FRISCO, Texas — When looking at the roster sheets for the Costa Rica and Bermuda men’s national teams, the talent disparity is clear.
On the Costa Rican side, familiar club names arise: Kendall Waston and Allan Cruz of FC Cincinnati, Leonel Moreira of Mexican powerhouse Pachuca, Óscar Duarte from Spanish side RCD Espanyol.
Compare that with Bermuda, which boasts only a few names that are recognizable to most soccer fans. Forward Nahki Wells made 40 appearances for Queens Park Rangers of the English Championship. Midfielder Zeiko Lewis plays in the USL Championship with the Charleston Battery. Many of the players, such as goalkeeper Dale Eve and midfielder Donte Brangman, play in the Digicel Premier Division, Bermuda’s domestic league.
Costa Rica played in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Bermuda is playing in its first Concacaf Gold Cup.
However, on Thursday, Bermuda did not play like a team that was scared of its opposition. Instead of sitting back in a defensive shape, coach Kyle Lightbourne instructed the team to attack Costa Rica. It may seem like a bold strategy for an underdog against a regional giant, but Bermuda’s start to the match was bright. The team created chances through Wells and midfielder Willie Clemons.
Costa Rica opened up scoring in the 30th minute off a corner kick scramble, with Mayron George finding the net. It seemed as if the floodgates would open up for Los Ticos. Elías Aguilar added one more in the 54th minute and the match began to unravel for Bermuda — or so it seemed.
Instead, three minutes later, the Gombey Warriors earned a corner kick and set up with a cluster of players in front of the goal. As defender Oliver Harvey went to receive the ball, he was tripped up in the box, drawing a penalty. Wells stepped up and smashed it past Moreira to cut the lead to 2-1.
“That’s something that is probably not seen,” Lightbourne said. “We tried to push them in, keep them in, to get a ball across the face of the box for someone to get it. That’s exactly what happened and we got the penalty. We lost the game the other night because of a set piece. They scored off a set piece in the first half. We know these are difficult moments in the match for both teams, and I’m just happy to see that happened.”
Not satisfied with the one goal, Bermuda pushed for more. It did not come up with a second and was eliminated from the Gold Cup with the loss. The mood around the team was not of disappointment. It was one of pride, showing that Bermuda is not too small for the tournament.
“I think everybody here could see that we deserve to be here,” Lightbourne said. “Yeah? We deserve to be here. We pushed a World Cup team for 90 minutes.”
In qualifying for the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup, Bermuda dropped its first match against Aruba, 3-1. It did not lose again, compiling a 12-0 decimation of St. Mirren, a 1-0 upset of Pot 1 side El Salvador and a 3-1 win against the Dominican Republic. Bermuda entered the qualification process ranked 22nd in the region. It finished fifth out of 34 teams in the final standings.
“Obviously, you can see that we have a lot of skillful, exciting players,” captain Dante Leverock said. “We’re a young team, but we’ve been together for a very, very long time. You can see that; we’re a close-knit group, we’re like brothers and we’re here to stay. This isn’t just a one-off for us. You’ll see us again, 100 percent.”
The close defeat to Costa Rica was a step in the right direction for a nation that wants to continue growing and learning. For Wells, he hopes the stage and the performance bring increased exposure for his teammates.
“We have a good group of talented players for such a small nation,” Wells said. “Nobody probably expected to see what talented players we have. For me, what I want this for my teammates is to get opportunities that they deserve. Our team competed with two nations that have a fully professional team in high levels throughout the world. That’s what I want for my players and teammates to get, because they deserve to be in the professional ranks. They deserve to play football for a living because they’ve shown that they’re equally as good as players that are doing so.”
Now, even with the elimination, Bermuda looks toward Nicaragua on Monday, with a chance to earn its first points in its Gold Cup history. The country is a two-hour flight from New York City, and Monday’s match will be played at Red Bull Arena in nearby Harrison, N.J. A large crowd of Bermudian fans is expected. The Gombey Warriors can take inspiration from that support and the momentum from the performance against Costa Rica.
“We know we can no longer progress from the group,” Wells said. “Our competition is done, but it’ll be a little bit of pressure relief for us. We can go into the Nicaragua game with nothing to lose, and I know what we’re capable of. I think the world knows what we’re capable of, and only us know how much we shot ourselves in the foot by not taking our opportunities, but that’s football and we’ll learn from this and we’ll be ready for Monday.”
This is only the first step for Bermuda, with Nations League play starting in September. The team is grouped with Mexico and Panama in League A, making for tough competition against two teams that qualified for the most recent World Cup.
“When League A begins and we’re playing top teams — Mexico, Panama — we have to stick at this level,” Leverock said. “Costa Rica is at the cusp at the level that we have. I’m proud of them. We’re going to build on this and focus on the last one. Our next game is in September. It’s just the beginning.”
“I’m proud of my team,” Lightbourne said. “I think people around the world will take notice of some of the Bermuda players.
“Small little country, but big hearts.”