Edgard Garrido/Reuters

The Islanders, above, a minor league club, are a win away from playing for the regional club title.


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Published: April 6, 2009

MEXICO CITY — One game from the final of a continental club tournament, a surprising soccer team from Puerto Rico is turning heads in the sport throughout North America and the Caribbean.

The team, Puerto Rico Islanders, will attempt to eliminate the Mexican power Cruz Azul on Tuesday in Mexico City in a semifinal series of the Concacaf Champions League, the continental club championship. The team, which competes in the United Soccer Leagues First Division, won the first game at home, 2-0. The Islanders have thrived while Major League Soccer mainstays like the New England Revolution, D.C. United, Chivas USA and the Houston Dynamo have been eliminated.

“We show up in different cities and countries, and people wonder, who are these guys with the orange shirts?” Andrés Guillemard, the team president, said. “After we beat them, they say, ‘I didn’t know Puerto Ricans could play soccer.’ ”

The decisive match against Cruz Azul, a five-time Concacaf champion, could propel the Puerto Ricans to the tournament final, then a possible matchup with soccer powers like Barcelona or Manchester United in the FIFA Club World Cup later this year.

“Some M.L.S. teams watching may look down on us,” said Islanders forward Nick Addlery, who has played for D.C. United. “But they don’t have the grit and heart that we do, and that’s why we’re here.”

The team plays a compact and hard style in the image of Coach Colin Clarke, who played in the 1986 World Cup for Northern Ireland. Clarke signed on with Puerto Rico in 2008 and guided the Islanders to the best regular-season record in U.S.L. 1 last year. The Islanders lost the U.S.L. final at Vancouver.

A victory in the Concacaf tournament would earn the Islanders a reported $1 million and a ticket to the FIFA championship alongside the champions of Asia, Africa, South America and Oceania in December in the United Arab Emirates. On the way to the semifinals, Puerto Rico got the better of the champions of Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama.

Long recognized as a breeding ground for boxers and baseball players, Puerto Rico is shifting its sporting priorities, with soccer making a run to be the sport of the future.

“The fastest-growing sport is soccer, and kids who used to play baseball will now play soccer, which gives them nonstop movement,” said Henry Neumann, the secretary of the Puerto Rican Sports and Recreation Department. “Modern kids need action, and a kid could spend all afternoon in the outfield and not get a single ball to play.”

The Islanders’ roster features players from Liberia, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Ecuador, Italy, Northern Ireland and the United States. Several are from Puerto Rico’s national team, including Noah Delgado, Alexis Rivera, Andrés Cabrero and Petter Villegas, a New Jersey native who played for the MetroStars and D.C. United in M.L.S.

The team’s home field, Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium in Bayamón, was converted from a baseball park to a soccer stadium and was best known for staging a bloody fight between Alfredo Escalera and Alexis Arguello in 1978. The crowds are easygoing, animated and musical.

The Islanders’ last game against Cruz Azul drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 12,500. Overflow crowds watched from a train platform overlooking the stadium.

“The fans make the stadium rock,” said defender Cristian Arrieta, a veteran of Italy’s second division. “I’m not used to playing in a baseball park with fans on just two sides, but we have a huge advantage at home.”