Gold Cup: Caribbean Soccer Rising and the MLS Connection

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No more than a year and a half ago at the tail end of 2013, it was safe to characterize Caribbean soccer as being in the doldrums at international level.

The final round of CONCACAF qualifying (also known as the Hexagonal) for the 2014 FIFA World Cup had just finished. The United States, Costa Rica and Honduras had qualified for Brazil automatically while Mexico got in by the skin of their teeth after narrowly finishing fourth in the region and winning the intercontinental playoff that followed.

The lone team from the Caribbean that made it to the Hexagonal, Jamaica, was completely outplayed and outclassed. They finished without a single win in ten games, losing and drawing five each while finishing sixth. It would mark the second consecutive qualifying cycle where this happened as Trinidad and Tobago finished dead last in the Hex at the end of 2010 World Cup qualifying.

Things haven’t gone much better within the region when previous versions of the Gold Cup were contested.

Throughout the now 24 year history of the tournament, a Caribbean nation has made the semifinals a grand total of four times. The most recent occurred in 2007 when Guadeloupe, a CONCACAF member but not affiliated with FIFA, made a shock run to the region’s final four. Beyond that, Trinidad and Tobago’s semifinal appearance in 2000 is the most recent.

Caribbean Soccer Rising

Fast forward to the present and the outlook is starting to look brighter for a subregion within the broader CONCACAF zone that has a tendency to get overlooked. Group play has now concluded at the 2015 Gold Cup. The USMNT, as expected, took Group A although fans, pundits and other onlookers would say it was done so in unconvincing fashion.

But take a look at the two teams who finished on top of the other groups. In Group B, it was none other than the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica who finished unbeaten in a group that included 2014 World Cup quarterfinalist Costa Rica.

After surprising everyone with a 2-2 draw against the Ticos to start group play, they rolled off consecutive 1-0 victories against Canada and El Salvador in differing fashions tactically speaking to finish with seven points. Against the Canadians they were much more assertive possession-wise. In the game with El Salvador, however, the Jamaicans were content to concede from a possession standpoint, remaining disciplined and compact defensively while playing for the counter.

In both games, it was late second half goals by Rodolf Austin (against Canada) and Garath McCleary (against El Salvador) that proved to be the difference.

Mexico was expected to top Group C but in the end it was the Soca Warriors of Trinidad and Tobago who came out on top after both teams played the game of the tournament and perhaps one of the best in Gold Cup history.

The contest was blasted open during a 16 minute stretch of the second half that saw El Tri take a 2-0 lead and Trinidad reply with three of their own. Mexico appeared to break Trinidadian hearts with two late scores that looked to eke out a one-goal win but a Yohance Marshall header off a Joevin Jones corner at the death sealed a heart-stopping 4-4 draw.

The quarterfinals saw Jamaica’s feel good story continue with a 1-0 win over Haiti. Trinidad nearly did the same in their match with Panama. After finishing regulation and extra time tied 1-1, they lost in heartbreaking fashion in a 6-5 penalty shootout that lasted nine rounds.

The MLS Connection

These two stalwarts of Caribbean soccer, incidentally the last two to qualify for the World Cup from the region (Jamaica 1998, Trinidad & Tobago 2006), have a handful of MLS-based players who’ve been crucial to the team’s success. Jamaica have eight players on their Gold Cup squad who ply their trade in MLS, while Trinidad and Tobago have three.

For Jamaica, five of those players are regulars for club and country.

Houston Dynamo fans are well aware of the quality from center back Jermaine Taylor and striker Giles Barnes. Kemar Lawrence has been immensely solid at left back both for the New York Red Bulls as well as for the Reggae Boyz. Je-Vaughan Watson, a grizzled 31-year-old veteran, has made a name for himself both for the Dynamo and FC Dallas since joining the league in 2011. Finally, there’s Darren Mattocks, who won a collegiate national title while playing at Akron under current Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter, and has been a part of the Vancouver Whitecaps since 2012.

Trinidad and Tobago’s MLSers have contributed to the team’s success in their own unique ways.

Joevin Jones, who plays left winger for the Chicago Fire and the Soca Warriors, had a goal and that crucial assist in the game-tying goal against Mexico. Cordell Cato, who plays opposite Jones in the T&T attacking midfield, also tallied a score and assisted on another. Ironically enough, he has the same scoring stats for the San Jose Earthquakes this season. Kevan George, a pure number six with a cool and calm demeanor in his on-field movement, played all 390 minutes in the Gold Cup, exceeding the 228 he’s logged for Columbus Crew SC in 2015.

Though there’s not as much of an MLS linkage, even Haiti has had an incredible run in the Gold Cup to this point. They finished ahead of two Central American powerhouses in Panama and Honduras to claim second in Group A. The Haitians also gave the US all they could handle in a hard-fought 1-0 victory for the Red, White and Blue.

The Crucial Next Chapter in the Story

The next step is to build on this impressive performance from Caribbean soccer nations in group play and make a run into the semifinals and possibly beyond. Jamaica has done so and now play regional power the United States Wednesday with a spot in the Gold Cup final on the line. This will be a game where players from both teams will be familiar with one another given how many of them play in MLS.

The Soca Warriors have nothing to hang their heads on in the wake of the quarterfinal loss to Panama. Penalty shootouts are always tough ways to lose games and they faced one of the most experienced goalkeepers in the tournament in Jaime Penedo. They were that close to making the final four, and all indications are that they’ll be a handful when CONCACAF World Cup qualifying gets underway later this year.

Caribbean soccer appears to be on the upswing. What we witness over the final week of the 2015 Gold Cup and leading into qualifying for the 2018 World Cup will tell us whether this is a legitimate trend or flash in the pan.