Cayman off to hot start in CONCACAF Nations League

There’s a surprising team atop the standings in the C level of the CONCACAF Nations League.

Cayman earned a hard-fought 3‑2 victory over Barbados on Sunday night and now holds first place in Group A of the C League. The teams are one-third of the way through the schedule, and the winner of the Group will move up to B League the next time the Nations League is contested.

“We’re atop the group, but there’s a long way to go,” said coach Ben Pugh. “We’ve still got four games to go but we’ve put ourselves in a good position. Confidence will hopefully build. Momentum will build. We’re really proud of every one of the players. The game wasn’t pretty, but I thought in terms of effort, we were outstanding. We worked hard, we battled through. It’s been a tough two games.”

Cayman was missing multiple starters on Sunday night, but it was in good position thanks to a 2‑0 road win against the US Virgin Islands last week. Michael Martin scored both goals in that initial victory, and he gave Cayman an early lead on Sunday night by scoring in the fifth minute.

Barbados battled back, though, and tied the game with a goal by Akeem Hill just nine minutes later.

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The second half brought more of the same. Both teams had their scoring opportunities, and players from both sides wound up knocked down and nursing injuries. All three of Cayman’s substitutes were injury-related, and Martin played the second half banged up after an injury before the break.

Captain Rashad Jules scored late for Barbados, but it wasn’t enough to escape the loss. – PHOTO: Taneos Ramsay

“They’re desperate to win games,” said Pugh of his young charges. “They’re desperate to prove people wrong. They want to achieve something. They have ambitions of playing overseas.”

The second half proved to be a tight affair, and then three were goals scored in a crazy five-minute sequence. Cayman briefly went on top with a header from Jonah Ebanks from about six yards out in the 70th minute, and four minutes later, Rashad Jules answered for Barbados with the tying goal.

One minute later, before the crowd had settled in following the Barbados goal, Cayman struck again when Jorel Bellafonte streaked into the goalie box and found the net with a left-footed shot from close range. That was the first senior goal for Bellafonte and it inspired a raucous reaction from the crowd.

Cayman comes together to celebrate its win in the moments after the final whistle. – PHOTO: Spencer Fordin

“It was like I was playing FIFA,” said Bellafonte after the game. “I literally felt the air being sucked out of Truman Bodden when Barbados scored. That’s the beauty of the game, the highs and lows. We showed real character to come out here and win this game today, because Barbados is a very good team.”

Barbados had won its first game by a 4‑0 score over Saint Martin, and it currently sits second in the table with three points and a +3 goal differential. Barbados will play its next three games against US Virgin Islands and Saint Martin, potentially setting up a climactic final game against Cayman on 19 Nov.

Jorel Bellafonte came through with his first senior goal at a crucial time for Cayman. – PHOTO: Spencer Fordin

“I cannot question the effort and the work rate,” said Barbados coach Russell Latrapy. “We didn’t play to our capabilities. In saying that, I must say ‘congrats to the Cayman Islands.’ It was a strange game in terms of how the games were scored and the time of the goals, but we didn’t pass the ball well tonight.”

Cayman will next play Saint Martin on the road on 12 Oct. and then will have home games against Saint Martin on 15 Oct. and US Virgin Islands on 16 Nov. before the final game against Barbados. Pugh knows there’s still a lot of football left to be played, and he’s proud of the effort he’s seen from his team.

“It’s a real testament to the players,” said Pugh. “They’re the ones who have put the effort in. They’re the ones who have turned up to every session and worked hard. They’ve done everything we’ve asked of them. … They deserved to win two games, and hopefully we can continue to push.”

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