Discussing Caribbean Expansion

Friday, April 2, 2010
USLSoccer.com

TAMPA, FL — USL Senior Director of International Development Francisco Marcos was in Puerto Rico last week to meet with officials from the Puerto Rico Soccer League, the Puerto Rican Football Federation, the Caribbean Football Union and other Caribbean nations regarding a variety of possible new relationships with USL.

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Marcos chatted with USLsoccer.com recently to provide some clarity regarding USL’s plans in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

USLsoccer.com: It was announced that USL and the Puerto Rico Soccer League had entered into a “memorandum of understanding” to explore pro and youth soccer initiatives. Could you explain a little bit?

Francisco Marcos: First we need to understand that this is a concept, one that follows very much on the heels of our international partnerships initiatives. Just as it is important for us to have relationships with international clubs, be it European or South American, in terms of identifying eventual destinations for our players as well as fostering relationships between franchises in the USL and clubs abroad, it is equally important we spread our wings as much as is realistically possible geographically and soccer wise, so that those clubs have a greater depth of possibilities when they look for players.

The Caribbean has made a lot of sense to us all along, and we go all the way back to 1995 when the Puerto Rico Islanders, in their first inception, first joined USL. As the Islanders became a force on and off the field, it became more and more sensible to start looking at the Caribbean as a whole because we recognize the region for its talent, but at the same time we also recognize they have challenges in terms of distances and their capabilities from island to island. We thought we could bring something to the table and they believed the same thing.

That’s a general background of why this all made sense. Having said that, I think it’s important to recognize that it’s still at the conceptual level, although we intend to take it from concept to reality as early as the 2011 season.

USLSoccer.com: How did you get to this point? When did this idea of working with the PRSL specifically start to take shape?

FM: The PRSL itself is only three years old. They took over the league that used to be run by the federation and have professionalized it, with the idea that eventually they would make it part of a Caribbean-wide division, part of USL or maybe a part of a joint venture with USL.

For the past couple of months we’ve had discussions, not only with Joe Serralta, the president of the federation, but also with Miguel Roca, who is the founder and president of the PRSL. [Roca] is a newspaper publisher, an entrepreneurial type who has a different vision for [the PRSL] and has a can-do attitude about him. With the blessing of the federation, he has gone out and convinced the best teams to join the PRSL. We’ve now had two or three face-to-face meetings with the cubs to try to evolve the concept to where, perhaps as early as 2011, we might take the idea of a “league within a league,” both in the PRSL and USL.

We’d make USL-2 the primary focus and look to take the top four teams from the PRSL and the top four teams from USL-2, or designate four teams, and have an additional schedule made up so that there can be a “challenge series.” We’d let that grow, and maybe we’ll go beyond Puerto Rico if a couple of teams from other islands like Jamaica , Antigua, Dominican Republic and Haiti, for example, can get involved. We start with Puerto Rico because we have the structure there and we have a basis. And we let it go from there.

Generally speaking, we have the blessing of CONCACAF and the Caribbean Football Union and we’ve already had meetings with folks from other islands so we think something will begin at the conclusion of the PRSL season, which will be April or May of 2011. Rather than stopping for three of four months, they will go right into a challenge series.

USLSoccer.com: The chance of having PRSL teams join an existing USL pro league is being discussed as well?

FM: The first thing we need to make clear is that the Puerto Rico Islanders have territorial rights, per their franchise agreement with USL, to the island of Puerto Rico at the USL-1 level, and it will not happen unless the Islanders wish for it to. We are hopeful and optimistic that the Islanders have come to a point in their history that they believe, as we do, that the existence of at least one other franchise at the USL-1 level in Puerto Rico makes all the sense in the world at all levels, business-wise and soccer-wise.

We have entered into serious discussions with the Islanders, with the PRSL acting as our partner, to identify who else in Puerto Rico might fit the bill to become a USL-1 franchise in the near future. We are hopeful that will happen for 2011, because we believe there are probably three of four viable organizations in Puerto Rico, both on the field and in terms of their markets. Puerto Rico isn’t as small as people sometimes think. There is close to four million people there and there are four or five major cities that are fairly well separated from one another that aren’t going to conflict. They’d probably bring a lot to the table in terms of competition. It would be better at all levels – the enthusiasm of the people, rivalries created, the local derby concept.

It would also be good for the mainland teams that go to Puerto Rico. Instead of only playing one team and going to Puerto Rico two or three times or playing the Islanders twice on one trip because of financial considerations, they would have two teams, if not more, to play against on the same visit. Beyond that, we expect we may be able to bring in another team on one of the islands that has expressed a serious interest in USL before, and we didn’t feel the time was quite right. The time may now be there, and we hope during the next two or three months that all these ideas, at the professional level, will come to fruition and allow us to move forward in a way that is desirable to Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and USL.

USLSoccer.com: Now to the youth aspect. A relationship with the Super Y-League was also referenced in the release. How would that work?

FM: One of the things that has been recognized by officials in several of the island countries is something we believe strongly in – the strength of our pyramid and the value we bring to the table, especially for embryonic programs. The Super Y-League and up to Super-20 and the PDL present something of value that could be of significant benefit to Puerto Rico.

In Puerto Rico they are starting a high school league through the PRSL. Their youth clubs are school-driven because that’s the level of development they’re at. It’s envisioned that, under the PRSL auspices, a high school league will formally start in the spring, and it is our hope and intention to somehow integrate the champions from each of those divisions to the Super Y finals here in Tampa in November. Beginning in 2011, there would be a Super Y-League division in each of the age brackets. Again, this is a concept that would start in Puerto Rico but we may extend it for this season to at least one other island.

USLSoccer.com: Do you think the success that has been enjoyed by the Puerto Rico Islanders in USL could translate to other from other Caribbean nations?

FM: I think the success could be even greater. We have to keep in mind that the success of the Islanders in Puerto Rico has been driven primarily by the Islanders themselves and their achievements on the field. Puerto Rico was known primarily for baseball, boxing and basketball. Other countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad, Antigua, Haiti – those are soccer countries. They play cricket as well, but soccer is the primary force. If we have a franchise at some level in those places we expect to have great success because soccer’s in the blood there.

It would help USL and have a great benefit for our international development efforts. If you look around the European leagues, Caribbean players of English extraction, French extraction and Dutch extraction are everywhere. Those Caribbean countries also serve as landing spots for Central American players, Latin American players and Americans.

It’s really a win-win situation. If they’re playing under the same umbrella it’s a much easier process for teams to identify players and coaches. A Caribbean player wouldn’t have to wonder where he’d have to go to be seen. A scout from Europe doesn’t have to wonder how many islands he’d have to visit to find three or four prospects. If there’s a destination of four or five clubs all playing in a specific league such as USL, the process is much easier and we all benefit.

USLSoccer.com: What has to happen next?

FM: We’re really in the process of moving from a “memorandum of understanding” to actual agreements. Right now PRSL officials are doing the homework they have to do, and we have some to do ourselves. It is our hope that in the next 30 to 60 days we will have announcements to make with specific details. We’re going to try to go from the jogging pace to the running pace.

Related:

USL begins formal talks with PRSL [+]

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