Cayman needed a two-goal victory over Haiti to clinch a victory in its group and move on in the qualification process, but a late goal by the road team resulted in a deflating 2‑2 draw.
Haiti will move on to play Barbados for a shot at the final eight in CONCACAF’s regional bracket, and Cayman will take its experience and try to pave a better way forward.
“Very mixed feelings,” said Cayman coach Ben Pugh. “On the one hand, very disappointed, because I think that over two games we did enough to put ourselves in contention of qualifying. But at the same time, I’m immensely proud of every one of the players. I thought our effort, our work rate and our commitment [were] absolutely outstanding. I think they’ve done everybody proud. … When you finish with one point, that certainly doesn’t reflect our level of performance over the two games.”
Cayman scored early Sunday, with winger Elijah Seymour converting a cross into the penalty area in the ninth minute to give the home team a 1‑0 lead. Haiti, ranked No. 83 in FIFA’s current world rankings, answered with a rebound goal from close quarters by Peterson Joseph Junior in the 30th minute.
Cayman pulled ahead again in the second half as a result of a chaotic play in the box that was ruled an own goal after a pass thudded off the chest of a Haiti defender and caromed into the net. But Haiti’s goal-scorer, Joseph Junior, answered again with a decisive header in the 90th minute.
“No games are easy any more in football,” said Haiti’s hero via an interpreter. “The players were lacking a bit of concentration because they thought they’d win easily, but they were surprised.”
Haiti lost a player – defender Emerson Georges – to a broken leg in Sunday night’s game, and coach Marc Collat said that injury put a damper on his team’s excitement.
Haiti is going to steel itself for its match against Barbados and will do its best to learn from its experience against Cayman.
“We had 12 [chances] and we scored two goals. They had three [chances] and they scored two goals,” said Collat via an interpreter of the balance of opportunity in Sunday’s game. “We were surprised a bit by Cayman Islands. They’ve become a way better team than we thought.”
On the other sideline, the talk was about how well Cayman had stood up to a country with a population of nearly 11 million people. Cayman, which is ranked No. 204 in FIFA’s rankings, adapted to Haiti’s patient building out of the back and found a way to make the most of its opportunities.
“We knew coming into the game that we had a tough task,” said Seymour of the team’s mindset coming off a 1‑0 loss to Grenada last Wednesday. “Coming into this game, we had to win 2‑0 to go through. Obviously, we were the underdog; they’re like 100 something places above us in the FIFA rankings. But we kind of cleared our heads, got that out of the way and we knew what we needed to do.”
“I’m so proud of my boys, so proud of all of us together, so proud of the country,” added vice captain Cameron Gray. “We came together tonight and did something that’s never happened: We drew 2‑2 with Haiti. We could’ve won, and we could’ve won the game Wednesday as well. I’m proud. And I’ll go away with my head held high because there’s a lot of good things coming for the future.”
Leighton Thomas Jr. was in the vicinity of Cayman’s second goal, and he joked that he was claiming it as his own even though it was credited officially as an own goal for Haiti’s defender.
“I was there at the right time and I did what I had to do to make sure it went in the goal,” he said. “It was like skipped and missed and then the guy went down to chest the ball. I’m claiming it.”
The qualification cycle is over for Cayman’s Under 23 team, and many of the players will go on to new challenges. Seymour played last year in Portugal, but he said Sunday night that he would leave Cayman on Monday to begin a new contract with a new team – FC Voluntari in Romania’s top league.
“It opens up your mind. You see a lot of things differently,” he said of playing abroad. “You’re open to different coaching and play styles.
“Your game broadens. You become more coachable. You’re adaptive. Being in a professional environment, I train every day 9 to 4. It’s like a job. It’s a dream come true.”
Pugh said he was proud of the way his players have matured and that he hopes to see many of them make an impact for Cayman’s senior men’s team, which will have several games this fall.
“That team will generally be a young team,” he said. “But we’re not just chucking them in because we want to chuck young players in; we’re chucking them in because they’re good enough and they deserve it. Hopefully, in the future, it gives us more of a chance of qualifying.”