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Puerto Rico: Emerging Caribbean power?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

TAMPA, FL -- With over two years of inactivity at the international level, Puerto Rico had sunk to a lowly ranking of 196 of 207 prior to this last two week’s return to action with successful warm-up friendlies against Bermuda and Trinidad & Tobago. The seeds of a renaissance were planted in 2004 with the birth of the Puerto Rico Islanders USL First Division side. Now, as Puerto Rico heads toward World Cup qualifying, the island’s top club team and National Team are on the cusp of becoming regional powers.

The Islanders have created a professional atmosphere for the sport on the island, which had previously been a hotbed for baseball, basketball and boxing. With the team’s performance reaching new heights each year and crowds reaching five figures as they made their 2007 run to the USL First Division Semifinals, it has quickly become a new soccer hotbed, attracting players from across the league who are looking at the American territory as an opportunity to play internationally due to the depth of the American squad.

Clarke is taking Puerto Rican soccer to new heights with double duty“Soccer in Puerto Rico wasn’t really catching on until the Islanders got here,” said former USL and MLS head coach Colin Clarke, who took the Islander’s post midseason last year. “They are the ones that are responsible and deserve full credit. The 13,000 fans here for the last playoff game was incredible. The atmosphere was as good as anything I’ve experienced in America. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds down here.”

Over the past two years via the CONCACAF Champions Cup Qualifying tournament for the Caribbean teams, the Islanders have proven they are quickly joining the ranks of the elite club teams in the region, narrowly missing the coveted spot via a 1-0 semifinal loss to Trinidad & Tobago powers Joe Public. Joe Public would fall 2-1 to Jamaican power Harbour View whom the Islanders played to a 2-2 draw in group play. The Islanders had finished first in their group with a 2-0-1 mark and impressive 17-4 aggregate score before posting a stunning 7-1 Quarterfinal win.

The good news of late is that the new CONCACAF Champions League recently announced will have three Caribbean qualifiers among the 24-team field, increasing their chances of playing at that next level and giving their players additional experience against elite competition.

The man who has quickly become the central figure in the emergence of both teams is Colin Clarke, a veteran coach in the USL and MLS ranks. After guiding the Islanders to a playoff run to the USL-1 Semifinals, he was recently also named the head coach of the Puerto Rican national team side. Clarke has brought a fresh start to the team, using his knowledge of the USL First Division to bring talented players to the Islanders, and to attract others interested in a shot at playing in the World Cup. Players like Josh Saunders (Islanders), Taylor Graham (Seattle Sounders), Chris Gores (Charleston Battery) and Kupono Low (Carolina RailHawks) are the kind of quality USL-1 players that five years ago may never have considered wearing the Puerto Rican jersey over the very slim hopes that they may have a chance of someday making the US squad.

“It helped a great deal being familiar with USL and MLS,” said Clarke. “Our hands were a bit tied at the beginning with the Islanders because we were in season when I got here. With the National Team, knowing the Islanders and all of the other league players and how their American passports would allow them to play here allowed us to put a good team together.”

“We’ve taken advantage of the FIFA rules and brought in some of the American-based players, but in the future we’d like more local players to represent the team,” said Clarke. “In the T & T game the starting 11 was a 50-50 split of American and Puerto Rican players. It was a good split.”

“The exciting part with the National Team is that we have brought in some of the young Puerto Rican players from their colleges and some have done very well. The hope is that some coming out of college will want to play here for the Islanders. As an island, the object is to continue to grow, be structured right. It is important the National Team is in the right shape for all age groups so the good talent doesn’t have to leave the island to play.”

In preparation for the First Round of their World Cup Qualifying campaign, a March 26 match in Puerto Rico against the 164th-ranked Dominican Republic, the new-look Puerto Rican squad traveled to Bermuda, ranked 146, just over a week ago and came away with a pair of victories. They posted a 2-0 win in their first game with Graham providing the winner two minutes into the second half to give the side their first victory since January 23, 1994, a span of nearly 14 years to the day.

Six-year USL veteran Noah Delgado, who has spent the last three years with the Islanders, provided the lone goal 13 minutes into the rematch two days later for their second win. It was the first time Puerto Rico had posted consecutive victories since the team had won four in a row in the 1993 Caribbean Cup.

