Lesson No. 1 in Concacaf: expect the unexpected.
The inaugural Nations League presents a valuable opportunity for many of the smaller nations looking to climb the ladder and grow the sport within their borders. With a population of just over 60,000 and FIFA ranking of 193, the Cayman Islands are well on their way to becoming one of the next inspiring stories in the region following their 2-0 start to group play.
The Nations League qualifying matches offered us a clearer picture as to which nations are on the rise and which have plenty of work to do in the coming years. A quick look at the table wouldn’t likely lead one to identify the Cayman Islands as a team to make noise in the tournament, but they apparently couldn’t care less about their previous struggles.
A solitary point and a minus eight-goal differential through four qualifiers was good for 29th out of 34 teams, and their path couldn’t have looked much bleaker after 4-0 and 3-0 hammerings at the hands of Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. They were able to grind out a scoreless draw against minnows Saint Lucia to get on the board, however, but their lifted spirits were ultimately unable to avoid a defeat in their final fixture against Montserrat
Nevertheless, here we are on the heels of the first two rounds of play and the Cayman Islands have emerged at the top of League C, Group A, with six points in hand.
A large part of the Turtles’ newfound success has been the offensive production of Michael Martin, who has found the back of the net three times through two fixtures. The 20-year-old’s pair of tidy finishes from the top of the box sealed a 2-0 triumph over the U.S. Virgin Islands on Matchday 1, an impressive feat considering the amount of goals — or lack thereof — the nation has bagged in recent years.
The pride of Cayman Brac has three goals in just two @CNationsLeague games for the Cayman Islands Men’s National team. Previously, the team had netted just two international goals since 2015, both scored by Mark Ebanks. https://t.co/msJolSQh6U— Jordan Armenise (@jordanarmenise) September 9, 2019
While some players might have been content to bask in the glory of scoring their first goals on the international stage and subsequently lay an egg in the next match, Martin had no such plans. He went out and gave his side the lead against Barbados with less than five minutes off the clock — the first of five goals in a 3-2 thriller.
While they impressed in keeping a clean sheet in the opener, the second match presented an entirely different challenge. Barbados showed plenty of heart in battling back from two deficits, but the Cayman Islands displayed the quality needed to restore their advantage on both occasions through two other young players looking to use the tournament as a launchpad for their careers. Twenty-three-year-old Jonah Ebanks soared to score a brilliant header on the team’s first shot of the half before 24-year-old Jonah Ebanks took advantage of a defensive mistake five minutes later and finished from close range for the game-winner.
With looming back-to-back dates with Saint Martin — currently last in the group with two defeats — followed by return fixtures against the two sides they’ve already beaten, there’s every reason to believe the Cayman Islands can continue to ascend and suit up in League B when the next edition of the tournament rolls around.