Two years ago I wrote abut the emergence of Puerto Rico as a football nation. The Puerto Rico Islanders were making waves in the USL and were on the verge of joining the NASL, the new second tier of the American Soccer pyramid.
The national side were back playing regular games after a lengthy absence from the international stage and the Puerto Rico Soccer League appeared to be moving in the right direction.
The soccer revolution on the island was in part down to former Northern Ireland international Colin Clarke. The former Peterborough, Southampton, QPR and Portsmouth striker was in charge of both the Puerto Rico Islanders and the national team from 2007 and 2008 respectively.
Clarke left Puerto Rico In December 2011 after being offered the head coach job at NASL side Carolina Rail Hawks. It was the end of a successful relationship between Clarke and Puerto Rican soccer, not only had the Irishman led the national side to their first win since 1994, he also took the Islanders to the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League in 2008.
Clarke’s assistant, former Portsmouth defender Adrian Whitbread, was the man given the job of replacing the 50-year-old ahead of the 2012 NASL season.
The Puerto Rican FA had already appointed former Costa Rican international Jeaustin Campos as the new head coach of the national side in August, after they opted for a full-time manager ahead of the upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign.
Campos, who previously managed Puerto Rican club side Bayamón FC in 2010, was in charge for just a month before the World Cup qualifying campaign began.
The Blue Hurricane drew their opening group game 0-0 with Saint Kitts & Nevis before losing 3-0 to Canada at home. They then went undefeated in the group, drawing with Saint Kitts & Nevis again before holding Canada to a 0-0 draw and beating Saint Lucia both home and away. Puerto Rico eventually finished runners-up in the group behind a far more experienced Canada squad.
Moving into 2012 the national side recorded back-to-back wins when they beat Bermuda 2-1 and thrashed Saint Martin 9-0 in the first qualifying stage for the 2013 Gold Cup. A narrow 2-1 defeat to Haiti saw Puerto Rico finish second in the group, which was enough for them to qualify for the next round group stage.
Unfortunately Campos’ men failed to win a game in a group that featured the Dominican Republic, Martinique and Guadeloupe as they crashed out in the second round of qualifying.
However, it was with the Under-20 national side that Campos made history by leading his side to the final round of a World Cup qualifying tournament, the first time in the country’s history that a men’s football team had made it to that stage.
A 0-0 draw in their final match with group winners Haiti was enough to see the young Puerto Ricans qualify for 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Mexico.
Campos’ inexperienced youngsters went down 4-1 to Jamaica in their opening match in front of a crowd of 21,000 in Puebla. A 4-0 defeat to Panama saw them finish bottom of the three-team group, but the achievement of making it to Mexico in the first place is one that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Meanwhile the Islanders, with Whitbread in charge, finished third in the regular NASL season in 2012 but were beaten in the first round of the play-offs by eventual finalists the Minnesota Stars. Despite an impressive debut NASL season for the Islanders, their campaign was marred by the fact they had to play 10 of their 14 homes matches at the tiny Bayamon Soccer Complex while work was being carried out on their Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium. The change of ground resulted in average home attendance of just 1,864, the second lowest in the league.
The Puerto Rican government, who also financially back the Islanders funded the $7,000,000 regeneration of the Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium. The plan being is to turn the ground, which was originally built for baseball, into a soccer-specific stadium.
However, the stadium has been left with out a regular tenant for the 2013 season after the Islanders opted to sit-out both the spring and fall NASL season formats. News first emerged of the clubs plans to sit-out the 2013 spring season of the NASL in December 2012, with the intentions of rejoining the league for the fall season.
The hiatus was due to the Puerto Rican government’s ongoing financial backing of the club, which had been thrown into doubt after an upheaval in the government following the 2012 general elections. Alejandro García Padilla defeated incumbent governor Luis Fortuño, with Padilla’s Popular Democratic Party wresting majorities in both Puerto Rico’s Senate and House of Representatives away from Fortuño’s New Progressive Party.
The Islanders’ ownership group is made up of a confederation of investors with varying stakes in the club, led by Andrés Guillemard-Noble. Due to the club not having a primary majority owner supplying the club’s funding, the principal source of financing for the Islanders has always been the Puerto Rican government.
With the future of the Islanders still in limbo, the clubs owners announced in February that they had taken the decision to also withdraw from the fall season. The NASL later confirmed that they had accepted the clubs decision to miss the entire 2013 campaign and that they would allow the Islanders to make a return to the competition in 2014.
The decision to miss the entire NASL season meant that head coach Whitbread was forced into making the “difficult decision” to leave Puerto Rico after five years on the Island.
In an emotional interview with the local media Whitbread stated that he felt he was leaving Puerto Rican soccer in a better place than when he’d arrived in 2008.
However, the 41-year-old also expressed his concerns over the lack of opportunities now available for Puerto Rican players to play professional soccer. When questioned about whether or not he felt the Islanders would return in 2014, Whitbread admitted that it was difficult for him to say yes or no.
“I hope sincerely in my heart that they do [return in 2014], because they actually know, outside of possibly one or two teams here on the island, what it is to play in a professional league,” he added.
“Until there is a professional league up and running in Puerto Rico, it’s not going to improve.”
The creation of the Puerto Rico Soccer League in 2008 looked like a step in the right direction for soccer on the island. However, just four seasons later, the league is now defunct. The PRSL has since been replaced by Liga Nacional de Fútbol de Puerto Rico as the top flight of soccer on the Island. The LNF was originally founded as the second tier of soccer in Puerto Rico, sitting below the then newly created Puerto Rico Soccer League.
The LNF has undergone numerous restructuring processes in its short existence, in its current format the league is run as a single-division format with nine teams competing across the island.
2011 champions Bayamón FC currently lead the way in this seasons campaign ahead of Sevilla FC, an affiliated club of the Spanish La Liga club of the same name.
With the future of the Islanders still in doubt and the constant restructuring of the national leagues, the future of soccer in Puerto Rico doesn’t look as bright as it once did. However, the performance of the Under-20’s suggests there is still a glimmer of hope for the sport on the Island.
By Niall McGlone
This article originally appeared in In Bed with MaradonaSubscribe today to World Soccer Magazine - The unrivalled authority on the game of soccer
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