FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Panama, the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup runner-up, learned the hard lesson on Tuesday outside Dallas. If you let the unheralded Haitian national team hang around, it has what it takes to ruin your evening.
Panama dominated possession in the Group A opener but failed to find a second goal. In the 86th minute, thanks to some sloppy defense in transition and a fabulous run from Haiti’s Duckens Nazon, it all unraveled. Nazon’s superb equalizer sealed a 1-1 draw and helped hammer home U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s message ahead of Friday night’s encounter at Gillette Stadium. He told his players, the press and anyone who would listen here on Thursday: Do not take 79th-ranked Haiti lightly.
“We talked the players through that already in training and we just had a team meeting about Haiti,” Klinsmann said Thursday evening. “It is a team full of individual quality. If you look at their roster and if you look at the places where they play, quite a lot of them play in Europe. I think Panama got that lesson and we have to make sure that we’re not getting caught on the wrong foot here. Obviously our expectation is to get through [to the quarterfinal] and we know that to go through the fastest way possible is with three points [Friday] night.”
Indeed, Haiti’s roster is surprisingly cosmopolitan. Six of the 23 members play for lower-tier clubs in the U.S. and there are players from teams in Argentina, Cyprus, Malaysia and India. There also are three from French clubs—including Nazon (Stade Lavallois) and goalkeeper Johnny Placide (Stade de Reims)—Romanian power Steaua Bucharest, Belgium’s Standard Liège. Russia, Poland and elsewhere. The names might be unfamiliar to most U.S. fans, but they earn their living in competitive environments. Gillette Stadium won’t intimidate.
“I watched a little bit of the last game from the [Toyota Stadium] locker room and they weren’t bad! So it’s going to be a difficult game. It’s not an easy opponent or anything,” U.S. midfielder Mix Diskerud said prior to practice on Thursday. “They’ve got some good players and it’s always going to be hard to match up against athletes like that.”
No U.S. player knows Haiti better than Jozy Altidore, the son of Haitian immigrants who said he’s been following Les Grenadiers since he was a boy.
“Haiti’s always unpredictable. From the times I’ve been watching since I was young—the games I went to—until now, you never know what you're going to get. And a lot of that’s a good thing because sometimes they have players who can make something out of nothing that you didn’t see before. So that’s something to be aware of,” Altidore said.
Haiti will withdraw, defend, foul if it needs to and counter with speed. The ball likely will run through either James Marcelin, who played for the Portland Timbers and FC Dallas before joining the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers, or the talented 22-year-old Jeff Louis from Liège.
The U.S. will be tasked with making smarter decisions with the ball and supporting each other more effectively off of it in order to avoid the turnovers that proved so problematic in the 2-1 win over Honduras. Klinsmann may lean toward inserting a player like Diskerud or Alfredo Morales, who aren’t as quick but should be more comfortable in traffic, in order to facilitate cleaner possession. The cooler Massachusetts temperature should help.
“One of the negatives of the Honduras game is we won the ball in back finally and and then we gave it away too quickly. We need to stay a little bit calmer and move the ball … let the ball do the work and not us too, so now we have to go 200 miles an hour again,” Klinsmann said.
He expects his team to be challenged physically.
“When I saw the [tying goal against Panama], I didn’t see tired legs from Haiti,” Klinsmann said. “There is absolutely no way we’re going to underestimate Haiti, not even for one second. The same approach we took against Honduras—and as Honduras plays, you guys saw it, very aggressive. Sometimes on the edge, sometimes over the edge. So we are prepared for [Friday] night, for all 90 minutes.”
In addition to sealing a spot in the quarterfinals, there’s a bit of history at stake as well. And Klinsmann referenced it on Thursday. It turns out that Haiti is the only CONCACAF team other than Mexico to hold a winning a record against the U.S. Haiti was a regional power in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, winning the CONCACAF championship in 1973 and qualifying for the 1974 World Cup in Germany.
During that stretch, Haiti defeated the U.S. six consecutive times (including two qualifiers for the 1970 World Cup).
Thanks to a 2-0-5 stretch since then, the U.S. now is 5-6-5 all-time against Les Grenadiers. But wins still haven’t been easy to earn. In their most recent meeting, at the 2009 Gold Cup (also in Foxborough), the U.S. needed a stoppage-time goal from Stu Holden to salvage a 2-2 tie.
The Americans should win Friday. But like Tuesday’s game against Honduras, they’ll have to work for it.
Altidore summed it up: “People think these games are easy games, but I think sometimes they’re harder than when you play the bigger teams in the world because of how they play, what it means to them and what they put into it.”