On 7 April, an exhausted bunch of orange-clad players trudged off a pitch in Mexico City, heads bowed in defeat after losingon penalties to mighty Cruz Azul. It was a predictable result. One of Mexico's most respected sides were always going to be favourites against the little-known Puerto Rico Islanders, but a year-long journey of giant-killing had given belief to the unlikely Tropa Naranja. It had magnified their expectations and, in turn, their agony.
"It was an amazing journey, over a year," Puerto Rico Islanders FC coach Colin Clarke told FIFA.com after a stunning run to the last four of the 2009 CONCACAF Champions League, only just missing out on a place in the final.
"We were disappointed not to have gone all the way. It's always tough for a player or a coach to come so close and then miss out on the big party," added Clarke, Northern Ireland's second-top all-time scorer. "But I sat the lads down and made sure they understood what a great big thing they had done."
Long, strange trip
The story began nearly one year ago. The Islanders of Bayamon, in only their third season as a club and their second under Clarke, finished first in the eastern section of the USA's second division, setting up a play-off with Trinidadian powers San Juan Jabloteh for a place in the preliminary rounds of the recently re-jigged CONCACAF Champions League (formerly the Champions Cup).
"We didn't know what to expect. We weren't sure about the new format of the tournament or what it would lead to for us," added the coach, who as a player lined up for QPR and Portsmouth and also for his country at the FIFA World Cup™ in Mexico in 1986. "So we just focussed on trying to give them a game, and hopefully get a result."
The Islanders did just that, winning 1-0 over two legs. Then came what many considered would be the end of the road: Costa Rica's Alajuelense, twice champions of CONCACAF.
"That's when people in Puerto Rico really started to take notice of what we were doing," the coach said. After a 1-1 draw on the road in front of 900 shocked Costa Rican fans who had expected an easy win, the Islanders took the tie back home and won 2-1 at their Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium. "That was it, everything took off after that. Football was suddenly challenging for headline space against the traditional sports like boxing and baseball."
A diverse bunch
In the group stages, the Islanders - made up of what the coach calls a "united nations" of players from T&T, Jamaica, USA, Liberia, Haiti, local-born Puerto Ricans and even another Irishman - continued to punch above their weight.
Beating Tauro FC of Panama, Mexico's Santos Laguna and drawing Guatemala's Municipal, they moved on to the last eight, where they shocked Honduran giants CD Marathon to reach the rarefied air of the last four. It was at this stage that finally - after what can only be described as a Herculean struggle - they had their wings clipped by one of the region's glamour sides, Cruz Azul, on penalties after winning the first leg at home. "There's no taking away what these lads accomplished," said Clarke, who also coaches a much-improved Puerto Rican national team.
The Islandera boss put the reasons for the run amazing down to the ability of his players and a change in philosophy on the island. "When I first got here in spring of 2007, you got the impression that it was your typical Caribbean scene, with lots of talent but not a lot of organisation. So, discipline was the first order of business."
Nothing is simple for the Islanders of Puerto Rico, a self-governing territory of the United States in the Caribbean Sea. Firstly, travel poses big problems. "It's a two-hour flight just to get to Miami, so we do a lot of slogging for away games," added the former coach of MLS side FC Dallas. "But it helped us on our [Champions League] run because we were always on the move, always playing. We had no time to think about what we were doing, we were too busy. There was no time for the coach to stick his nose in and screw things up!"
In all, the affable manager sees Puerto Rico as a potential power in the region, if things keep improving. "This is no small island," he says. "There are four million people here. It's a good place to be because there is the room to improve, and the will to get better."
The Islanders were not able to celebrate their giant-killing antics for long, with the new USL season already underway. They opened with a home win against the Vancouver Whitecaps, and a large crowd. "The fans were back again, and that's a good sign," Clarke said. "I think they've really taken us to their hearts."