchester's second goal, Haiti did start to play more freely as the half progressed. The team had some uncomfortable moments, but landed another equalizer through a sharp header from Kervens Belfort off a corner. And the first half ended with Etienne lingering just too long on a fleeting chance to shoot from the top of the box.
At 2-2 with 45 minutes to play, T&T still had reason to believe it could get the necessary two-goal win, and Haiti had every reason to believe it could keep pace with its opponent's scoring. Surprisingly, given the frantic first half, the second 45 saw no goals scored at all.
It was not for want of trying. There were good chances at both ends. Haiti 'keeper Romondt had appeared guilty of suspect decision-making and unreliable glovework in his team's 4-2 win over Suriname, and he was similarly inconsistent in the first half against the Soca Warriors. But he came up big repeatedly for his team in the second half.
At the other end, Etienne was denied Haiti's best chance of the second half by a quality save from Adrian Foncette in the 76th minute. And then the game took a curious turn.
First, Etienne took exception to being repeatedly clattered and jabbed by Trinidadian players. Exasperated by a second clout inside five minutes, the RBNY man incited a brief sideline scuffle as he pleaded his case to the referee and both teams stepped in to join the conversation. He got a yellow card for his trouble.
Meanwhile, the Soca Warriors had noticed another goal would not be enough: a 3-2 win over Haiti would see them eliminated on goal difference. T&T needed to win by two goals and there wasn't much time left to get them. But CFU regulations for the tournament do not allow for draws, so if the score remained 2-2 after 90 minutes there would be 30 minutes of extra time.
"It's crazy to tell the players, 'Please, don't score a goal now," said coach Saintfiet, but that is what he had to do.
Surprisingly, Haiti seemed happy enough to pay along. A late chance for lively left back Alex Christian was denied by Foncette, but otherwise Les Grenadiers seemed as keen on playing out the 90 without further scoring as their hosts.
It seemed a risky tactic. Haiti had played just two days prior to the match, using the same starting lineup. Most Grenadiers looked exhausted as the 90th minute approached, and the only substitute used had been as replacement for the injured Thuriere. Saintfiet had thrown subs in during the second half, adding (former MetroStar) Cornell Glen and Trevin Caesar at the expense of Aikim Andrews and Tyrone Charles. The CFU's rules allowed for a fourth sub to be used in extra time, and so midfielder Hughton Hector joined the fray in the 91st minute in place of defender Maurice Ford. The Soca Warriors kicked off extra time with three at the back and renewed intent.
The first half of the extra 30 minutes saw Romondt forced into a desperation double save as T&T surged forward. Josaphat quickly withdrew Etienne for Paulson Pierre. Haiti had spent much of the game with five men at the back; for extra time, Les Grenadiers occasionally formed a six-man back line.
A frenetic first 15 ended in a flurry of chances: Jonel Desire was stopped by a last-gasp tackle from Radanfa Abu Bakr; Trevin Caesar blocked a goal-bound header on the goal-line; Romondt came up big in Haiti's goal again; Cornell Glen couldn't connect on a golden chance.
The second half of extra time started as frantically as the first had ended. Saintfiet pushed Abu Bakr up front and the big center-back amused the crowd with a left-footed whiff that achieved nothing but his own embarrassment. Then Romondt misjudged a cross and almost let the ball drift under his crossbar. Charles Herold Jr. eased the pressure with a lobbed pass that put Belfort into position to delicately win a corner - and from that corner, Belfort scored his second of the game. The crowd booed Belfort vigorously, and then cheered: Abu Bakr's turn at center forward paid off as he provided a knock-down header for Winchester to slot home his third goal of the game.
It was the sixth minute of the second 15, two goals had been scored, the game was tied at 3-3, and it was still difficult to say with any confidence which team would be going home happy.
Haiti would clearly be going home exhausted. Josaphat finally allowed another sub into the game, withdrawing Belfort for Romiliaire Ambroise. But it was one of players who had played every minute for Haiti in the tournament who sealed the match and the competition for his team. In the 117th minute, Andrew Jean-Baptiste was granted too much space at a corner, and planted a firm header into the net: 4-3 to Haiti, T&T needed three goals in three minutes - the crowd started for the exits. Finally, there would be no further significant action.
AJB's goal was timely. It took the fight out out of the Soca Warriors just in time. The final whistle blew with Haiti effectively reduced to nine men, as Ambroise limped to his team's dugout with the support of a coach and another Grenadier was stretched out on the ground as his teammates sought to hold the Soca Warriors at bay.
Haiti will now watch the 2017 Copa Centroamerica with interest. There are six teams in the tournament (which kicks off on January 13), and the fifth-best one will stand between Les Grenadiers and the Gold Cup. If the competition goes as expected, that team will be either Belize or Nicaragua.
The CFU-UNCAF playoff has yet to be scheduled, but Haiti will hope it falls inside a FIFA window for international call-ups. None of the teams at the Caribbean Cup fifth-place playoff (Suriname, Haiti, and T&T) were able to name full-strength rosters. That wasn't entirely down to the constraint of playing outside the FIFA international calendar, but it was a significant factor in the weakened squads at the tournament.
On the bright side, circumstances forced Haiti to put trust in a great many fringe players, including RBNY's Etienne, who now has two more international caps and his first international goal to his name. And ex-RBNY man Andrew Jean-Baptiste, who celebrated an unexpected New Year's Eve call-up with two goals in two games.
Trinidad and Tobago, meanwhile, must focus attention on retrieving a faltering bid for World Cup qualification. The four games to date under new head coach Saintfiet do not inspire great confidence - one win and three losses (to Nicaragua, Suriname, and Haiti) - but he has only been in charge for about a month.
The Belgian has landed in a crisis not of his own making: he didn't fire Soca Warriors head coach Stephen Hart, and he didn't cause the team to stumble out of Caribbean Cup prematurely, miss automatic Gold Cup qualification, and lose its first two games of the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. But he has been employed to pick up the pieces of T&T's campaign to make Russia 2018, and his first month in charge has not offered much reason to believe that will be done.
Saintfiet's appointment has been questioned by both press and public in Trinidad and Tobago, and presumably will continue to be until or unless results on the field change. For his part, the coach seems determined to stay the course: "My work on the pitch must tell if I have a future here," he said. "I think I have a future here."