Former Trinidad and Tobago national coach Stephen Hart and striker Akeem Garcia have been nominated for 2020 Canadian Premier League awards.
Halifax Wanderers coach Hart, who led T&T to two Concacaf Gold Cup quarter-finals between 2013 and 2016, is in line for the Coach of the Year award along with Bobby Smyrniotis (Forge FC) and Miguel Ferrer (Atletico Ottawa). The winners will be selected by a media panel.
Halifax Wanderers forward Garcia is nominated for the Player of the Year award along with midfielders Marco Bustos of Pacific FC and Kyle Bekker of Forge FC. Garcia is also favourite to win the Golden Boot.
Garcia had a strong first Canadian Premier League season in 2019 with a HFX Wanderers side that struggled at times over the course of the year. Garcia led the Wanderers scoring with seven goals from 24 appearances in league action, adding another one in the Canadian Championship, and was one of only six players brought back by head coach Hart for the club’s sophomore campaign.
Fast forward 11 months and the Trinidad and Tobago forward is on the verge of winning a CPL championship, the Golden Boot title, and has been nominated as the League’s Player of the Year after a standout campaign at The Island Games.
“When you’re playing, you have to always aim for the heights,” Garcia said on a CPL conference call on Friday.
Garcia looked a top prospect last season, but this year he’s taken his game to the next level that Hart challenged him to reach.
“This year, I’ve focused on one position,” Garcia revealed. “Coach has helped me in terms of positioning and how I can always be better at the position. So after training, even in training, I’ve got time to go home and look over things and see how I can be better.
“The players around me this year allows me to do that. You can see with the players we’ve brought in, they’ve all got the quality to make that final pass, especially João Morelli. He’s simple, but it’s his thinking that’s very good. With him and with the other players around, you’ve got the confidence to make a run, you have confidence to come, you have confidence to play.”
As Garcia mentioned, last season saw the striker tried out in a couple of different attacking positions. This year, the focus has been on doing what he does best. He’s thrived and developed his game as a result, becoming more and more accustomed to playing the striker role with the more minutes he gets.
“To be fair to Akeem, last season he played out of position in a number of games in order to help the team,” Hart said. “That’s just the nature of the player. He will do anything we ask of him and once we got back into this season, and we came into training camp, both of us sat down and we had a discussion.
“I told him what I was looking for from him and where he needs to improve his game, and he’s worked diligently on that. As a consequence, of course, compounded by the variety of service he can now get, from both inside the field and the wide positions, he’s done well.”
Garcia’s strong play last year saw him earn a recall into the Trinidad and Tobago national team set-up after an absence of four-and-a-half years, for his second and third international caps in a pair of substitute appearances in the Concacaf Nations League match against Honduras and a friendly against Venezuela in October last year.
Were the T&T staff already watching Garcia, or did Hart use his connections to draw attention to what the young forward was doing in Canada?
“I think it was a little bit of both,” Hart revealed. “Derek King is part of the staff down there now and he has a close tie to the club and he’s going to be keeping an eye on both Akeem and Rampy [Andre Rampersad]. So it’s a little bit of us communicating and saying, look this player is doing well. We share his qualities, we share his medical on how he’s doing, and then it’s up to them to select or not select.”
Garcia’s performance during The Island Games tournament should see him get another call soon, whenever international matches in the region do finally get back to happening. And whenever that call does come, Garcia is excited to accept it.
“We haven’t spoken any time as yet,” Garcia revealed when asked if T&T head coach Terry Fenwick had been in touch with him during the tournament. “But I know the eyes are looking back home in Trinidad. The games are showing and people are watching. It’s always a privilege and honour to play for your country.
“I think playing for your country is a big deal. It’s different. There’s a lot more pressure, but it’s just a privilege to play for your country and if happens, it’s a good thing.”
—with reporting by Michael McColl