The unlikely run of the Puerto Rico Islanders into the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals may have seemed unlikely, but Goal.com’s Allen Ramsey says that it is no accident.

Mar 9, 2009 3:29:40 PM

Puerto Rico Islanders Team (Mexsport)
Puerto Rico Islanders Team (Mexsport)

By Allen Ramsey/ Goal.com

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Back when the CONCACAF Champions League group stage began, if a soccer fan had been told that three of the four teams in the semifinals of the competition would hail from Mexico, he would’ve shrugged. Of course, the Mexican clubs would dominate the continent.

If that same fan had then been told that the fourth semifinalist would be the United Soccer League’s Puerto Rico Islanders, he probably would’ve choked on the lime in his Corona.

And yet here the Islanders are, preparing for a CCL semifinal tie against one of the region’s traditional powers, Cruz Azul. Just five years after the club’s founding, they are on the brink of glory.

There is really no rhyme or reason for the team’s success in the CCL. The roster is full of names that most fans would not know, like Noah Delgado and Sandi Gbandi. The players hail from ten different countries and for the most part came to play for the Islanders through unconventional means. The roster includes several MLS castoffs, a few Puerto Rican nationals, second-tier American college stars, and one guy who got his chance at playing pro soccer through an Italian reality television show.

Their success can’t be explained by the oft-cited reason of “experience,” as only two players on the roster—midfielder Peter Villegas and defender Nigel Henry—are over the age of 30. Nor can it be explained by experience’s opposite, the “youthful exuberance” of youngsters who haven’t had the chance to make it big yet; the average age of the roster hovers around 25.

What about style of play? This too doesn’t seem to explain it. The Islanders’ style seems to change from game to game, from free-flowing attack to full-team defense, depending on the situation. They have no major, fear-inducing threat that fuels the offense, and aside from goalkeeper Bill Gaudette’s fine run of form, the defense doesn’t possess a dominating figure. But the Islanders just keep finding ways to get the job done.

So what gives? Well, in fact, all the reasons for why Puerto Rico should’ve failed by now may be exactly why they are still going strong. Call it “chemistry,” call it “believing in the team-first concept,” call it “playing with a chip on their shoulder”—whatever the reason, the Islanders run to the CCL semifinals has been no accident.

Manager Colin Clarke has done a masterful job of putting together a squad that can play several different styles and choosing his tactics wisely. The former FC Dallas boss seems to have instilled in his players a belief that they belong on the big stage and that they are tactically and technically capable of competing at any level.

The mixture of nationalities has also helped in building a team that is adept at playing the different styles found on the continent. Cristian Arrieta, the reigning USL defensive player of the year brings a high level of experience and poise to the Islanders back line, experience that the Italian gained with over 100 appearances in his home country’s lower leagues. The other European on the roster, midfielder Jonathan Steele, was the USL’s most valuable player last year and plays with the confidence one would expect of a former Northern Ireland U-19 star.

When the possession oriented style of the European manager and players fail, Puerto Rico has the ability to strike with pace on the counter. Speedy forwards such as Trinidad’s Kendall Jagdeosingh and Jamaica’s Nicholas Addlery offer more than enough pace to break through a high quality defense, as they showed in the quarterfinal tie with C.D. Marathon, which was won thanks to several lightning-strike goals from the frontrunners.

Most importantly, the Islanders are playing as a single unit. During the quarterfinal second leg, with Marathon pushing for a winner, the Islanders held their shape defensively while constantly pressuring the ball. The Hondurans often faced double teams and even in the instances when it seemed Marathon had found some space, another Islander was on hand quickly to deal with the danger.

To complement the defensive shape, the Islanders moved forward with discipline, never breaking ranks to chase after a game winner and rarely giving the ball away cheaply. Late in the second leg, when Marathon had committed everything to the attack in an attempt to equalize the aggregate score, a through-ball found Addlery in a forward position. He jumped into the attack immediately and did well to finish, but what went largely unnoticed was the rest of the Islanders’ caution in being drawn out of position despite the chance of a goal.

The next test for Puerto Rico will be the sternest yet. Cruz Azul is a team that is rounding into form— one loss in their last seven matches in all competitions—and will come to Bayamon for the first leg with a very strong side that includes Mexico international midfielder Gerardo Torrado and striker Luis Landin. The Cementeros allowed only four goals in six CCL group matches and held fellow Mexicans UNAM scoreless in the quarterfinals. It will be no easy task for the Islanders to break down Cruz Azul, and any mistake at the back could prove costly.

But don’t count them out just yet. Cruz Azul inspired little confidence going forward against Pumas, winning both games just 1-0, and UNAM offered little trouble to the Azulinos’ backline. A defensively disciplined team that can adjust its style of play and apply consistent pressure could find itself in the ascendancy. With a little luck, that long list of reasons why the Islanders shouldn’t be here could once again allow them to keep their Cinderella slippers on a little longer.


Allen Ramsey is an associate editor for Goal.com
USA.

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