After leading the Haiti women’s national team program for five highly-successful years as technical director, Shek Borkowski was named to a similar position in March by the Federación Puertorriqueña de Fútbol.
Last month, in Haiti, he guided Puerto Rico to a berth in the 2018 CONCACAF Under-17 Championship on the strength of a third-place finish in the final round of Caribbean qualifying.
The accomplishment was made even more spectacular when you consider that the players, staff and their families were dealing with the devastating impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the island.
CONCACAF.com sat down with Borkowski to speak about the team and its future.
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, how were you able to train the team prior to traveling to Haiti for the Caribbean finals?
We finished our (Caribbean first round) Group B qualifiers on August 27. I gave the team one week off and, right afterward, Puerto Rico was hit with Hurricanes Irma and Maria. As a result, of course, our preparation for Haiti was limited. We went to Santo Domingo for one week (October 7-14). While there we played against Dominican Republic U-20s and against a U-15 boys’ team.
I knew from working with Haiti for five years, that it would be very strong. In the 2016 CONCACAF U-15 Girls’ Championship in Orlando, Haiti lost 0-1 to the USA and they have added very good players from the U.S. to their squad, such as Dany Etienne, Sam Dumont and Milan Pierre. Before the competition, I expected that our match against Cuba would be the key. I asked the players to play for themselves, their families and for Puerto Rico…and they delivered.
How were the players able to manage the hurricanes’ impact on their lives and still prepare for the competition?
It was emotional for them. Some of them, like Yari Maldonado, lost everything during Maria. Others were less affected, but everyone knew how dire things were in Puerto Rico and they wanted to do well for their country. To beat Cuba for the first time ever was special for them.
In order to qualify for the CONCACAF Under-17 Women’s Championship, Puerto Rico overcame Jamaica on penalty kicks, 7-6, after playing to a 1-1 draw in the match for third place. What stood out to you about the team’s performance in that game and the competition?
Against Jamaica, it was tough for us for 90 minutes. We didn’t manage the game well and conceded the equalizer two minutes after we scored. Working with 15- and 16-year-old players, you never know how they will react to adversity. Jamaica had two good opportunities in the last five minutes to win the match, but my goalkeeper Cristina Roque made critical saves for us.
Going into PKs, I felt positive and told Roque that she will make two saves for us, and she did.
After the match I told (Jamaica head coach) Xavier Gilbert that they did not deserve to lose, but futbol is unpredictable and can be cruel.
Overall, we tried to play with discipline and keep our organization. We were resilient. Even after losing to Haiti, everyone kept positive and believed that we can achieve our objective of qualifying for the CONCACAF tournament.
How important was it for you to sense when to push and when to pull back?
As a coach, it’s about managing your players. It’s about knowing when to be serious and when to allow them to have fun. A tense, young team won’t perform well, so I try to give them just enough freedom to be kids and enough discipline and structure to make sure that we perform well when required.
Did you expect the Puerto Rico U-17s to have such success this early in your tenure?
Coming to Puerto Rico, I set a goal of competing for a top-four place in CONCACAF in all age categories by the next cycle, so this first achievement is ahead of the schedule.
Now that Puerto Rico has qualified for the CONCACAF Under-17 Women’s Championship next year in Nicaragua, how will you prepare the team?
We will go to Nicaragua without any pressure. No one expects anything from us. I am realistic about our chances and understand that we are going there to learn and for the experience. My players, because they are inexperienced, may expect more. But it’s too early for us. We need to improve technically, tactically, physically and our mentality.
Our preparation for Nicaragua will be influenced by our opponents. If we are in a group with two from the USA, Canada or Mexico, I would like to go to Florida to play two matches against U.S. colleges. Haiti will require a different approach, and yet another for Nicaragua and Bermuda.
All we can do now is focus on improving individually and learn in Nicaragua. This group should be much better prepared for when they move up one age category in two years.
Women's fútbol in Puerto Rico has so much potential. I believe that we can become a top-four team in CONCACAF. Obviously, Costa Rica right now is ahead of us, so is Haiti, and other countries are investing in the game and improving.
But I believe that we can do something very special in Puerto Rico.