Cayman’s charmed run to the top of the CONCACAF Nations League C table has finally reached critical mass. The national team, tied with Barbados at the top of its group, can clinch a landmark result by beating the US Virgin Islands at home and Barbados on the road over the next five days.
And while that may seem like a lot to ask, Cayman has already beaten both teams this year. Barbados has the current edge in goal differential, but if Cayman can seal wins in its final two games, it will move up a level to CONCACAF’s Nations League B for the next edition.
“I’m obviously delighted with the start that we’ve made. Full credit to the players,” said Cayman coach Ben Pugh. “Their commitment for me has been outstanding. We certainly deserve to be in contention to qualify from this group. But at the same time, we’re under no illusions. Both games will still be very, very tough. For me, we can’t focus on Barbados yet. We have to focus on a very tough USVI team.”
Cayman will have homefield advantage Saturday night against USVI, and the two teams will line up at 7:30pm at Truman Bodden Sports Complex. Cayman previously beat USVI 2-0 on the road back on 5 Sept., with Michael Martin scoring twice, once in the 60th minute and once in stoppage time.
And with that result, as simple as it was, Cayman turned a page on some past adversity.
“We gained a lot from that game, not only in understanding how they play but also we built a lot of confidence. That was the first game we’ve won in over nine years,” Pugh said. “Because we’ve played them, we know a little more about them and we’ve watched their last few games. We should go into the games prepared. We have a game plan, and if we stick to that, hopefully we come out with a win.”
USVI has won just one of its first four Nations League games and has already been eliminated from contention. Barbados, on the other hand, has positioned itself quite well. Its only setback was a 3-2 loss to Cayman on 8 Sept., and Jorel Belafonte provided the winning margin with a goal in the 75th minute.
Otherwise, Barbados has looked dominant, logging twin 4-0 victories over USVI and Saint Martin. Barbados also notched a 1-0 win over USVI and has conceded goals in just one of its four games. Barbados will play on the road against Saint Martin Friday night and at home against Cayman on Tuesday.
“It has the potential to be a very big game,” said Pugh of the Barbados match. “We know they’ll be very tough. We were outstanding when we played them last time. To get anything out of that game, we know we have to outwork them. First and foremost, we have to be very hard to beat. But we don’t get ahead of ourselves yet because we know we have to get a result against USVI to stand any chance in qualifying.”
With twin victories, Cayman would leapfrog out of CONCACAF’s lowest Nations League category and vault into one that could include teams like Cuba, Bermuda, Haiti and Trinidad & Tobago. Those four teams are currently in League A but may be relegated to League B for the next Nations League.
Trinidad & Tobago beat the US in the last World Cup qualifying cycle, and a Cayman matchup against them would allow local players to experience a level they haven’t encountered before. But that’s still a largely hypothetical scenario at this point, and Pugh wants his players to concentrate on the task at hand.
“They’re keen to learn and a lot of them have aspirations to play at a higher level,” said Pugh of his players. “This competition has given them the platform to show what they can do. Naturally, confidence is built as the games have gone, but I also think we’ve shown some real good resilience.
“We went away to Saint Martin and it was a very difficult game and we got beat 3-0. It would’ve been easy to come away from that and chuck their towel in and give up. Instead, the players worked even harder and focussed. We had a quite a few honest conversations which they responded to quite well.”