Bermuda build momentum for Gold Cup
Bermuda XI 2 São Miguel Azores 1
Bermuda built on their momentum from the Concacaf Nations League qualifiers with a victory over São Miguel Azores in their penultimate warm-up game before the Gold Cup.
Cheered on by hundreds of the island's Portuguese community at the National Stadium on Saturday, the Azores certainly provided a stern test for Bermuda, whose team included a raft of fringe players jostling for a place in the 23-man Gold Cup squad.
Justin Donawa and Jonté Smith, two certainties for a seat on the plane heading to San Jose, Costa Rica, on June 10, struck in quick succession to propel Kyle Lightbourne's side to a fourth straight win.
Donawa, one of the goalscoring heroes in Bermuda's triumph over the Dominican Republic in the final Nations League qualifier in March, gave his side the lead midway through the first half, tucking home after being put through by Smith.
Playing his first match since being released by Sky Bet League One side Oxford United, Smith added three minutes later with a left-footed effort that evaded the desperate dive of Imerson, the São Miguel Azores goalkeeper.
The Azores were handed a contentious penalty on the half-hour mark when Jalen Harvey was adjudged to have elbowed Pacheco in an off-the-ball incident, with referee Lloyd Christopher pointing to the spot after consulting with his assistant.
Harvey, who vehemently protested the decision, was not punished for his perceived offence, a reprieve that likely owed much to the celebratory nature of the encounter, which marked the 170th anniversary of the first arrival of Portuguese immigrants to the island.
João Ventura made no mistake from 12 yards, whipping his left-footed penalty beyond Jahquil Hill, the Bermuda goalkeeper, to reduce the deficit.
Struggling to cope in the windy conditions against an Azorean side including six Portuguese professionals, Bermuda survived early scares when William White was twice caught in possession, the second of which led to him conceding a free kick on the edge of the box.
An errant pass by the otherwise impressive Osagi Bascome then gifted the visiting side another opening, with the lively Ventura picking up the loose ball and forcing a diving save from Hill with a fizzing low left-footed effort.
At the other end, Smith had a clear sight of goal after being released by Lejaun Simmons but the forward's strike lacked any real velocity and was easily dealt with by the resolute Imerson.
“I thought we started off slowly and they bossed the game for good periods of the first half,” Lightbourne said. “We sort of sprang into life for about ten minutes and managed to score two goals.
“They were a good team and kept the ball well. You could see they had played at a higher level than a lot of our players; it was an ideal game to get us back in game mode.”
Both coaches made a succession of substitutions during the second half, Lightbourne understandably so as he faces the unenviable task of whittling down his provisional squad of 40 players to 23 by the first week of June.
Among those making way at the break was Tre Ming, who was handed the captain's armband in his first match since knee surgery in March. Unsurprisingly, the PHC Zebras midfielder looked a little ring rusty but will have benefitted greatly from getting 45 minutes under his belt as he seeks to rediscover his match sharpness.
In the absence of professionals Nahki Wells, Danté Leverock, the Bermuda captain, Roger Lee, Willie Clemons and Zeiko Lewis, there was also an opportunity for several of the second string to “come of age”, none more so than Bascome, who was at the centre of much of Bermuda's slick interplay.
“I thought Osagi had a fairly decent game in the centre [of midfield],” Lightbourne said. “He got about the park, broke up play and worked both sides of the ball for us.
“I thought some of our players came of age tonight. We've had our eye on the boy Chikosi Basden and I thought he was pretty solid at right back. He got a little hairy, scary later in the game when everything was on the line.
“Jalen Harvey also looked solid [at centre half] while Kilian [Elkinson] adds some competition.”
After a shaky start at the heart of Bermuda's backline, White's confidence grew visibly as the game wore on, winning the lion's share of his aerial battles and making a perfectly timed sliding challenge to prevent a clear chance on goal. Goalkeeper Quinaceo Hunt, who replaced Hill at the interval, was also called upon late on to push a stinging strike from Ventura around the post.
There were also eye-catching second-half cameo's by teenagers Milan Butterfield and Paul Douglas, whose encouraging contributions did not go unnoticed by Lightbourne.
“We're hoping that Milan keeps maturing and learning the system we want to play,” Lightbourne added. “We want to be able to manage the ball better and that's one area where we need to improve. It was very important to have a look at these players tonight as this is a long-term project.
“If anyone gets injured we want to know we have players who can go straight into the game.
“We don't want to be taking people to the Gold Cup and feel as though they're not ready to play. We want to feel as though the next person coming in is good enough.”
Lightbourne will have one more opportunity to assess his players before the Gold Cup. Bermuda are to play an yet-to-be announced opponent from the Caribbean at the National Stadium on June 6, by which time he will have already selected his squad.
Bermuda (4-4-1-1): J Hill (sub: Q Hunt, 45min) — C Basden, K Elkinson (sub: C Minors), W White, J Harvey — L Simmons (sub: P Douglas, 72), T Ming (sub: M Butterfield, 45), O Bascome (sub: L Evans, 72), J Donawa (sub: C Robinson, 63) — R Lambe (D Richardson, 81) — J Smith. Substitutes not used: J Bather, D Brangman, J Furbert, D Usher, R Trott. Booked: White, Basden, Butterfield.
São Miguel Azores (4-3-3): Imerson — Luis Soares (sub: P Dinarte, 89), H Moniz, Accioly, Paulo Henrique — R Benevides, Pacheco (sub: Varao, 83), J Ventura — Clemente (sub: Emanuel, 70), Minhoca (JP, 70), Ruizinho. Substitutes not used: L Almeida. Booked: Ruizinho.
Referee: L Christopher.