Puerto Rico begins final phase in quest for third berth

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

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TAMPA, FL – The beginning of the end is at hand for the Puerto Rico Islanders Wednesday evening in Trinidad when the club opens the Final Round of the Caribbean Football Union’s Club Championship tournament against fellow Puerto Rican side Bayamon FC. The match is the first of three in five days that will determine which three of the four clubs move on to the CONCACAF Champions League.

Clarke's eye for talent paid off in Orlando (AJ Pomales)For the Islanders, qualifying for the Champions League has nearly become routine. The 2010 offseason, however, has been anything but as the club’s success has led to demands for its players. The first to depart was 2008 USL-1 Most Valuable Player Jonathan Steele, who moved to Vancouver, and the second was 2009 USL-1 MVP Cristian Arrieta, who was a last-minute signing by the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer.

“We are dealing with a lot of changes,” coach Colin Clarke said. “It has taken a little bit of time to gel, but we are coming together.”

Puerto Rico won its first two league games with a 3-1 victory at home against Minnesota and 3-1 result in Baltimore before dropping a narrow, 1-0 decision in Montreal Saturday.

“We looked good in Montreal, but we were a bit unlucky in the result,” Clarke said about playing the contest with a makeshift lineup to protect players who were not 100 percent, including usual starters Sandy Gbandi, Osei Telesford and David Foley. “We had picked up a couple injuries, and we didn’t want to chance anything.”

Despite the offseason losses, Clarke was prepared for some of the changes, including Arrieta’s move to Philadelphia.

“We had been talking to Cristian for quite awhile. We were hopeful he was coming back, but we had some cover just in case he did not return.”

Among the players providing cover were veteran Alexis Rivera and newcomer Richard Martinez. Rivera is the lone remaining player from the club’s first roster in 2004. While Martinez is working his way into the lineup coming off the bench, Rivera has started all three games for the Islanders.

“Alexi has been a face of the club since the start and is a fan favorite. He probably did not get as many minutes as he would have like the last few years, but now he’s getting the opportunity for more minutes with Cristian gone.”

Another new addition in the back is rookie Logan Emory, who spent last season with the Portland Timbers U23s in the Premier Development League. A rarity in the league, the rookie has started all three games for Puerto Rico and has performed well.

“Logan’s agent, Kevin Legg, I’ve known for a long time,” Clarke said. “He made me aware of him, and when we got him in he was a pleasant surprise. He’s a strong player we are happy to have. He has done well. “

His time around the USL-1 Timbers in Portland appears to have laid the groundwork for his fast start, preparing him for the professional level.

“I’m sure it did,” Clarke replied. “He’s come in and grown since he’s been here. We saw him at the open tryout. He’s a good athlete, a bright kid who’s got a bit to learn still.”

The open tryout in Orlando proved to be quite a success for Clarke, who picked up another three players in addition to Emory out of the Central Florida sessions. The club also signed goalkeeper Cody Laurendi out of Belgium, rookie Shaka Bangura and Joe Salem, who has appeared in all three league contests with one start.

The biggest cog for Puerto Rico defensively is the man affectionately referred to by the fans as The Wall. Goalkeeper Bill Gaudette nearly joined Steele and Arrieta on the departures list, spending time with several MLS clubs during the offseason trying return to the league. In the end, he chose to remain with the Islanders, with whom he has become a persona beyond the Island courtesy of his performances in the past two editions of the Champions League.

“Goalkeeper is a very important position. He was a very important signing,” Clarke said. “He spent some time with several MLS clubs, but we were very hopeful to get him back. It was a big signing for the club.”

With the defense intact, Puerto Rico has garnered some attention with its attack thus far this season, piling up five goals in its two CFU Round Two matches and another six in its first two games of the season with a very attack-oriented lineup. For its first league matches Nicholas Addlery, Josh Hansen and Foley have been inserted at forward, essentially giving the club three strikers though Clarke insists its only two up top, which is still more offensive than before.

“We are trying to play more with two up top,” Clarke said. “Foley and Addlery started up there in the beginning and then Foley picked up a knock. We had three strikers last year which gave us flexibility. It’s good to be able to make changes and have versatility.”

The trio has tallied seven of the club’s 11 goals in all competitions in 2010 with Hansen leading the way with four. Gbandi has provided three additional strikes out of the midfield.

With more emphasis on the attack, the only question remaining for the next week is how the club approaches the competition. Under a vastly different format last year, the Islanders were seeded directly into the semifinal stage. After winning the initial contest, they went with a different lineup in the Final and fell to W Connection, 2-1, prompting complaints from fans who felt the club sacrificed the CFU title in favor of resting players for league play. That likely won’t be at issue this year as the calendar following the three matches is open until May 26.

“We should have won it last year. We’d like to win this year,” Clarke said in response. “We have been the best team the last couple years. It is important for us as well as the fans to win it.”

With three of the four participants in the Final Round advancing to the Champions League, many view the task of earning a third consecutive berth to the prestigious tournament as a fairly easy goal, but Clarke doesn’t agree.

“It will be difficult to win it because of the teams that are in it and where we are playing,” he said about facing familiar Puerto Rican side Bayamon as well as two previous Champions League participants Joe Public and San Juan Jabloteh, who both will enjoy home field advantage in the final stage.

“We know a little bit about them,” he said of the Trinidadian clubs, adding “Bayamon won’t be easy – we played them a couple times in the preseason but they’ve added some players. Having another team from Puerto Rico adds a little something to it.”

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