Copa America Spotlight:Haiti

To casual fans of soccer in the Americas, one team in the list of Copa América participants sticks out like a sore thumb. There's the 10 South American sides, plus regular invitees the United States and Mexico. There's Jamaica, Costa Rica and Panama, regular contenders for the Gold Cup semifinals and the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

And then there's Haiti.

The Haitians made the 1974 World Cup, but haven't been major players in world soccer since. 1981 was the last time they made it to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying. They experienced a revival in the 2000s, winning the 2007 Caribbean Cup, but their progress was stalled by the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed over 100,000 people, including dozens involved in professional soccer.

While the country's recovery from that disaster has been slow, their soccer team has returned to form quickly. Haiti returned to the Gold Cup in 2013, defeating Trinidad and Tobago in the first round. They finished third in the 2014 Caribbean Cup, then made it out of their group in last year's Gold Cup by defeating Honduras and drawing against Panama. In their two defeats — to the United States and Jamaica — they only lost by one goal. This is not a team that's going to accept heavy defeats as an inevitability. Perhaps they can't fight for a result against Brazil, but they're going to believe they're capable of avoiding a loss against Ecuador and Peru. For good reason, too.

To the uninitiated, Haiti's squad might look like a very strange mishmash of players, but it has the standard makeup of a perfectly decent CONCACAF squad. Some players are regulars at decent European and MLS teams, others are stars on smaller sides. One Paris Saint-Germain B-team player is hanging around, 21-year-old defender Stéphane Lambèse. Goalkeeper Johnny Placide, right back Jean Sony Alcénat and winger Wilde-Donald Guerrier are accomplished European pros. Most members of their starting XI have experience in MLS, a middle-tier European first division or a top European second division.

Les Grenadiers have also shown themselves to be tactically flexible. They used 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 formations at the Gold Cup, and they've busted out a back five formation in World Cup qualifying too. Manager Patrice Neveu has so far proven astute at adjusting to counter his opponent's strengths, something that's crucial for getting results against teams with relatively more talented players.

Despite the positives, Haiti has struggled to find goals so far in the fourth round of 2018 World Cup qualifying. Their defense has been very good — they haven't allowed more than one goal in any of their four games — but they've also failed to score. Unfortunately, center forward is the one spot where Haiti is lacking real seasoned accomplished pros. Jean-Eudes Maurice was developed by PSG but never broke through in France, and currently plays in Vietnam. Kervens Belfort plays in the Turkish second division and doesn't have a great scoring record. Haiti's other attackers prefer to play on the wing or behind the striker, rather than up top.

If Haiti are actually going to pull off some big upsets, they'll probably need either Maurice or Belfort to find their form. Guerrier, Jeff Louis and Duckens Nazon might be international-quality attacking players, but they're not exactly volume goal scorers.

Regardless, Haiti should prove a difficult side for opponents to break down, and they should offer a decent threat on the counter. A quick glance at the tournament field and their squad suggests that they're the weakest team in Copa América, but they're certainly not a joke. They earned their spot here, and they're unlikely to embarrass themselves. Don't expect them to get blown out.

Schedule & Results

Saturday, Jun. 4
Wednesday, Jun. 8
Sunday, Jun. 12