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
By Allen Ramsey/ Goal.com
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
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
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
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,
Most importantly, the Islanders are playing as a single unit. During the quarterfinal second leg, with
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
The next test for
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