3/12/2009 – By Dylan Butler/ Concacaf.com
The inaugural CONCACAF Champions League has gone according to plan, at least for the most part. The region’s top domestic league, the Mexican Primera Division, has three teams – Cruz Azul, Atlante and Club Santos Laguna – in the semifinals.
Rounding out the final four is the Puerto Rico Islanders.
That’s the Puerto Rico Islanders of the United Soccer Leagues’ First Division, which has gone further in the competition than any of the four Major League Soccer squads that entered.
“When you look at the semifinals you see three Mexican powerhouse teams and then you see us in there, it just goes to show you where the USL has come from and what is has developed into,” Puerto Rico goalkeeper Bill Gaudette said. “Playing in these international competitions has given the USL a new respect and opened a lot of eyes.”
Gaudette previously played for the Columbus Crew of MLS and the Islanders’ head coach, Colin Clarke, coached FC Dallas before finding a home, and some fame in Puerto Rico. Jamaican Nicholas Addlery, who scored two goals in the quarterfinals, is a D.C. United outcast and Petter Villegas is a former MetroStars (now Red Bulls) standout.
“Everybody felt they had something to prove and we, as a league, feel very good, very proud that the teams felt that way because not only did it elevate themselves as clubs, but the standard of the league,” United Soccer Leagues president Francisco Marcos said.
The Islanders’ run to the semifinals has been nothing short of remarkable. Just to get into the preliminary stage, Puerto Rico had to defeat Trinidad squad San Juan Jabloteh in an aggregate series.
Then the Islanders upset 24-time Costa Rican champ LD Alajuelense in the preliminary round 3-2 on aggregate. Puerto Rico, a club only in its fifth year of existence, advanced to the group stage, considered a heavy underdog in Group D with Santos Laguna, seven-time Panamanian league champion Tauro FC and 26-time Guatemalan league winner CSD Municipal.
A dramatic 2-2 draw on October 29 against Tauro sent the Islanders to the knockout stages.
“If you look at our whole Champions League run so far, it’s pretty amazing,” Gaudette said. “We’ve put ourselves in great position to get some exposure for the USL and Puerto Rico and hopefully we can keep going.”
And with each stunning move up the ladder, the Islanders have increased the profile of a league considered second tier to Major League Soccer.
The Islanders finished with the best record last year in the USL, but lost to the Whitecaps in Vancouver in the league final. It qualified for the Champions League by finishing third in the Caribbean Club Champions Cup in 2007.
“In general, in CONCACAF, people didn’t know us, whether it was Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad, wherever, we were just the other league, a second-division league,” said Francisco Marcos, president and founder of the Tampa, Florida-based USL. “That’s just natural, the way things go. It seems that the little guy is always having to prove himself. That’s maybe not fair, but that’s the way it goes. I understand that.”
While only the Houston Dynamo from MLS advanced to the quarterfinals from MLS, the USL had two squads – Puerto Rico, and the Montreal Impact, which defeated Santos 2-0 in front of a Champions League-record crowd of 55,571 at Olympic Stadium. Had it not been for a stunning late comeback by Santos in the return leg in Cancun, USL would have had two squads in the final four.
“Nobody can take that away from us or from Montreal, certainly,” Marcos said. “That absolutely put us on the map. No longer can someone say, ‘USL, spare me, I don’t want to talk about it.’ That argument is over, which is very important for us.”
While the argument is over, the Islanders aren’t just content to be the last non-Mexican club standing.
“We’ve got this far and we don’t want to be happy with that,” Gaudette said. “We’ve got a great opportunity to advance, but we have a big club in our way in Cruz Azul. We know it’s going to be a tremendously hard game, both here and in Mexico City, but we’re here to get a result.”