It is hardly a surprise that Haiti beat Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 6-1 in their Gold Cup preliminary round match Friday in Fort Lauderdale.
Of the 12 teams vying for the final three Gold Cup spots this weekend at DRV PNK Stadium, Haiti is by far the highest-ranked by FIFA at No. 83 in the world. St. Vincent and the Grenadines, nicknamed “Vincy Heat,” is ranked No. 167.
The bigger surprise is that Saint Vincent and the Grenadines made it to Friday’s game at all.
“Nobody expected us to be here,” said Vincy Heat coach Kendale Mercury. “We had to overcome a series of unfortunate events, and we use that as a motivating factor. It wasn’t easy. It’s been a rough road.”
That would be putting it mildly.
On April 9, while still dealing with the pandemic, the La Soufrière volcano on the island of Saint Vincent violently erupted, forcing 20,000 people to flee, including some national team players. Three of them wound up living with Mercury in his apartment.
“It was a big challenge as there was no training, fields of ashes, the air was not clean, we were worried about the players’ health, the staff, everyone. A lot of players lived in the red zone.”
Then on May 21 came the devastating news that veteran goalkeeper Dwayne Sandy was shot and killed at age 32.
“Our camp was in pieces after that,” Mercury said.
The team traveled to neighboring Grenada to train for nine days for World Cup qualifiers, but struggled physically and emotionally, and was trounced 10-0 by Guatemala before saving face with a 1-0 loss to Cuba.
The latest obstacle was with the visa process to enter the United States for the Gold Cup matches. The team stopped over in Barbados to get visas, had to quarantine, and seven of the 20 players were denied, so they had just 13 on the roster Friday. Center back Nigell Charles found out Thursday that he would be playing goalkeeper against Haiti.
Charles, who last played keeper when he was 10 years old, made several big saves and helped keep Haiti scoreless for the first 25 minutes.
Duckens Nazon got Haiti on the scoreboard with a penalty kick in the 26th minute. Nazon spent last season at Scottish club St. Mirren FC, where Inter Miami’s Lewis Morgan got his start. He scored again later in the game. Haiti also got goals from Frantzdy Pierrot, Derrick Etienne Jr., Carmejy Antoine and an own-goal by St. Vincent defender Jahvin Sutherland.
St. Vincent’s lone goal came in the 42nd minute from Kyle Edwards, who plays for USL club Rio Grande Valley FC.
Haiti was also energized by its spirited fans, who were decked in red, white and blue, and chanted “Haiti! Haiti!” and “Ole-Ole-Ole!” throughout the late-afternoon match.
Despite the lopsided loss, Mercury was proud of his team. He said just playing in Inter Miami’s stadium was “amazing” for a group of players with so much stacked against them. His only request was that they play with heart and pride, and that they did.
“We fought until the end, left everything on the grass, when guys were cramping, they got up and kept playing, and they made me immensely proud,” the coach said. “It was a learning experience. I know the people back home are proud because they have a warrior mentality and our players were warriors.”
Haiti, meanwhile, was delighted with the win, especially coming off back-to-back shutouts against Canada in World Cup qualifying last month.
“I am very satisfied with the win,” said Haitian coach Jean-Jacques Pierre. “The players did everything they needed to do. We take this as a positive after what happened with Canada.”
Of their overmatched opponent, Pierre said: “They were very aggressive and showed their resilience and courage by scoring a goal. They are a developing team.”
Pierre made a point to salute the Haitian fans who showed up for the game.
“We felt at home, and when you have the public with you, it is real oxygen,” he said. “Even in the difficult minutes early in the game, the public was a plus. We thank them and this victory is for them.”
The second game Friday, Bermuda vs. Barbados, was delayed by inclement weather and Trinidad and Tobago vs. Montserrat was to follow.
Saturday’s lineup is Bahamas vs. Guadeloupe (4:30), Cuba vs. French Guiana (7 p.m.), Guatemala vs. Guyana (9:30 p.m.). The winners of the six matches move on to a three-game slate on Tuesday July 9 and the winners of those games earn the final three spots in the CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage.