Caledonia heads off for Colombian challenges prior to Concacaf Champions League opener against Mexico's Toluca

Caledonia players during a recent training ground exerciseCaledonia AIA Football Club is following the footsteps of its TT Pro League compatriot, DIRECTV W Connection, with a Colombia training camp ahead of their 2013-2014 Concacaf Champions League opening matches.

There isn’t a better club to learn from than Connection, a four-time competitor at the Concacaf level. It was Connection that defeated Mexican powerhouse Chivas Guadalajara 2-1 in the home tie of the quarterfinal round of the CCL in Trinidad back in 2007 but lost 3-0 in Mexico. And in 2009 Connection held Mexico’s Club Universidad Nacional 2-2 at home in the group stage but lost 2-1 in the second leg in Mexico City.

Surely, there are a few things Caledonia can learn from the experience of Connection as both clubs share a common goal in representing the Trinidad and Tobago flag proudly in Concacaf’s version of the UEFA Champions League.

Last week Connection jetted off to Colombia with a 27-man squad for a three-week pre-season camp in Cali, and will travel to Panama on August 6 prior to its opening Group 1 match against home side Arabe Unido on August 8 at the Estadio Amando Dely Valdes from 10pm.

Caledonia AIA players during a recent training sessionOn the same day (August 6) that Connection travels to Panama, Caledonia will tackle 10-time Liga Mexico champion and last season’s runner-up, Deportivo Toluca, from 8pm at the Estadio Nemesio Díez, Mexico City to kick off the 2013-2014 CCL.

Caledonia and Connection earned commended during the CCL draw in Miami in June, having qualified for consecutive Champions League spots. Both clubs are now determined to build on the attention gained.

Caledonia, in its efforts to better last season's bottom of Group 4 finish behind Major League Soccer outfit and group winner, Seattle Sounders, and Honduran club CD Marathón, departed the Piarco Airport on Thursday, on two flights out, with the destination Bogotá, Colombia for a 10-day camp.

The Morvant-Laventille club will then depart Colombia on Sunday 4 July for Mexico.

Caledonia’s Technical Director/Head Coach Jamaal Shabazz, coach Jerry Moe and assistant coach Rajesh Latchoo led a contingency of 30 persons, inclusive of a 23-man squad.

The squad includes; veteran midfielder and team captain Stephan David, Densill Theobald, Jamal Gay, Aubrey David, Andre Toussaint, Keyon Edwards, Nuru Abdullah Muhammad, Akim Armstrong, Kareem Joseph, Abdallah Phillips, Nathan Lewis, Argentine midfielder Miguel Alejandro Romeo, Marcus Ambrose, Antiguan defender Akeem Thomas and goalkeepers Glenroy Samuel and Grenadian Shemel Louison. New signings Noel Williams, 23 year old Montserrat striker Julian Wade and 25 year old Canadian defender Jamal Smith also made the squad along with Under 21 players Nical Stephens, Aaron Lester, Keiron Matthews and Keron Bethelmy.

The rest of the technical staff includes goalkeeper coach Steve Frederick, physiotherapist Donna Marie Wickham, equipment manager Jimmy Roach and media officer Rawle Toney.

Practice matches against second division club Forteleza FC and division one club Santa Fe as another top club are being set up by the Caledonia management, while Connection’s practice opponents in Columbia includes Deportivo de Cali and America de Cali.

Caledonia coach Jerry MoeSpeaking to on Tuesday, Moe said, “We have three games lined up in Colombia, so by the time we get to (Mexico), we shouldn’t be that out of it, in terms of match practice,” said Moe.

But Caledonia, pooled with Toluca and Guatemala’s CSD Comunicaciones in Group 6 of the CCL, must find match-form quickly as both Toluca and Comunicaciones are already into their respective domestic seasons.

“Overall it may be a negative [as our league is yet to begin], but I think we will be better prepared with three quality games in Colombia, as appose to last year we only prepared against local teams,” explained Moe. “We will also be in a camp environment (this time) so we can push the players more.”

Moe said that plan is to get the team ready by August 6. He said preparations would continue in Colombia between matches while the focus is on preparing the players' bodies to acclimatize playing at high altitude—against Toluca in Mexico City.

Psychologist Camasha Robertson was also brought in for a couple sessions to help in preparation for what could be marked as Caledonia's toughest challenge in the club's 34-year history.

Densill Theobald, Caledonia’s 2006 World Cup midfielder, declared, “Playing away from home in Mexico City is going to be one of the biggest challenge Caledonia is ever going to face, thus far.”

As the fixtures continue, W Connection in Group 1 with MLS outfit Houston Dynamo and Arabe Unido, will host Dynamo on Tuesday 20 August in its second match, and Caledonia will welcome Comunicaciones on Thursday 29 August.

Densill Theobald during a recent Caledonia AIA training sessionIn the second leg, Caledonia are hosts to Toluca on Wednesday 18 September, and a day later—Thursday 19 September—Connection will host Arabe Unido.

Connection and Caledonia will later wrap up their Champions League group stage matches away to Houston Dynamo and Communicaciones respectively on Wednesday 25 September.

“I think everybody understands what is necessary and what we need to do to be successful,” continued Moe.

“However, having said that, we know it’s not going to be an easy game. Playing in Concacaf is a challenge by itself.  And it’s a bigger challenge in terms of the altitude against a Mexican club. We have never played at this altitude before and it will take a lot. We are trying to do the best that we can do as a staff … as a management team, to make sure that the players get the best possible preparation going into the game.

“I think that Jamaal said it best, ‘we just don’t want to participate this year, we want to try and compete’, so that’s the reason why we brought in the psychologist and all the different people to help with the mental aspect of the game and not just focus on the physical.”

Moe assured that the mood in the Morvant-Laventille club is a positive one among the players.

Theobald elaborated, “Caledonia has always been a team of good camaraderie … a family oriented club. So it’s nothing new in terms of what’s going to be added to that, but what we plan to do, is go out there and be confident and believe in ourselves in Mexico.

“It is going to be difficult being away from home, and knowing that some of the guys are inexperienced as well, but that’s the reason we work hard … to go out there and pull off a surprise result in our favour. So we are quietly confident knowing that we can do well (against Toluca).”

Theobald, 31, was an unused substitute in Trinidad and Tobago’s late 1-0 defeat against Mexico in last Saturday’s Concacaf Gold Cup quarterfinal round fixture in Atlanta, and believes that Caledonia can learn a page or two from the Warriors’ performance, which held the El Tri goalless until the 84th minute.

Theobald said, “It can give us confidence, knowing that once we have the belief in ourselves, we can really pull off a good result (in Mexico). There is nothing to fear. They are just human beings like us – eleven players versus eleven players. But in saying that, this is coming from one player. The team must believe we can go out there and get a positive result.”

Caledonia wingback Aubrey David started for the Warriors on Saturday and striker Jamal Gay sat alongside Theobald as an unused substitute, but surely all three players would have learnt a bit about Mexican opponents.

“Mexican football isn’t on a high right now,” deems Moe, who wants to take advantage. “To me, it’s on a low.”

He added, “I think when (our) national team does well [as it did in the Gold Cup], it augurs well for local football because then the people come out and watch the football. And when the national team isn’t doing well, they think the Pro League is a simulation of the national team.

“So basically when the national team is doing well, we get good support. So we want to build on that momentum the national team have and put a good product on the field that when the people come to watch the game, they would be in a position of appreciation and they will want to come back.”

However, for Caledonia AIA—last season’s Pro League runners-up—, the Concacaf Champions League is not just about representing T&T and by extension, the Caribbean. As Theobald, a proud son of Nelson Street, Port of Spain explains, “It’s about serving and representing the communities of east Port of Spain and Morvant-Laventille proudly.

“It means a lot (for the club) coming from the communities of Morvant and Laventille,” said the midfielder. “We just want to keep going at it, and try to bring more of a positive image for the communities of Morvant-Laventille.”

Theobald, a leader to many within the Caledonia AIA setup, vowed to continue sharing his experience of playing professional and international football over the years, which he believes is needed within the team at the CCL level.

“I want to be able to calm the guys down in a pressure situation,” he said. “I want to be able to share my knowledge in terms of the game and playing away from home. This is what I try to bring to the table for Caledonia, to keep us going, and keep improving as a club and as individuals.”