Connolly: For T&T, defeat stings
There are no moral victories in World Cup qualifying.
A 1-0 loss inside the confines of that Terror Dome down in Mexico City is the same as a 6-0 shellacking in Panama City. You either gain points or give away points. And you only have 10 matches to collect them in the CONCACAF region.
Having only notched a total of four points after five matches coming into Wednesday night's qualifier against the U.S., the Trinidad & Tobago national team wasn't looking to just put up a good fight or prove that they can play with a side that is now the sixth-ranked team in the world. They wanted points. Or, better yet, a point.
Not getting an equalizer over the 88-plus minutes that were played after the U.S. scored 91 seconds into the match in a 1-0 loss stung hard -- even on a night when the home side could easily have hung three or four goals on them with a couple of breaks. Trinidad & Tobago came to Connecticut hoping to pull off an upset or at least salvage a point from a tie rather than simply prepare for their all-important match with fellow CONCACAF minnow Guatemala on Sept. 3.
"We weren't thinking about Guatemala, I'll tell you that," said Avery John, who went 90 minutes at left back for the Soca Warriors. "We know they are one of the top-ranked teams in the world and we are not, but we had the mindset that on any given day, anything can happen."
The type of surprise result the New England Revolution defender was talking about rarely comes without a complete performance, though. And despite playing well for long stretches in the second half, T & T didn't storm out of the gates. Instead of utilizing all that nervous energy in the opening moments of the match by running at the U.S., the Soca Warriors practically stood there and watched while Bobby Convey snuck down the left side of the box and set up Brian McBride for the game's lone goal before most of the 25,488 fans at Rentschler Field had settled into their seats.
"We've known for a long time that the United States always starts very strong," said Trinidad & Tobago's manager Leo Beenhakker. "And we made the same mistake as in the earlier match (2-1 loss at home back on Feb. 9). It took us about 20 or 25 minutes to get in the game. I don't know why. We worked on it, we talked about it. But they need the time to warm up their minds or to play their way into it. In this game, the U.S. started so strong, and it was killing us.
"We also had bad luck because right at the moment when the team was getting a little more involved in the match, we lost a guy."
Beenhakker agreed that Mexican referee Marco Antonio Rodriguez made the right decision by sending off defender Dennis Lawrence after he wrapped up Landon Donovan on his way to the goal just outside of the box in the 41st minute. Probably anyone watching around the world would share that same opinion, too.
Oddly enough, though, the red card seemed to wake up the visiting side, as they played much better in the second half with 10 men as they did in the first half with 11.
The ejection of Lawrence also gave Kansas City Wizards striker Scott Sealy an opportunity to make an early entrance into the match. In a rather ill-timed move, Beenhakker brought on Sealy and Brent Sancho during stoppage time at the end of the first half rather than wait until halftime. For Sealy, it represented his 15th cap for T&T, yet it was the first time he has appeared since Beenhakker was hired in May to take over the slumping side.
"Since I got here on Sunday night, I've had to show my stuff in practice and then tonight," said Sealy, who is a leading candidate for MLS Rookie of the Year after scoring seven goals in 21 appearances under Bob Gansler. "He saw me on tape, but never first-hand. So I had to prove myself. I think I stepped up. He had the confidence to put me in a game like this, so I think that says a lot."
Sealy didn't have many opportunities to turn and run at a very well-run U.S. back four, but he did pressure some balls out of the back and continued to make hard runs up top giving his teammates a target to lay balls up to. Unfortunately for Sealy, too many balls intended for his head or to open space were either way off the mark or played a little too close to the center back tandem of Oguchi Onyewu and Gregg Berhalter.
"Their organization and discipline just stood out," said Sealy. "They also have some exceptional players on the ball like Landon and Claudio (Reyna). But overall they had a plan and they stuck to it."
Beenhakker said that Sealy is definitely a player he is intrigued by looking forward, and will be a striker that will get more looks as qualifying continues.
"He made a very good impression," he said. "It wasn't easy for him to come into the team when we played with 10, but he's a good slot player. He needs to learn a little bit more to learn to adapt to the international level. At least he has the talent and has the skills. Hopefully, we can make him better with the national team."
While Sealy could take some positives out of the match since he's at the beginning of his international career, it seemed to sting John much more. Playing before a crowd that was made up of several thousand Revolution fans who made the short drive down I-84 from Massachusetts to Rentschler Field, the well-traveled 30-year-old has now earned 63 caps for his country. And if there was ever a time he wanted to see the red & black colors of Trinidad & Tobago shine the brightest, it was on Wednesday night.
"It just is so disappointing because of how it turned out," said John, who had a chance to cover both of his Revolution teammates on the U.S. -- Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman. "If we get through the first 15 or 20 minutes, it would have been a whole different game. This is a team we respect, but we really hoped it'd be a battle and we'd gain something."
Instead, T&T returns home to Port of Spain in fifth place in the group after Guatemala (seven points) downed Panama (two points) 2-1 on Wednesday night. A victory at home is practically a must for the Soca Warriors on Sept. 3 if they have any chance to even sneak into a playoff for a World Cup berth by way of finishing in fourth-place in the group.
"We're still in it, but we have to work much harder now," said John. "We have a few more games and just really need to get points any way we can."
Should T&T not get a result against Guatemala and ultimately fail to reach the 2006 World Cup, no one will remember the fact that they only lost by a goal on the road to the U.S.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs Wednesdays on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs