Baron, T&T Women Just Want a Little Support

“Coming from my perspective, (the U.S. players) are the giants of the world. If they don’t think they are equal, what are we? We don’t even feel like we have a voice. Girls over there are taught they can’t be anything more than they are, and the TTFA is showing us that.” — Saundra Baron

By Tim Nash

There are 14 minutes left, and the U.S. Women’s national team is leading Trinidad and Tobago 4-0 in a Victory Tour match in San Antonio on Dec. 10, 2015. Abby Wambach, the world’s all-time leading scorer, is standing at the midfield line waiting to enter the match. Wambach is closing in on retirement, and she’s the one many of the 10,600 fans came to the Alamodome to see.

As the television cameras zoom in on Wambach, no one notices the woman standing next to her, the one with her sleeves rolled up three times because the jersey is two sizes too big, pants so large the drawstring stretched to its limit, goalkeeper gloves borrowed from East Carolina University where she played three seasons.

No one knows it’s 21-year-old Saundra Baron’s first international appearance with the Trinidad and Tobago senior national team after playing roughly 25 times for T&T youth national teams from age 13-16. The commentators don’t even notice her at first.

“My dad told me the commentators said a few minutes later, ‘Oh, and Trinidad has made a goalkeeper change,’” she said.

That’s okay. Baron understands the shadow cast by someone of Wambach’s stature. It’s okay to be somewhat invisible on this occasion. At least there is a good reason. She knows the feeling of being unseen and unheard. She is, after all, a woman playing soccer for Trinidad and Tobago.

Just this once, she is okay with it.

“That was the coolest moment of my life because I subbed in at the same time as Abby Wambach,” said Baron. “She is from the same hometown as me, Rochester, N.Y., and I used to go to her camps when I was little.”

When Baron entered the match, her teammates were already demoralized and exhausted. The Americans were just getting started. The U.S. scored twice on her. Christen Press completed her hat trick in the 84th minute, and Lindsay Horan scored her first international goal in the 92nd.

“My heart was racing the whole 15 minutes, but I think I did okay,” she said.  “I did get scored on twice, but honestly they were great shots. My favorite moment was on a corner kick. They were trying to get Abby to score, but I came out and went straight up with Abby and punched it away.

“If I see you on TV, I think you are elite. But during that game, (the U.S. players) became people again,” she adds. “I shook their hands and went to my coaches. Honestly, I’m proud of myself for not being a fan.”

Before that game in San Antonio, Baron had questions about her future, wondering if she could play at the international level.

“That game is fast,” she said. “The game moves very quickly. But I did okay. After the game, our coach, Randy Waldrum, told me he was proud of me and told me to keep playing.”

Baron is, after all just 21 years old. After two more World Cup cycles, 2019 and 2023, she would still not have reached her 30th birthday.

“I probably should go get my masters, but I’m crazy,” she said. “I want to play in the 2019 World Cup in France. We came so close in 2014.”

Island Roots

Shirleyanne Baron grew up in a tiny house in Trinidad with 11 siblings. The house, her daughter Saundra said, is more like a shack. But please don’t confuse poverty with weakness. Shirelyanne, who died from cancer when Saundra was in college, was anything but weak. Weakness does not help you earn an academic scholarship to Howard University or a doctorate in bio-inorganic chemistry.

“Going to Trinidad always humbles me,” said Saundra, “because my mom gave me the best life imaginable.” Shirleyanne married Joffre Baron and had four children, Saundra and her three older brothers. The family moved to Rochester, N.Y., where Shirleyanne went to work for Eastman Kodak. Joffre, who also graduated from Howard, worked as a geologist. Saundra played soccer.

“Our neighbors in Rochester had a soccer field in their backyard with full size goals,” said Saundra. “I played all the time with the neighborhood kids and my brothers. They beat on me all the time.”

When the Barons moved to Greensboro, N.C., Saundra joined the Greensboro Twisters at age 11 and advanced to the Olympic Development Program’s state and regional teams. She was the starting keeper on the T&T U17 national team as a 13-year-old, and a year later she was the goalkeeper and captain of the U15s.

Her coach for both the youth national teams was Randy Waldrum, a successful American coach who was working for zero pay. He was let go after coaching the U15s.

After playing with the U15s, Baron had little or no contact with the T&T Football Federation (TTFA).  The silence, Baron believes, had little to do with talent. It had more to do with issues at the TTFA, and with Waldrum gone no one cared enough about the women’s program to keep records, or even contact information, for a pool of eligible players in the U.S.

“I started speaking up when I was 15,” Saundra said. “I got it from my mom. I think if my mom was alive, this nonsense with the national team would not be happening. She would have spoken up.”

An American Coach and World Cup Dreams

The qualifying tournament for the 2015 Women’s World Cup was scheduled to begin in October, 2014, and it was Trinidad and Tobago’s best chance ever to qualify.

Canada, the host, qualified automatically, and CONCACAF was awarded three-and-a-half additional spots. Two, logic said, would go to the USA and Mexico. Unlike past years, the Soca Princesses, what the locals called the T&T national team, had a chance, a solid chance.

But T&T’s first game was against the United States. The USA and Trinidad and Tobago had played seven times previously with the Americans winning all seven by a combined score of 54-2.

The T&T women’s national team, obviously, had a lot of work to do, and Randy Waldrum was the guy who was going to try to get it done. Waldrum, who had led Notre Dame to two national championships before leaving South Bend to coach the Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League, came back to Trinidad at the urging of long-time U.S. goalkeeping instructor and coach, Lincoln Phillips, a Trinidad native who Waldrum knew well from working coaching schools in the U.S.

Wanting to get started as soon as possible, Waldrum made plans to bring the team to Houston in June to begin training.

“Something always came up and (the TTFA) couldn’t get the team to Houston,” Waldrum said. “It all came down to funding. They finally got to Houston in August. I had about eight to 10 days with them. I made arrangements for the University of Houston to house them, and they could eat three meals a day in the dining hall but the players would have to pay for them. We found out later they didn’t have money to eat at the dining hall and were cooking rice and beans in their dorm rooms.”

But at least they were in Houston, all 12 of them, two of which were injured and could not train. When Waldrum met the team at the training field, the equipment manager was carrying a garbage bag. That was their ball bag. They had eight raggedy soccer balls, six pinnies and a medical kit with nothing in it, nothing.

With each new day, Waldrum was presented with situations that showed just how poorly the T&T women’s national team is treated, how little anyone cares. To call the treatment sub-standard gives it too much credit. It is, in reality, nowhere near any kind of standard deemed acceptable in women’s athletics today.

Part of the agreement with UH was when summer school ended, the players had to move out of the dorms, for which the T&T federation was being charged just $20 a day. When that day came, the team manager asked Waldrum to help them get a hotel.

“No one had made any arrangements for when they had to leave the dorms,” he said. “Luckily, I found a hotel that felt sorry for us and made it affordable. But when the players got there, the team manager’s credit card wouldn’t work. They sat in the hotel lobby from 11 in the morning to 6:30 at night until payment was arranged through the federation.”

Previous experience told Waldrum not to put expenses on his personal credit card. Reimbursements were handled with the expertise of accounts payable pros – “Oh, can you send that invoice again” … “We are cutting checks at the end of the month” … “We didn’t realize that was an invoice, can you re-send it’ … “Our records show that was paid.” And there is a long history of unpaid bills, including the one from the University of Houston.

Desperate to Prepare

The Houston camp was nowhere near what Waldrum needed to prepare the team. He only had 10 healthy players and none of the U.S. college players, which ultimately made up the core of his team. In addition to Baron at East Carolina, players from UConn, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth, West Texas State, DePaul, as well as Division II, III and NAIA players were part of the team but not in Houston.

Still, the team won the Caribbean Football Union qualifying tournament in Trinidad in early September, which gave them a place in the CONCACAF qualifiers. The team stayed in Trinidad after the CFU’s, and later in September, Waldrum would bring them to Dallas, where his son Ben is a coach with FC Dallas. In Dallas, he figured, they could get final preparations in before mid-October qualifiers in the States against the USA, Haiti and Guatemala.

That was the plan anyway. Practice attendance in Trinidad usually had around eight to 12 players, all arriving at different times. “Some of the kids are so poor they sometimes they don’t have the few dollars it takes to get there,” Waldrum said. When possible, Baron’s cousin or her aunt would borrow a car from a neighbor and give players rides.

“Sometimes we came out to training and there would be a track team or a cricket team there, and we had to argue over who had the field,” said Waldrum. “The field was horrible. It was hard as a rock and not level. To be honest, it was dangerous for the players. We just weren’t getting anything done.”

Trying desperately not to lose his mind, Waldrum could not help but think about what his team would be facing in Kansas City. Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach, Tobin Heath, Hope Solo, etc., etc., etc. They would destroy his team, a team that still had not trained together as a whole. He approached Sheldon Phillips, Lincoln’s son who was the General Secretary of the TTFA.

“I went to Sheldon and said, ‘You don’t understand. The U.S. is a machine,’” Waldrum recalls. “They are in camp all the time, and I can’t get more than 10-12 players at training. We have to get into a camp setting.”

Phillips set up a training camp for the team in southern part of Trinidad at a facility owned by an oil company. The housing was good, Waldrum said, better than what most of the kids lived in. The field? Well, not so good.

“The field was set down low, and it was the rainy season,” Waldrum said. “When we started practicing, the water would come up over our shoes. Every day, we had to find a little spot of relatively dry grass where the ball would roll.”

The team moved to higher ground, a 45-minute bus drive from their housing, to a dry field. Dry but all dirt and rocks.

It was something, at least.

The Tweet

Now it’s mid-September, and the next part of Waldrum’s ever-evolving plan was to get the team to Dallas as soon as possible. With any luck, and a little cooperation from the TTFA, they could begin serious preparation for the juggernaut they would play in a month. He hoped for a week, maybe 10 days, of training. Randy and Ben made all the arrangements. Randy sent shuttle and hotel information to the team manager, Ben took care of securing training fields from FC Dallas, and it looked like they would finally be able to prepare.

The players arrived on schedule, a feat in itself, on a Tuesday night. At midnight, Waldrum’s phone rang.

“One of the players,” explains Waldrum, “a girl named Yaya Cordner, said, ‘Hey coach, we’re here.’ I said, ‘Great. Just get on the shuttle bus. It will take you to the hotel. Have breakfast in the morning and I’ll see you at practice.’”

And that’s when what Waldrum calls an “piece of international drama” began.

“Then Yaya said, ‘How do we get to the hotel?’” Waldrum recalls. “I said, ‘The manager has all the shuttle bus info. I sent it to her.’ She said, ‘There’s no manager. They didn’t send anyone with us. We don’t have any information. And, coach, we don’t have any money.’”

Wait. What?

The TTFA would later say they sent $500 for the team to use. They would also claim the $500 was for the first day and more would be sent later. However, the money the players had when they arrived in Dallas was provided by the father of one of the players. When he saw no one was with the team at the airport, he gave his daughter money.

“They spent some of that money in the airports to eat. She had about $250 left,” say Waldrum. “I told her to go out and negotiate with the taxis and see if she can get everyone and their luggage to the hotel.”

Waldrum didn’t sleep that night. There were 15 young women he was responsible for at Dallas Fort Worth airport with no team administrator, or any adult, haggling with taxi drivers to try to get to a hotel somewhere.

He was no longer thinking about the training session in the morning, or the potential disaster looming in the form of the U.S. national team. He stayed awake trying to come up with a plan to feed his players for a week.

“The next day, I sent out a tweet,” he said.

It said: “I need HELP! T&T sent a team here last night with $500 total. No equipment such as balls, no transportation, nothing.”

“I’m from Dallas, so I thought that would be the quickest way to get the word out to my friends in the area. Within an hour, I was inundated with offers from people. The thing went viral.”

Someone in Poland gave money. The president of the Canadian Soccer Federation responded with offers to help. Haiti, yes, Haiti, gave $1,300. The American Outlaws, the U.S. national team supporters group showed up with carloads of water, Powerade, snack bars.  Restaurants offered to feed the team meals. Jen Cooper, who does color commentary on Houston Dash games, saw the tweet and set up a Go Fund Me account. The tweet went out at 10 am. By the end of the day, there was $17,000 in the Go Fund Me account.

It really brought me to tears, honestly,” said Waldrum. “It was incredible.”

Sheldon Phillips and TTFA President Raymond Tim Kee had a different reaction. Sheldon said Waldrum had embarrassed the president and the federation.

Phillips claimed the TTFA planned all along to send money on the day the tweet went out, saying the $500 the team had at the airport was for the first day. Money, he said, would be at Western Union by noon.

“I told him I was sorry it embarrassed him and the federation but he had to understand I was now responsible for 15 young ladies,” Waldrum continued. “They didn’t even send anybody from the federation. ‘This is on you guys,’” I told him. ‘It’s not on me.’”

So after practice, Randy and Ben went to Western Union. Randy stayed in the car calling restaurants, arranging a week’s worth of meals. Ben came out of Western Union with the money – another $500. Five-hundred divided by 15 players for six days is $5.55 a day per player.

Sheldon and Randy spoke again, obviously. Sheldon wanted Randy to write an apology letter they could release to the media. Randy refused. Someone, Waldrum is not sure who, decided the letter didn’t necessarily have to be written by Waldrum. It just had to look like it was. And an apology letter attributed to Waldrum appeared in the Trinidad media written by someone. It wasn’t Waldrum.

With that, Day One of training camp was over.

Decades Behind, One Goal Short

Dating back to first-ever CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying tournament in 1989, the U.S. Women’s national team had compiled a record of 27-1-1 and outscored opponents 151-6.

On top of that, the U.S. played 16 warmup games before meeting T&T in Kansas City on Oct. 15, 2014. Opponents included France, China and Sweden. Trinidad and Tobago played three warmup matches. One was against Ben Waldrum’s U16 FC Dallas ECNL team. One was against a Trinidad U16 boys team, and the third was against another local Trinidadian team.

It’s important to point out that in 1989, the United States men’s national team played a do-or-die World Cup qualifier against T&T in Trinidad. Paul Caliguiri scored on a 35-yard strike, a goal that still ranks among the greatest goals in U.S. Soccer history. His goal sent the USA to the World Cup for the first time in 50 years. There is a men’s team in Trinidad today called Strike Force made up of players from that 1989 T&T national team. They are all over 50 now.

“We played them with the players we had together training in Trinidad,” said Waldrum. “They beat us 9-1. That shows the level we were at.”

So the matchup with the U.S. in Kansas City could be compared to David and Goliath. If, that is, David couldn’t afford a slingshot.

Waldrum’s U.S.-based college players, not including Baron who was in Cincinnati with ECU, arrived two days before the U.S. game. “I was thinking, ‘We’re going to get crushed. We’re not even close to being ready.’”

Somehow, Waldrum’s team held the U.S. scoreless through the first half. Kamika Forbes, a 25-year-old Tobagoan, was outstanding in goal that day, frustrating Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Wambach with acrobatic saves. T&T was outshot 29-7.

“Winning two national championships at Notre Dame, I am always going to be proud of that,” said Waldrum. “But I don’t know if I have ever been prouder of a team than I was with that group that day. It was amazing. To show the kind of heart and fight they did and to buy into a game plan the way they did. It was just amazing.”

In the 55th-minute, Alex Morgan broke in on goal. Forbes forced her wide to the left, but Morgan chipped it back in front of the goal to Wambach who headed home the only goal of the game.

“I remember late in the game, we got two great chances,” said Waldrum. “On one hand, you could say the U.S. could’ve scored five. On the other hand, we could’ve walked away with at least a tie.”

Energized by the performance T&T, defeated Haiti 1-0 on 37th-minute goal by Yaya Cordner, who also served as the team’s chief taxi negoiator. Three days later, a 2-1 win over Guatemala on goals by Cordner and Maylee Atthin-Johnson put T&T through to the knock-out phase and a game with Costa Rica. Lauryn Hutchinson’s 73rd-minute goal sent the Costa Rica game into overtime and eventually penalty kicks were needed to break the tie. T&T missed its first three attempts and Costa Rica advanced while T&T went to the third-place game against Mexico. A win meant a berth in the 2016 Women’s World Cup.