While the losses may have been deflating for Bermuda, they may also be deceptive. With the close nature of the matches against an opponent clearly underrated in the FIFA ranking system due to their inactivity, Bermuda may be able to take a ray of light out of their performances.

Buoyed by a similar model in which their top club team is a member of the USL Second Division, many of Bermuda’s national team players are quickly accumulating experience from playing against opposition far greater than they had previously been exposed to in their home nation. In just their first year of competition in the league, the Bermuda Hogges went from an 0-8-1 start to the season to a 3-6-2 finish to the second half of their campaign as they continued to learn and grow throughout the year. Nine of the 14 who saw action for Bermuda in the second fixture played for the Hogges inaugural side, including USL Second Division All-League honoree Stephen Astwood.

“Bermuda played well,” said Clarke. “Bermuda is still growing. Having just entered a USL program is great, but with the inhabitants being about 60,000 things are limited for them. They played two good games, but they are limited because of the numbers.”

Puerto Rico then played host to 78th ranked Trinidad & Tobago, a participant in the last World Cup, and earned a 2-2 draw. Chris Megaloudis, who played two seasons with Brooklyn and Westchester in the Premier Development League, opened the scoring for the Islanders 21 minutes in.

"It's what I have in front of me right now," Megaloudis told Michael Lewis of about choosing to play for Puerto Rico. "I looked at my options. Who knows what happens if I make the team and what doors might open? Puerto Rico now is just developing their team. We know we're here to develop a team and make the World Cup one day. It takes time and a lot of hard work. That's what our goal is. It was something I've always dreamed about as a kid. My dream is to play in the World Cup. This is my opportunity to do it. I'll take it any way I can."

Veteran professional and three-year Islander Petter Villegas doubled the lead in the 34th only to see the visitors erase the deficit in the second stanza on a penalty and well-headed cross.

“The game went great. The 2-2 score was a good result considering they were in the last World Cup,” said Clarke, who is hoping to get in another friendly before their World Cup Qualifier showdown with the Dominican Republic. “Some big names weren’t there for them, but they’ve been together for a while. We were disappointed we didn’t win the game, but it gave us confidence coming off the games against Bermuda, who were weaker. The result bodes well for the future and we are excited how things went and want to keep it going forward.”

The Qualification Paths for Puerto Rico & Bermuda

On paper, the unfortunate 196 ranking for Puerto Rico has undoubtedly made the path to qualification for the World Cup one of the most difficult for teams participating in the First Round. The Boricuas, as they are known, will open with their First Round match against the Dominican Republic (164), an opponent they should arguably be able to advance past.

                     The Puerto Rico v. Dominican Republic rivalry… A Little-Known Classic [+] 

Unfortunately for Puerto Rico, they drew Honduras (54) for the Second Round two-leg series. Honduras currently sits third ranked among CONCACAF clubs two spots ahead of Canada on the world rankings table.

Although Puerto Rico has a tough opponent awaiting them, they are not looking past their regional rival. “We shouldn’t discount the Dominican Republic. It is a big rivalry here,” said Clarke. “Honduras is a great team, a good tough one for us. I feel we’ve got a few months to improve the team and we are looking at all the avenues to do that on and outside the island.”

Should Puerto Rico register what would be one of the greatest upsets in the region’s qualifying history, they would find themselves in what could be considered the most difficult Third Round group if top seeds Jamaica (98), Canada (56) and Mexico (15) all advance from the Second Round. A shocking top-two finish in the Third Round’s round-robin group play would send Puerto Rico onto the final six, a round-robin affair where the top three move onto South Africa 2010 and the fourth-place team faces South America’s fifth seed in a playoff for another berth.

Bermuda, on the other hand, will square off against a lesser-ranked opponent in the First Round when they take on the Cayman Islands (191) for the right to play Trinidad & Tobago (78), the team that joined the US and Mexico in Germany for World Cup 2006. Advancing past T & T would mean joining a group that would also consist of the United States (20), Cuba (71) and Guatemala (105) should the higher seeds prevail in the Second Round.

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