Niall McGloneComment

WINNING WITH PUERTO RICO

Niall McGloneComment

Wake up America, the Puerto Rican's are coming.

Puerto Rico is a country not known for its football history. In fact, the small island in the Caribbean Sea is currently ranked 137th in the latest FIFA rankings, with football struggling to capture the attention of the locals in comparison to American sports such as Baseball and Basketball.

However, football is a growing sport in Puerto Rico and its recent rise in popularity is in large part due to the success of the Puerto Rico Islanders.

The Islanders were founded in 2003 and today compete in the NASL, the second tier of the American Soccer Pyramid.  Their rapid rise to success on an international scale has led to the growth of football on the Island.

A first attempt at establishing a professional football team on the island was short lived. Joe Serralta and his wife Rosa founded the original incarnation of the Puerto Rican Islanders in 1995 after their son Joey suggested the idea of forming a Puerto Rican football team. Joey had played for US Interregional Soccer League side Charlotte Eagles during the 1994 season and the idea was for the Islanders to join the league for the 1995 campaign. However, although the team did join in 1995, the Islanders played just seven games before the Serralta family decided to move the franchise to Texas, citing problems with the Puerto Rican Football Federation and low attendances as reasons for the move.

Eight years later Serralta made another attempt to bring professional football to the island, this time with a group of local businessmen, and in 2003 the Puerto Rican Islanders were formed under their current guise.

The Islanders lost their first game 1-0 against Toronto Lynx in front of a reported 6,000 crowd and after just a handful of games into the season Brazilian manager Vitor Hugo Barros left his post, becoming a special advisor to the team. In response the club turned to Hugo Maradona, brother of Diego, to take over as the teams second manager. The much traveled former Ascoli, Rayo Vallecano and Rapid Vienna midfielder took charge of the newly formed club in May 2004.

Maradona coached the team for the next two seasons with the team achieving moderate finishes in the league before leaving his post as manager. Chilean Jorge Alvial briefly took over in 2006 before opting to join Chelsea as a scout leaving Alvial’s assistant Toribio Rojas in charge.

The team managed to make the USL First Division play-offs that season and achieved a record crowd of almost 11,000 for their final home game of the season against Miami FC.  The record crowd was evidence of the growing popularity of football on the Island with fans hoping to catch a glimpse of Miami FC’s World Cup winning Brazilian’s Romario and Zinho.

After a slow start to the 2007 campaign Rojas was relieved of his position as manager and offered the role of Youth System Director. The club quickly appointed former FC Dallas manager and ex Peterborough United, Southampton, QPR and Portsmouth player Colin Clarke as their new manager. The former Northern Ireland international guided the Islanders to a comfortable 6th place finish before being knocked out of the play offs on penalties by regular season winners Seattle Sounders at the semi-final stage.

The 2008 season was to be a big season for both the Islander’s and football in Puerto Rico as a whole. Not only had the Islanders qualified to play in the CONCACAF Champions League, but also the Puerto Rico Soccer League was created, the first unified football league in the island's history.

The Puerto Rican national side also played their first game after a lengthy absence in January 2008 beating Bermuda 2-0 in a friendly as preparation for a World Cup qualifier in the coming months, the win was the national sides first since a 1-0 win over Barbados in 1994. Puerto Rico beat the Dominican Republic 1-0 in their 2010 FIFA World Cup qualification first round match before losing 6-2 to eventual World Cup qualifiers Honduras in the second round.

The Puerto Rico Soccer League held it’s first tournament from June till October in 2008 with Sevilla FC Puerto Rico being crowned the inaugural champions after beating Club Atlético River Plate Puerto Rico 2-1 in the play off final.

Many teams have come and gone since the league was created in 2008 and the original eight team format was reduced to six for the 2011 season after the Puerto Rico Islander’s opted not to field a team in the competition along with Fajardo FC and Fluminense FC Guaynabo.

Despite the smaller number of teams for the 2011 campaign, football in Puerto Rico has continued to grow with an addition of a second division in 2009 and media coverage from local TV. FIFA also donated $150,000 to the country in 2009 through the "Win with CONCACAF" program in order to help the island develop its facilities and infrastructure.

The Puerto Rico Islanders have enjoyed plenty of success since qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League in 2008. Colin Clarke’s side qualified for the group stages after beating L.D. Alajuelense of Costa Rica before notable wins over Club Santos Laguna, C.D. Marathón and Cruz Azul. Cruz Azul eventually knocked the Islanders out of the competition on penalties in the semi-finals, a remarkable achievement for the clubs first venture into the CONCACAF competition.

The club has yet to replicate their heroics of the 2008-09 Champions League campaign, failing to make it past the group stages for the past two seasons.  Despite this, the Islander’s won the CFU Club Championship in 2010 and 2011. The Islander’s also won the USSF Division 2 Professional League in 2010, the temporary league created by the United States Soccer Federation as a compromise between the rival football leagues the USL and NASL.

The Puerto Rico Islander’s success in the USL led to three other Puerto Rican team’s joining the USL Pro for it’s inaugural 2011 season. Puerto Rico United, River Plate Puerto Rico and Seville Puerto Rico joined the USL Pro from the Puerto Rican Soccer League as part of an agreement between the two leagues to grow professional soccer in Puerto Rico. However, on 10 May 2011 the three clubs were removed from the league with a statement claiming that ‘due to severe economic difficulties and serious unforeseen medical situations involving owners from two of the three PRSL teams, the teams are unable to continue to meet league standards and obligations.’

The news may have come as a set back for Puerto Rican football, however, USL President Tim Holt has stated that “Although disappointed we are unable to move forward as originally planned with the PRSL teams, we will continue to explore future initiatives that can benefit both the PRSL and USL.”

The Puerto Rico Islanders are a growing team and Puerto Rico is a growing football nation, I guess the only thing left to say is watch this space.

Here's a vdeo to give a little more background. Click the image to watch.

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