Four wins out of five and boasting the tournament’s top scorer with 11 goals is usually a guarantee of progression to the knockout rounds, but sadly, for the Cayman Islands that was not quite good enough.
Cayman’s CONCACAF Under-15 campaign ended abruptly at a packed Truman Bodden Sports Complex on Tuesday despite a 4-2 victory over Aruba.
Bermuda won all of their five Group A games, including a 3-1 defeat of Cayman last Friday, and went through to the semis on Friday.
At least Cayman have the satisfaction of fielding the most prolific scorer in this inaugural tournament.
Leighton Thomas was the Man of the Match against Aruba, the third time he achieved that. His hat-trick came in the 6th, 9th and 52nd minutes and took his tally to one ahead of Aruba’s Jean Pierre Van Der Linden, who scored his side’s second goal in the 46th minute for his 10th strike.
Ryan Johnson got one for Cayman in the 44th minute and Derrick Lopez notched Aruba’s other goal just before halftime.
Bermuda defeated St Maarten 5-0 at the Ed Bush Stadium to crush any lingering Cayman hopes of going through. Kory McLean did a fine job as Cayman’s captain, particularly when he calmed a potentially volatile situation at the end of the Aruba game.
Thomas said: “I’m feeling good for this win. If it wasn’t for the coaches and all the support CONCACAF has made for us we couldn’t have played.
“We’re happy because four wins and one loss is a big thing for Cayman. It also showed the youths what Cayman football is all about.”
Sebastian Martinez was another Cayman success. The Tricky winger who plays for Swindon Town in England, said: “The team is really happy. It was a great accomplishment to come here and win four games out of five.
“We’re disappointed to go out but the team has only been together for a few months and the coaches have done a fantastic job to help us come together and gel.
“We’ve shown the public what we’ve done in the four months and they should be a part of our development.”
Martinez added that their performances showed that there is a lot of raw talent locally and the future augurs well. Martinez, Kray Foster and Cameron Gray are all with pro clubs in the UK. Their extra experience at a higher level helped.
Little Martinez has just signed a new contract at Swindon. He was the first of his generation to get a pro offer, two years ago and is an inspiration to many Cayman youngsters, particularly small ones who may be discouraged by the physical aspects of the game.
“Cayman players need to work on their technique, positioning and mental approach to the game. If they do that then they’ll be well on their way to becoming professional footballers.
Cayman team manager Dion Brandon said: “It still feels good. We got a good result tonight, the boys played hard, we stuck together as a team and gave the crowd what they wanted, a win and it was a good performance overall.”
Although disappointed at going out of the tournament, Brandon was able to put a positive spin on it.
“Everything bad you can learn from it. We will just use this experience as a building stone for us and try to push forward.
“We’ll try to keep the team together, that’s the most important thing. These kids are the future for Cayman at least so we’ll help them progress to Under-17 level than U-21s and in a few years they’ll be senior level.”
Brandon is pleased with Cayman’s progress considering they only trained together for four months compared to the better teams who have played together for years.
An Aruba player was red carded towards the end of the match and wanted to fight Cayman, but to their credit, the Cayman players did not respond by retaliating. Brandon was pleased with that.
“My happiest moment was when the scuffle happened and they stuck together as a team, calmed it down and contained the situation. It showed the unity in the team. It doesn’t take away from the score, but ultimately shows that we’re more than just winning.”
Technically, Brandon feels his youngsters are just as good as the other top teams but Cayman need to play at a higher tempo and a little more aggressively.
“Once we can get a little more urgency and aggression, we can match them.”
He is going to recommend to clubs next season to work on their first touch, tactical play and keeping the ball closer to their feet. He predicts a Honduras-Guatemala final with Honduras winning.
Tuesday’s other Group A game ended in a 2-2 draw between US Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.
Nick Muriel, the legally blind US Virgin Islands keeper who has to wear prescription goggles, was the Man of the Match.
In Group B, Belize defeated Grenada 6-1 and Guatemala beat Jamaica 1-0. Man of the Match, Francisco Cifuentes scored in the 37th minute to take Guatemala to the semis. Jamaica were disappointing. They had a few flair players but their first touch and passing game was not good.
Honduras played Curacao on Wednesday night and only a heavy defeat against Group C’s bottom side could prevent them from reaching the semi-finals.
El Salvador and Haiti played on Wednesday night and depending on the result, one of them would win Group D and go through to the semis.
Bermuda play Guatemala in the first semi at the Truman Bodden field on Friday, at 6pm and the other looks likely to be Honduras against either El Salvador or Haiti, kick off 8pm.
The finals are on Sunday at the Truman Bodden. Third place match is at 5pm and the big match is at 7pm.
Entry is $10 for the semis and $15 for the finals.