Irish eyes on Puerto Rican prize

Baseball and basketball have always been the primary sporting concerns on the Caribbean archipelago of Puerto Rico, but football is suddenly making serious headway. With heavy American cultural influence owing to its status as a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico is getting back to its roots with a substantial rise in respectability and rank as a one-off 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ preliminary qualifier with the Dominican Republic approaches.

For the lion's share of 2006 and 2007 (nearly two full years), the Puerto Ricans failed to play even one international game sending them into a tailspin and down to 196th out of 207 in the FIFA Coca-Cola World Ranking. It was a sobering nadir for the island outsiders and sparked the FA into a swift and decisive response, bringing in a new coach brimming with new ideas.

Three subsequent friendlies in January 2008 brought a welcome wind of change.

Two wins over fancied Caribbean side Bermuda and a shock draw with regional giants Trinidad and Tobago forced a smile for alienated Puerto Rican football fans. They also saw the national team soar to the comparatively rarefied air of 168th in the global standings, a best-ever hop of 28 places.

Playing in his first cap, Taylor Graham of US second-tier side Seattle Sounders scored the opener in the 2-0 win over Bermuda on 16 January. It was Puerto Rico's first international victory in 14 years of trying and was followed up with another slim win against the same opposition two days later. This time a lone goal came from Noah Delgado, who plays his football for the Bayamon-based Puerto Rico Islanders.

As if the two wins were not enough for the resurgent side's confidence, a 2-2 draw with Germany 2006 participants and island giants Trinidad and Tobago on 26 January had fans and players alike dancing in the streets of old San Juan.

"We are just now developing our team," said USA-born forward Chris Megaloudis, who opened the scoring against Trinidad. "It takes time and a lot of hard work but our dream is to play in the World Cup and with the right amount of work I am sure we can do it."

The recent upturn in results has the team looking good before their 26 March qualifier with the Dominicans which, if they were to win, would set up a date with Central American giants Honduras.

The man at the epicentre of this massive transformation is former Northern Irish international, Southampton and Portsmouth man Colin Clarke. In 2007 he took over the Puerto Rico Islanders, who first began playing in the USL (USA's second division) in 2003. The club was once coached by Diego Maradona's brother Hugo but it was the Irishman who really inspired an explosion of talent and interest on the islands.

At the start of 2008, Clarke took Puerto Rico's interest in the game a step further by accepting the dual duty of coaching the Islanders and the Puerto Rican national team. In his new role, Clarke's 10 years of experience coaching in the USL and Major League Soccer proved invaluable

Clarke's transformation
"There really was very little interest in soccer here [in Puerto Rico] before the Islanders got here," said Clark, who saw a crowd of over 17,000 come out for the Islanders USL play-off run in 2007. "The club deserves full credit and because of this team the game of soccer is growing by leaps and bounds here."

Clarke made use of his knowledge of the second-tier of American football to gather up players with Puerto Rican heritage for his new national team. Josh Saunders from the Islanders is a key member of the side as are Seattle's Graham and a host of talented newcomers from the Charleston Battery and Carolina RailHawks.

"It helped a great deal being familiar with USL and MLS," said Clarke, a former top scorer for Northern Ireland. "Knowing a lot of the USL league players and how their American passports would allow them to play here allowed us to put a good team together."

Despite relying currently on US-based players, Clarke is keen on cultivating an island base in the future to give the team a more traditional Puerto-Rican flavour.

"As an island the objective is to continue to grow and be structured right," said the 38-times capped international. "It is important the national side is in the right shape and the good talent doesn't have to leave the island to play."