Puerto Rico has a tradition of being ‘the little island that could’ in the sports world, but soccer is a whole new venture for the U.S. territory.
Mar 17, 2009 9:57:49 AM
During my vacation to Puerto Rico last year, I tried to find a soccer field.
I have to confess, whenever I’m someplace where everyone is speaking Spanish, I expect soccer to be around. But Puerto Rico was one exception to this general rule. Kids swung sticks at little balls, or practiced shooting basketballs, or surfed, but I couldn’t find anyone playing the beautiful game.
I did find a field, however. In the capital city of San Juan, there was a park that had a large field surrounded by a track. Grandstands lined the edge for viewing purposes, but there were just a few people strolling leisurely around the track. No one was kicking a ball.
But I knew there was soccer in Puerto Rico – and that the United Soccer Leagues team based there, the Islanders, had actually had a nice season in the previous year. I wondered how widespread any local knowledge about the team was.
Two security workers seemed like ideal candidates to ask. One looked completely blank at the mention of the Islanders.
The other, however, showed a flicker of recognition.
«The Islanders?» He nodded. «They’re a soccer team. They play in Bayamon.»
His co-worker looked relieved. «I thought they might be a band.»
Bayamon is basically beside San Juan, but it’s a more modern, populous city floating in the wake of the older one.
If motivated, one could drive around the entire island of Puerto Rico in a relatively short time. It’s only three times bigger than Rhode Island, the smallest U.S. state.
It doesn’t, at first sight, seem like a place that would challenge the U.S. for athletic supremacy in any sport.
Yet it’s something Puerto Rico has managed time and again. The Puerto Rican basketball team has defeated the U.S. one. In the recent World Baseball Classic, Puerto Rico dominated the American team so completely that the ten-run mercy rule had to be evoked. Puerto Rico has also produced a number of world-class boxers.
However, these are sports that people on the island have loved and participated enthusiastically in for many years. How competitive could the island be in one that it hadn’t traditionally embraced at all?
Pretty darn competitive, it turns out. The Puerto Rico Islanders are the last team standing against the expected Mexican powerhouses of the CONCACAF Champions League. No other USL or Major League Soccer team remains in the competition.
It’s pretty heady stuff for a team that only joined in 2004, but as USL president Francisco Marcos pointed out to Goal.com, belief in the project made all the difference.
«We heard ‘You’re crazy. This is a joke. It’s not going to work out. There is the travel and that is not a soccer country’ – all of the usual arguments. Nevertheless we took a chance because we always take chances. That’s the way we’ve always been. That’s the way I am.»
Since the USL is governed without the single-entity and rigid salary-cap structure of MLS, teams can more easily acquire players. No, the league doesn’t have the marketing muscle of being the top-flight in the U.S., and with some of the traditional USL teams abandoning the league to join MLS instead, it’s in something of a delicate transition period at present.
The pride that the Islanders’ results have evoked on Puerto Rico is considerable, though, and that continues to gain momentum.
Unwittingly, perhaps, MLS has also recently given the second-tier league a boost. The decision to dissolve the reserve division of MLS put a lot of quality players on the USL market. Teams are only too eager to snap up new talent.
«With the MLS reserve league being gone, a lot of those players will have to find their way back,» Marcos observed. «They’ll find their way through our clubs.»
It’s not only players rejected by MLS who have found a new home in USL. Formerly in charge of FC Dallas, the coach of the Islanders, Colin Clarke, has been so enthusiastically embraced due to the results of the club that he was asked to also direct the Puerto Rican national team. Now he mans the helm of both squads and is affectionately termed «The General».
«They hit the bullseye when they decided on Colin as a coach,» Marcos stated. «He became a hit on and off the field. We don’t consider him an MLS coach. He’s a USL coach, born and bred in USL. This is where he began. This is where he got noticed.»
A number of Clarke’s current players on the Islanders have MLS experience, but now they are part of a soccer project that is surpassing expectations.
The upcoming CCL opponent, Cruz Azul, is a venerable Mexican team that was founded in 1927, which far supasses the five years the USL Islanders have existed. Still, if there’s anything that that Puerto Ricans know, it’s that an unexpected wave can knock anyone off their feet.
The USL has taught everyone that the beautiful game can find a place in even unexpected locales.
I’ve learned that when the tide finally turns, it isn’t easy to see it happening, but the effects eventually show up. Somehow, I have a feeling that if I go back to Puerto Rico this year, I’ll find people kicking a soccer ball around.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America