Giant strides for Islanders
© AFP

Baseball has long been synonymous with sport in Puerto Rico, with its leading players illuminating the USA's Major Leagues for more than half a century now. In recent years, however, a small but determined group of footballers have been winning over sports fans, putting the beautiful game firmly on the agenda in a territory where football was long considered something that happened elsewhere.  

Indefatigable spirit
The club's story dates back to 1995, when the newly created Puerto Rico Islanders joined the United States International Soccer League. The venture was to prove short-lived, though, with a combination of financial problems and low attendances limiting the club to just seven games. A move to Houston shortly after was also ill-fated, the institution folding after just one game in Texas.

Despite these setbacks, the club's owner, Joe Serralta, never abandoned his dream of watching top-flight football in Puerto Rico, and by 2003 he and a consortium of local businessmen were ready to try again, registering the club in the United Soccer Leagues (USL), the USA's second division.

In a very testing first season, the Puerto Rico Islanders registered five wins, six draws and seventeen defeats, and their exploits remained largely unreported back home. Indeed, one of the few times the club made the headlines back then was when Hugo Hernan Maradona, the brother of the legendary Diego, was appointed coach.

Over the next couple of seasons, the team known as the Tropa Naranja (Orange Troop - a reference to the colour of their jerseys) gradually consolidated their position, before making the league play-offs in 2006. Equally impressive was the crowd of 11,000 that showed up for the match against Miami FC that got them there - still a record for any football game on the archipelago. The following year, the Islanders went even further, reaching the semi-finals of the play-offs, where they narrowly lost on penalties to the Seattle Sounders.

A year to remember
The club's upward spiral continued in 2008, unquestionably a historic year for Puerto Rican football. The team made it all the way to the USL title-decider after topping the regular season standings and setting a host of league records along the way. Unsurprisingly, their remarkable campaign had fans flocking to their home games at the Estadio Juan Ramon Loubriel in Bayamon to lend their support. The only disappointment for the Caribbean side was their inability to crown their great season with a title, Vancouver Whitecaps denying them the league championship with a 2-1 win in the decider.

If that were not impressive enough, the Islanders also made their debut in the region's premier club competition, the CONCACAF Champions League. And nor were they there just to make up the numbers. After eliminating Trinidad and Tobago's San Juan Jabloteh, the Puerto Ricans were handed a preliminary-round draw against Costa Rican powerhouses Alajuelense for a place in the group stage.

Against all the odds, the Tropa Naranja drew the away leg and completed the job on home soil with two late goals, securing a Group D berth alongside Mexican champions Santos Laguna and established outfits Tauro of Panama and Municipal of Guatemala. 

Those who predicted the Caribbean side would be just cannon fodder for their section rivals were once again left with egg on their faces. After recording an extraordinary 3-1 home win against the Mexicans, a hitherto unimaginable place in the knockout stages became a realistic goal, which they duly secured in Panama after a memorable 2-2 draw with Tauro.

New horizons
These series of triumphs have made the Islanders much more prominent in a country where football was, until recently, mainly a pastime with limited appeal. The Estadio Juan Ramon Loubriel now boasts average attendances of around 6,000, with groups of fans even beginning to travel to away games on the US mainland.

Now, the sky looks the limit for former Northern Ireland international Colin Clarke's team (he also coaches the Puerto Rican national team), whose stars include the outstanding goalkeeper Bill Gaudette and rock-solid defender Cristian Arrieta. Perhaps these and many more names will soon be as well-known in Puerto Rico as those of the country's innumerable baseball legends...