Mexico scored first. Cordner tied it up early in the second half. Mariah Shade put T&T ahead with 12 minutes left but Mexico tied it 2-2 a minute later. Once again, Waldrum’s beleaguered players went into overtime, and they simply gave out. Mexico scored twice in a two-minute span to win 4-2.

One Last Chance

The fourth-place finish in CONCACAF was good enough to send T&T into a special home-and-away playoff with Ecuador, third-place finishers behind Brazil and Colombia in South America’s COMEBOL region. Win the series, go to the World Cup.

“I knew the altitude in Ecuador was very difficult,” Waldrum said. “I wanted to go to Mexico City to train at an altitude that was similar, and we did.”

So far so good.

Then the manager approached Waldrum two days before the team was scheduled to leave Mexico for Ecuador.

She said, “‘Coach, I didn’t want to bother you with this but I don’t know how we are going to get to Ecuador,” Waldrum recalls. “We don’t have any money, and the travel agency we’ve been using declined to front us the tickets like they have been doing because we haven’t been paying our bills.’”

Once Waldrum and the TTFA worked out a way to get to Ecuador, Waldrum discovered another problem.

“We were leaving Mexico City at 5:00 am. We were loading the bus and the hotel people grabbed me and said, ‘Where are you going? You haven’t paid your bill.’ I had to leave an administrator like a hostage at the hotel.”

When the team got to the airport, some of the players shared a memory with Waldrum from their days with the U19 national team.

“There was this little grass area with concrete benches, and the girls said, ‘Hey Coach, this is where we spent the night last time we were in Mexico City. We got stuck in Mexico City one night and didn’t have any money, so the coach (Norwegian Evan Pellerud) made us sleep out here and watch the equipment.’ He and his assistant went and got a hotel room.”

On to Ecuador where because of the altitude – 9,000 feet above sea level – the home team never loses.

“I can’t even explain it you,” Waldrum said. “Just getting up off the bench and walking across the track to the side of the field made me light-headed. I can’t imagine what it was like to play in it. It was absolutely brutal.

“Luckily, I was able to take a doctor to Ecuador. Up until that point, I hadn’t been able to. We had two players go into altitude poisoning. As soon as the game ended, everybody left – the local medical people, hospitality people. Tasha St. Louis collapsed on the field and Rita Bellgrade collapsed in the locker room. If we didn’t have a doctor there, I’m not sure they would have lived.”

Cordner thought she had won it in stoppage time but her goal was disallowed, and T&T settled for a well-earned draw. Now they could go home and play Ecuador one more time with a solid shot at going to the World Cup.

It was the largest crowd at Hasley Crawford Stadium since that day in ’89 when Paul Caliguiri sent the USA to the 1990 World Cup. Some 22,000 fans showed up, about 19,000 more than were on hand to see the T&T women win the CFU championship.

It took 91 minutes for someone to score, and unfortunately it was Ecuador. The Soca Princesses had used up their chances. There would be no World Cup.

“The sad piece is we had enough good players. We could have qualified if they just put anything in it,” said Waldrum. “Just any kind of resource to give us a chance to train together.”

Baron, who was on the bench in Trinidad for the Ecuador game, saw enough to keep trying.

“That hurt,” she said of the loss. “But you know what? That was the biggest experience of my life and that’s when I decided to stick with it. We were one game away from a World Cup. That was in 2014 and now we are sitting here in 2016, and I don’t even know if we have a team anymore. I don’t know if anyone cares.”

“I Wish I Had Some Leverage”

Sixteen months separated T&Ts World Cup qualifying exit and the beginning of Olympic qualifying. Waldrum wanted to get to work.

“After World Cup qualifying, Randy called me and said, we will have a week training camp in Trinidad. Then we will go to Costa Rica. Then we’ll go to Houston. None of that happened.”

For the second time in six years, the TTFA fired their volunteer coach.

“We just lost the man who did everything for us,” said Baron. “The man coached us for free! He’s one of the best coaches in the world, and they threw him out the back door.”

So T&T entered Olympic qualifying with a new coach, Richard Hood, a Trinidadian who coaches a men’s team in Trinidad’s pro league. Unprepared and unfit due to a lack of training, they were thoroughly overmatched, out-played and embarrassed, losing 6-0 to Canada in group play and 5-0 to the USA in the semifinals.

