The final set of 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup group games started this week and Red Bull Arena played host to Group B on Monday, June 24.
As Bermuda played to its first ever Gold Cup win over Nicaragua (2-0) in a game to determine the bottom two order, Haiti and Costa Rica battled in the day’s main event in front of 14,000 fans. The shaking and screaming culminated in a comeback 2-1 win for Haiti as they won the group heading into the knockout stage this weekend.
This is the first time Haiti has ever won its’ group in the Gold Cup, though the team did win the competition under its previous name (the Concacaf Championship) in 1973 and were runners up in both 1971 and 1977. Since the re-brand in 1991, the nation has only ever reached the quarter-finals (2002, 2009, 2015). This is also the first time the nation has ever defeated Costa Rica in a game – minus an Olympic Games qualifier back in 1967.
In an interesting twist, the historic and momentum defining game came at the home of one of Haiti’s up-and-coming stars, New York’s Derrick Etienne Jr.
Costa Rica played the role of the favorite to a tee early on in the match. The team held the ball for most of the game and only failed to complete 31 of its 258 passes (which is over double the amount of passes Haiti had during the first 45). Álvaro Saborío got his team started with a goal in the 14th minute after his header hit off Haiti’s Djimy-Bend Alexis, counted as an own-goal, for his team’s only score of the match.
For Etienne Jr. his half wasn’t much better than his team’s. Despite a late jump in chances heading into the break and his single on-target shot being only one of four for his team during that span, Costa Rica was making it difficult for him to get balls in towards his teammates.
“Obviously (Derrick) is used to the environment”, Haiti head coach Marc Collat said through a translator in a post-game press conference, speaking on Etienne Jr’s history with Red Bull Arena. “He didn’t have the best first half. But he composed himself and he was clearly important for the development of the match in the second half”.
The next half would be the turning point for both the game and the predictions for the Gold Cup in the knockout round.
Three shots on target, two goals, all while only needing to complete 69 of 82 passes was all that the Caribbean nation needed. A penalty against Duckens Nazon in the 56th minute, which jolted the Costa Rican fans regarding his position possibly being outside the box and the foul in question, set up a tying penalty kick for the European star. He nearly took the lead only seven minutes later when his run into the box found space between defenders before his shot was saved by an outstretched Leonel Moreira.
During this time, Etienne was able to make more successful attempts into the middle of the field from the left side. Of his 12 correctly made passes a majority came in the final 45 minutes. In the 79th minute, Derrick nearly set up the game-winner early as his pass was jumped onto by Moreira as a Haitian attacker ran just after, nearly slamming the ball into the goal. Officially though the game-winner would not be credited to him in any way.
In the 81st minute and with his team firmly in the driver’s seat, Etienne once again got the ball onto the left side deep in Costa Rica’s territory. Under pressure from defender Giancarlo González, he passed into Alex Christian, who passed into the box. The ball hit off a defender but found a charging Alexis who scored the winning goal and avenged his previous mistake earlier in the game.
“I think that we had a talk with ourselves, we were really disappointed with how the first half went and I think everyone was on the same page in the second half”, Etienne said after the game. “We had to go out there and put a little bit more pressure… I think the way we press in the second half was very good, I think we were able to cause a lot of turnovers, and then create chances”.
The stadium shaking, a fan running on the field, cheering coming from every part of the stand all while the players celebrated knowing full well the game needed to be finished. Once the full time whistle blew and the celebration began in the stands, the players joy was soon changed to focus as they now prepare to take on Canada in the knockout stage on Saturday.
On a note unrelated to the New York Red Bulls, the Bermuda vs Nicaragua game that took place immediately prior to Haiti’s win reminded me why sports are so much fun.
In a barely filled Red Bull Arena, pink and blue Bermuda shirts/kits were scattered among the energy drink colored seats. One of the head’s of Bermuda’s government and hundreds of fans made the short two-hour flight to see their team play in its final Gold Cup match this year.
Neither nation had ever won a game, let alone earned a single point, in Gold Cup play, with Bermuda making its debut in the tournament after an inspired performance in Concacaf Nations League qualifying.
Both Bermuda goals, scored by Lejaun Simmons and Nahki Wells in the second half, felt like momentous occasions. The fans sitting behind the press area screamed the players’ names and they smiled right back, yelling in joy. When the final whistle blew, the players celebrated like they had just won the World Cup and even the Haitian and Costa Rican fans who had begun to file in showed respect by cheering them on.
It reminded me of a hockey game I had watched only a few weeks ago during the IIHF World Championships when two terrible teams, Great Britain and France, were playing their final game to determine who would be relegated to the 2nd tier. The neutrals fans in host nation Slovakia saw Britain go down 3-0 after two periods and began to cheer for the team that looked as though it would be demoted down after only just finding promotion.
But then something happened: the team that had only scored five goals up until that point and had been scored on 41 times through seven games, started to come back. One goal, then another, and before the third period could end, the game was tied. These players that no one had heard of outside of their countries, that were playing for second to last place bragging rights, were putting on a show of force that even those outside of their nation could get behind.
By the time Great Britain’s Ben Davies scored the game-winner in overtime, making up for his missed opportunity early in the first period, the favorite was set. That’s what the Bermuda game felt like. These teams may feel like they didn’t matter after both had little to play for, but in the end that’s where the best kind of games can come from. Teams with nothing to lose are the ones you should watch.
The Gold Cup still has a long way to go, both in terms of this year’s competition and as a competition overall. But it’s nights like Monday night that makes me and other fans realize why things like this matter.
Featured Image: Julio Cortez - AP Photo