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Oct 1, 2008

Islanders emerge as a powerhouse

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- He is not the first "General" to direct battles on multiple fronts, but Colin Clarke certainly knows how to get the most out of his men. His team, the Puerto Rico Islanders, have been the surprise of the CONCACAF Champions League, eliminating former CONCACAF champions Liga Deportiva Alajuelense of Costa Rica before downing Tauro (Panama) and Santos Laguna, champions of Mexico, in the group phase of the competition.

The no-nonsense coach of the Puerto Rico Islanders is a former Northern Ireland international nicknamed "The General" by the local press. Clarke now faces the USL postseason riding a 17-match unbeaten streak, and will seek to keep his troops focused as they try to clinch the club's first USL championship and secure their ticket to the next round of the CONCACAF Champions League.

The Islanders face Municipal of Guatemala on Wednesday, the USL semifinals Oct. 3 and Oct. 5 and then the return match against Santos on Oct. 8.

Implementing a rotation system -- which many top European teams must adopt to face several top-notch competitions -- Clarke has made the most of his squad and fashioned the Islanders in his image: a tough, direct team that fights for every ball.

"He's tough, but at the same time he's the fairest coach I have had," said Noah Delgado, a Californian who has made Puerto Rico his home. "He and assistant coach Adrian [Whitbread] don't let you get away with anything, on and off the field."

"He really has a way of getting the most out of everybody," says Alexis Rivera, one of the native Puerto Ricans on the team. "He has a way of motivating you. Sometimes you don't think he cares, and he'll say something that lets you know that even though you're not playing you're important to the success of he team."

The real clarion call to the rest of the soccer giants of North America was the convincing 3-1 win over highly regarded Mexican team Santos in Bayamon on Sept. 23.

"When we travel, people say, 'Who are those guys in the orange shirts? They can play,'" said Islanders president Andres Guillemard. "We started late in Puerto Rico, but when we beat them we show those that thought we only played baseball in PR that we are to be reckoned with."

"The players believe in themselves, they believe in each other," Clarke said. "We've been through a couple of hard games in Costa Rica and against Santos. … The boys have responded."

Although the Islanders are a team without stars, Clarke depends on players looking for redemption or a breakthrough and willing to fill roles: the scoring and playmaking of foreigners Christian Arrieta (Spain/Italy) and Kendall Jagdeosingh (Trinidad), along with Taiwo Atieno (England), Edwin Miranda (El Salvador) and Fabrice Noel (Haiti).

Clarke also harnessed the talent of "bad boy" midfielder and fellow Northern Ireland native Jonathan Steele. If before Clarke took over there were rifts between native Boricuas and mainland players, Clarke nurtures players that never quit -- the Islanders eliminated Alajuelense in the final minute of the return match -- and rarely complain. The Islanders' leading scorer is Arrieta, a defender, and they have no players among the 10 leading USL scorers.

Clarke and Whitbread typically put the team through an intense morning workout that stresses pressing and defending as a block. "I ask for 100 percent, nothing more," said Clarke, a former striker for English teams such as Southampton, Portsmouth and QPR who once scored against Spain in the 1986 World Cup.

Second Division, but first class

The CONCACAF Champions League has produced a marked contrast in the results of USL teams and MLS teams. New England Revolution and Chivas USA of the MLS were knocked out in the preliminary rounds by Joe Public of Trinidad and Tauro of Panama, and neither D.C. United nor Houston Dynamo have yet to get a victory. In contrast, the USL's Montreal Impact and the Islanders made it to the group stages and have yet to lose.

"People seem surprised we're getting results, but we're a good team. We're closer to MLS standard than we used to be," Clarke said. "We're preparing for the games well. Montreal is a good team, and we're a good team."

Clarke added that the team's depth and motivation are an edge over MLS squads, with "a lot of players here that have been in the MLS and decided not to accept developmental contracts. We don't have a squad of 11 or 13 players; we have a squad of 22 who are all capable of starting in our league. I don't think the standard of soccer has improved in MLS over the last two years or so. A lot of good players have left and they haven't replaced them."

Caribbean pride

The Islanders' matches in Bayamon have been a sensation, and the team has used its home advantage. The hot and wet weather in Puerto Rico -- home of the only tropical rain forest on U.S. territory -- is an advantage. The field is always spongy from the daily rains, but the Islanders hold their intense practices there anyway.

"They love their sports and they love Puerto Rico. They are passionate about anything in life," Clarke said.

The rise in fortunes of Puerto Rico's national team -- which notched its first victory in World Cup qualifiers ever and then tied Honduras at home as it climbed over 60 spots in the FIFA rankings -- has given an extra impulse. Clarke is coaching both the national team and the Islanders, who play in Bayamon's Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium.

Marco Velez is the only Puerto Rican native playing regularly in the MLS, and signed with Toronto before the season started.

Some also believe the Islanders, a team in existence for five years, could be a giant-slayer that represents the whole of Caribbean soccer. "I think the whole region can get behind this team when we play the Mexicans and mainland teams," Jagdeosingh said.

"Our fans are phenomenal. Great atmosphere. They get behind us, and that helps," Clarke adds. Append the soccer chapters to the Puerto Rico-Mexico rivalry developed in boxing, and the Boricuas who are not soccer cognoscenti can relate to the Islanders' upcoming battles.

Puerto Ricans are learning quickly about soccer, but before he landed in San Juan last year Clarke was somewhat ignorant about the Islanders and the island, a U.S. commonwealth known internationally for its beaches, rum, salsa, baseball and boxing. It is much more, and its citizens take great pride in a tradition of serving as U.S. soldiers since before World War II.

"I knew it was in the Caribbean. I knew it was an island. I didn't know how big it was'" Clarke said. "I knew they had a soccer team. It was a team with a lot of talent, but not disciplined enough to get results on a regular basis. I've been pleasantly surprised. It's a great place to live."

When friends call from Ireland, another lush island, Clarke says, "I just tell them it's 84 degrees and sunny and beautiful every day. It's not a small Caribbean island. It's a very cosmopolitan city that could be anywhere in the world."

Keyvan Heydari is a print and TV journalist who covers the USL for ESPNsoccernet.

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