“Olympic qualifying experience was awful,” said Baron. “We were put up in a motel off the highway staying four to a room. I shared a queen bed with the other keeper.

“At one point, I was ready to leave because I was sick of the nonsense,” continues Baron. “Then they kicked the starting goalkeeper off the team and told me I was the starter. The next day, they brought her back. That’s when I realized they were just using us.”

There’s a binder with pages of notes Baron keeps. Her intention is to put it all together and give it to someone who will help. Flipping through the pages, she rattles off some of her notes.

The contract they were offered was riddled with typos and misspellings. It had the words “men’s national team” – as well as dollar figures — whited out and replaced with “women’s national team” and much smaller dollar amounts. The team trained for the World Cup on a 60-yard by 60-yard patch with no goals. The starting central defender sprained her ankle stepping in hole. They never played 11v11 at training. There was no ice or water. No medical personnel or treatment. Players taped their own ankles. No per diem. Hand-me-down uniforms. Players had to buy their own food. Page after page of notes.

And in the binder is this: “The Colombian, Mexican and Spanish national teams have spoken out about the way they are treated. They have spoken up about being treated as equals, even to the point of getting their coaches out of power. There is a distinct difference between those nations and us. They have gone to the World Cup, and they have fought to get their coach removed. We are fighting to get one of the best coaches in the world to stay.”

Feeling helpless, Baron watches closely as the U.S. players wage a public battle with the United States Soccer Federation over equal pay and equal treatment. Baron and her teammates would be happy to be treated like they exist, just for someone to care.

“Coming from my perspective, (the U.S. players) are the giants of the world,” Baron said. “If they don’t think they are equal, what are we? We don’t even feel like we have a voice. Girls over there are taught they can’t be anything more than they are, and the TTFA is showing us that.”

Her father urges her to be careful, afraid that their family in Trinidad will suffer from his daughter speaking out. She’s also aware, of course, that the TTFA could think solving the problem might just be as easy as never asking Baron and others who speak out to play for their country again.

“In Trinidad, they say politics is everything,” she adds “There has been an election in the TTFA, and there is a new president. David John-Williams, the new president, is saying this is happening, that is happening. He’s done nothing. But no one cares about us. It’s all about money.”

That, and anything else remotely involving a character named Jack Warner, is an understatement. Warner is the former head of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation and the Caribbean Football Union. On Dec. 3, 2015, Warner, who was also a FIFA Vice-President, was whisked away from a Zurich hotel by the FBI and Swiss authorities with other members of the FIFA Executive Committee. He was charged with 29 counts of embezzlement, fraud, money laundering, wire fraud, racketeering and bribery, totaling some $150 million. Among the accusations is that he diverted $750,000 in aid to Haiti hurricane victims into one of his many accounts.

The man who succeeded Warner as the head of CONCACAF, Jeffrey Webb, lasted five months before landing in prison. Corruption, racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering, etc., etc. American Chuck Blazer, the former General Secretary of CONCACAF, lived a lavish lifestyle which included a separate apartment in Trump Towers for his cats.

Funds earmarked for the development of women’s soccer in the Caribbean, never seems to make it there.

“No one believes any of the money taken away from us is going to anything good,” Baron said. “How can we?”

So Baron works out daily, lifting, running hills and playing with the Greensboro Lady Dynamo, a Women’s Premier Soccer League team in North Carolina

She trains young goalkeepers and hopes for some positive news out of Trinidad. The best she can figure, the T&T women’s national team is in limbo. She communicates with other national team players. They don’t know anything either. She contacts the federation. Nothing.

Maybe she will go to grad school, or catch on with a professional team in the U.S. or Europe. Or do both. But she is still not willing to give up on a shot at playing in a World Cup before she’s done.

As for Waldrum, the obvious question is why would a coach of his pedigree and stature go through all that. Money, obviously, is not the answer. It started, he said, as an effort to better himself as a coach.

Then he met the players.

“If you have ever done any kind of work with underprivileged or disadvantaged, you can understand,” he said. “You just want to help.”

 

 

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