2/18/2009 – By Dylan Butler
Nearly two months before their season kicks off in April, the Puerto Rico Islanders will play arguably the most important game in club history.
Its February 26 match at home against Marathon of Honduras in the opening leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals will be the biggest test yet for the six-year-old side.
The majority of the team that guided the Islanders through group play and into the United Soccer League’s First Division final, where they lost to Vancouver, 2:1, have returned, including USL award winners Bill Gaudette for best goalkeeper, Cristian Arrieta as best defender and Jonathan Steele as the most valuable player.
“Having the core group back is a tremendous feeling,” Gaudette said. “To have most of the team intact from last year is really going to help us. Anytime you’re bringing back the nucleus of the team it’s an advantage.”
Also returning at the helm is coach Colin Clarke, who signed a three-year contract extension earlier this week. Clarke, who formerly coached FC Dallas in Major League Soccer, was hired in 2007 and guided the Islanders to the USL-1 semifinals, where they lost on penalties to eventual champion Seattle. In January, Clarke also was installed as manager of the Puerto Rico national team.
“I am happy and excited to be back,” Clarke said. “I am also looking forward to the new season and the challenges of continuing to build a successful franchise from the youth academy all the way to the professional team that will give the kids of Puerto Rico a club that they can be proud and aspire to be a part of. We had a great year last year and we need to build on it and be challenging for all honors every year.”
Puerto Rico finished tied with Tauro FC in Group D, but the Islanders beat Tauro 2-1 in the first round and clinched their spot in the quarterfinals with a 2-2 draw against Tauro at in Panama City on their final day of group play.
That result put two teams in the final eight from the USL, the second division of North American soccer. The Montreal Impact is also in the two-leg knockout round.
“I think people are starting to understand that there’s some good soccer being played in Puerto Rico, as well as the USL,” Gaudette said. “We had two representatives from USL coming into the tournament and both getting into the quarterfinals is a tremendous feet for the league.”