Wednesday, February 25, 2009
TAMPA, FL — With powerhouse clubs hailing from Central America, Mexico and the United States, the odds of a Caribbean club advancing in the CONCACAF Champions League were slim. The Puerto Rico Islanders look to continue their amazing defiance of the expectations when play host to Honduras’ current league leader Marathon Thursday evening on Fox Soccer Channel at 8:00 pm ET.
For the Islanders, the key will be taking advantage of home field in the first leg against an opponent who comes into the match at the top of the league table, but nursing numerous injuries. Marathon’s 4-1-3 (W-L-D) record in their current Clausura campaign is built primarily on their performance at home where they are 3-0-2 compared to a 1-1-1 mark on the road. Eight games into their season, Marathon already has scored nearly double the amount of goals as the rest of their foes with 16 on the year, but 12 have come at home with only four in their three away contests.
The scoring output may, however, be a bit deceiving as Marathon has seen most of their success against clubs in the lower half of the table, posting a 0-1-2 record against the three teams immediately beneath them in the standings.
Puerto Rico will be looking to take advantage of Marathon’s quiet road attack as well as a midfield and defense beset by injury. Defender Erick Norales, defender Mario Beata, goalkeeper Victor Coello and midfielders Maynor Suazo and Carlos Oliva are recovering from injury.
The Islanders were a handful offensively last year with the league’s leading attack hailing from the team’s depth in talent that saw six players score at least four goals in the campaign. While returning strikers such as Fabrice Noel and Kendall Jagdeosingh were threats that garnered the opposition’s attention, it was an unlikely source that would ultimately finish as the team’s leading goal scorer – defender Cristian Arrieta.
In addition to taking advantage of set plays and other opportunities to come forward, Arrieta helped lead the team to the league’s top defensive performance on the year with just 23 goals allowed in 30 games, earning him the USL-1 Defender of the Year honor while goalkeeper Bill Gaudette took home the Goalkeeper of the Year award.
But whether it was the myriad of strikers or Arrieta coming forward, the one constant that drove the team was midfielder and USL First Division Most Valuable Player Jonathan Steele. A newcomer to the club, Steele quickly meshed within the squad and blossomed under the tutelage of Coach of the Year Colin Clarke, becoming just the second midfielder to earn the MVP honor and finishing as the league leader in assists with 11 on the year.
The playmaker helped engineer the club’s rise from the bottom of the table in the early part of last season’s campaign to a regular season championship, navigating the Islanders through a congested schedule of USL and Champions League play with stunning brilliance. A surprising five-game win streak to close out a six-game road trip midseason was a sign of things to come. After suffering a defeat in their return home against the defending champion Sounders, the Islanders went on a 17-game overall unbeaten run in both competitions beginning August 3.
The Champions League portion of the streak began with their Preliminary Round series victory over Alajuelense, downing the Costa Rican powerhouse with 1-1 draw on the road and 2-1 win at home a week later. They then opened group play with a 2-1 win over Tauro of Panama followed by a shocking 3-1 defeat of Mexico’s Santos Laguna, adapting to a waterlogged pitch due to a severe storm.
Adaptation quickly became a key element in the Islanders’ arsenal as they navigated through the chase for the regular season championship to earn a bye to the league semifinals, and then through the postseason itself as they fought through midweek Champions League contests and two-leg playoff series on the weekend. The club’s depth was its most useful tool as they finished out the group phase with a draw against storied Guatemalan side Municipal, two road losses to Santos and Municipal and a quarterfinal clinching draw against Tauro.
Steele will have a few new players to utilize as Puerto Rico steps on the pitch for the first competitive match of the year with the additions of Carolina midfielder Martin Nunez, Vancouver forward Nicholas Addlery and Miami striker Sean Fraser. Each finished their 2008 USL-1 campaigns as the second leading goal scorers for their respective clubs.
Puerto Rico’s preparations for the quarterfinals featured a training camp in Tampa that included friendlies against Major League Soccer opposition and a home match against DC United, a club familiar with Marathon. The friendly may have given Clarke an opportunity to get direct scouting information from DC coach Tom Soehn, whose side suffered a pair 2-0 losses in the group stage to Marathon.