USWNT Wins CONCACAF Opener, But Caribbean Nations Make Biggest Strides
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Sport offers the potential of the unlikely, even improbable. It is unmistakably part of its magic.
All you had to do to confirm as much Wednesday in Kansas City was listen to the cheers that emerged out of silence during halftime of the CONCACAF Women's Championship opening game between Guatemala and Haiti at Sporting Park, 22 miles and a state line away from Kauffman Stadium, as mobile devices and word of mouth spread news of the final out across town that clinched the Kansas City Royals a spot in the World Series.
The same Royals who were absent from the playoffs for nearly three decades until a couple of weeks ago and saddled with a losing record as recently as three months ago. The same Royals who are now 8-0 in the playoffs.
For women's soccer in North and Central American and the Caribbean, getting from impossible to improbable is the challenge.
Confirmation of that came later Wednesday evening when the United States beat Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 to open group play for both teams in CONCACAF qualifying.
"As the competitor in you, you're still disappointed you didn't get a point out of the game," Trinidad and Tobago coach Randy Waldrum said of coming closer to a draw against the United States than anyone had reason to expect. "But having said that, if the people knew the plight that we've had, and the struggled that we've had a little bit ..."
He went on to note, by way of example, that he met two of his starters for the first time a few days ago. The larger point was obvious: That his team was on the field at all Wednesday qualified as something of a success.
It was a game, as the saying goes, that wasn't as close as the final score suggested. Not nearly as close. Not when the Americans piled up 28 shots and squandered at least half a dozen more chances in the final third. Not when they completed 332 passes while their opponents completed just 68.
This wasn't a particularly good performance from the United States, and it still dominated play from start to finish.
The breakthrough finally came in the 55th minute on the U.S. women's 15th shot, against none to that point by Trinidad and Tobago. Alex Morgan went around keeper Kimika Forbes, who otherwise on the night pulled off her own version of Tim Howard against Belgium. With the keeper off her feet, Morgan gained the end line and floated a cross toward the far post for Abby Wambach to head home.
That Trinidad and Tobago came out and defended with numbers upon numbers behind the ball was no surprise. A lot of CONCACAF teams do that against the regional power. That the underdog was so organized and composed in that effort was similarly unsurprising. He might coach one, but Waldrum is not a minnow in the soccer world. That the United States was so wasteful in the final third, credit to Forbes aside, was surprising. It created drama for itself.
"We know the formula," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said she told the players at halftime. "We know we need width, we know we need combinations wide. So it was a matter of us -- we knew we needed to transition quicker. We know those things, and I think it's just a matter of now that translating for us to recognize those moments in the game."
At the same time, the game was every bit as competitive as the final score suggested. And in the 76th minute, when Trinidad and Tobago forward Kennya Cordner punished a U.S. miscue and nearly pulled her team level against an opponent that had outscored the Caribbean nation 54-2 in seven previous meetings, well, maybe it didn't seem impossible.
That is remarkable when you consider that while the United States needed things like more width and combinations, Trinidad and Tobago needed a viral Twitter campaign just to have enough money to eat in recent days.
Waldrum took to Twitter a week ago when players arrived in the United States for a training camp with around $500. Donations of money, training facilities, lodging and more poured in from around the country. Waldrum said the generosity restored his faith in humanity.
Trinidad and Tobago played like a team that wouldn't embarrass itself in a World Cup. Yet it is also a team that might struggle to afford the airfare to Canada.
"As well as we played tonight in keeping the score close, anybody watching the game could see there's still gaps," Waldrum said. "I think the whole key, and one of the things that might change that and get us there, would be if us, or [another] Caribbean team, can qualify for the World Cup. I think that will be huge. If you guys kind of understood the natures of the islands, qualifying a team out of this to get into the World Cup, I think will change those things with the perception of women's football in the Caribbean and with resources and things for the grassroots level."
Trinidad and Tobago wasn't alone in that regard Wednesday night among teams on hand.
Haiti appeared headed for a long evening in the opening game when goalkeeper Cynthia Chery lost control of a ball in the 17th minute and then panicked, dragging down a Guatemalan player moving toward the unexpectedly free ball and the wide-open goal. There could be no complaints about the red card that the referee pulled from her pocket as she awarded a penalty kick. But second-choice keeper Geralda Saintilus pushed away the penalty shot and immediately found herself under a pile of four exultant teammates, even as the game continued on.
Playing what seemed a more composed game, or at least a less frantic one than they managed with a full complement of players in the opening minutes, the Haitians defended well, got help from the crossbar on multiple Guatemalan attempts and escaped further punishment from the referee despite a hefty foul total. When an opportunity presented itself off a free kick in the 69th minute, American-born midfielder Lindsay Zullo bundled in a rebound from close range.
That turned out to be all Haiti needed for 1-0 win.
Haiti didn't need a social media campaign to pay its bills this week, but it has been in similar straits in the very recent past. The national team trains in Indiana, where coach Shek Borkowski also coaches FC Indiana, because the facilities and support simply don't exist at home in a nation that is both impoverished and culturally unsure of women's sports.
"For a federation like ours, emphasis is primarily on the men's game," Borkowski said after his team's win. "The women's game does not receive the same amount of funding, not even close to it. So the challenges for my players in Haiti is adequate equipment, equal access or close to equal access to facilities for training. And, of course, there's a lot of pressure on them at home to not participate in the game because football is a men's game, not a women's game.
"And proper ladies don't play football."
Resilient ones apparently do.
At least until the current World Cup cycle, the improbable would have been Trinidad and Tobago or Haiti making it to the Women's World Cup, something no Caribbean nation has accomplished and which both Waldrum and Borkowski noted would do as much as any FIFA edict or charity campaign to help their respective causes. But with the expansion of the field in Canada to 24 teams, one of them stands a very good chance of qualifying, either directly or through a playoff against Ecuador.
For now, teams like Trinidad and Tobago rely on the generosity of strangers moved by their story or the help of organizations like the Clinton Foundation, which Borkowski said had agreed to a four-year funding arrangement to help the next crop of Haitian players, those currently part of the under-17 national program, come to the United States to train.
"In the United States in the '70s they faced a very similar problems as we are facing right now," Borkowski said. "Where the U.S. players did not receive the same amount of money as they're receiving now, or the same treatment, but because they became successful and they started winning titles, that changed the paradigm for them. Now they're well-funded and well taken care of. So for us, it's going to take success."
Success still being a relative term.
"For us, beating Guatemala is success," Borkowski said.
Success against the United States, he added, would be allowing fewer than five or six goals. As Trinidad and Tobago showed later that night, that isn't impossible, just improbable.
Now the sport needs the improbable wins to replace the impossible ones.