The Orbit

The Orbit

Puerto Rican soccer steps beyond the Caribbean

In the big picture of the world's favorite sport it's just a speck, in the same way an island can be just an interruption in the ocean. While Messi, Cristiano, Falcao, Luis Suárez, Juan Mata, Edinson Cavani and company where plying their trade in the big leagues of the sport, the CONCACAF draw for the six-team final round and the final round of Caribbean qualifying for the Under 20 World Cup in Turkey yielded some interesting back stories in soccer.

It's a modest success, but as Puerto Rican soccer rebuilds and builds context, advancing in Jamaica and eliminating Trinidad, even if not transcendent, could mark a turning point. This is an island where match records and federation history were trashed (literally) by a former federation president, but has now renovated the biggest soccer stadium in the Caribbean (in Bayamón) and garnered attention by hosting Spain.

Even if it is turns out to be a brief, shining moment, the "Boricuas" earned their ticket to the Concacaf finals on the field. The responsibility of preparing for the next round in Puebla now will weigh on a federation with a total budget of about $500,000/year and several national teams. With help from many, they financed the team's participation in the Dallas Cup and a preparation phase in a soccer hotel in Fort Lauderdale before the Jamaica trip.

From Feb. 18- March 2, the final CONCACAF tournament in Puebla will yield four teams for the Under 20 World Cup: Mexico, Canada, USA, Jamaica (from pot 1); Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador (pot 2); Haiti, Curacao, Cuba, Puerto Rico (pot 3). Four groups of three where two advance and then those who win the next match will advance to the semis, with those four nations going to Turkey.

It comes at an interesting political juncture. The pro-statehood party (PNP) lost the governorship in the November elections, but a symbolic vote garnered much attention. Puerto Ricans on the island selected statehood over independence or an enhanced territory status in a murkily formulated question. In the voting, 61% of Puerto Ricans noted their preference for statehood over independence or a modification of the current status. However, if you add the 468,000 who left the question blank, then statehood's support drops to 46% of the electorate, according to the voting commission. A plurality, but not a majority.

It's a non-binding statement, unlikely to change political realities, but if years ahead the proposal is presented before the U.S. Congress and accepted, it would eliminate the Olympic Committee and the soccer federation on the island, and fold them into the larger U.S. Olympic, sporting entities. Puerto Ricans now have a non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress, but several congressional representatives of Puerto Rican origin.

The Puerto Rican U-20 team is a reflection of the diaspora, and many players have mixed heritage. The goalscorer from the Curacao match, university student Reid Strain, has a Puerto Rican mother and American father. The reverse situation of Marco Velez, captain of the national team and the only Puerto Rican to play in the MLS. Velez's mother moved from Long Island to the Caribbean island, where she married his father.

Whatever the final results in Puebla, the tournament in Jamaica was a significant milestone. "After the vote and the Haiti match, they called from the BBC, a program called BBC Football, thinking [statehood] was automatic and it was a process not underway and symbolic vote," explains Claudio Alvarez-Dunn, spokesman for the Puerto Rican soccer federation.

An American territory since the Spanish-American war on 1898, Puerto Ricans have been American citizens since 1917, when a law enabled citizenship and inscription in the American Armed Forces during World War I. Through the years, a dependency on the U.S. economy – supported by programs like Operation Bootstrap and the Section 936 tax credit (which allowed pharmaceutical companies benevolent tax benefits) – has deepened, and has caused social and economic distress. In several migrations, many professionals have left Puerto Rico for the mainland or elsewhere. These links anchor the stretch to the United States and beyond.

That is the case with many of the current members of the Puerto Rican U-20 team. Alex Oikkonen lobbied his mother to return to Puerto Rico from Finland, and is now in the FC Dallas academy full time. José Abrams' father is 'boricua," and his mother Honduran. Emmanuel D'Andrea who was born in Venezuela, and Thomas Flecha spent a year in Pachuca's youth academy/fuerzas básicas when he was 15.

There are others like "Jackie" Marrero, a local product from the barrio known as Quintana, a public housing project and soccer bastion on the island. His uncle, Carlos García, was also a talented player, went to Brazil and returned because he missed his family and friends. Marrero's wages with the Islanders cannot support a family, but when he got the ball against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Champions League, even with result out of reach, you could tell the waif had danger in his boots. "The sport is my life," said Marrero, a young man of few words.

Personally, several members of my family have entered the Armed Forces, and some feel differing degrees of loyalty to the Army, the mainland or the Island, but all have multiple parts of their identity. No label summarizes the Puerto Rican experience.

The last decade, I was pleasantly surprised by the progress symbolized by the professional club, Puerto Rico Islanders, the match against Spain last August and the booming interest. I knew a corner had been turned when I saw my uncle José Luis Vázquez, who in his 91 years had never been outside of the mountain town of Naranjito, was wearing a River Plate hat, instead of his usual hat from the New York Yankees.

The full national team stumbled in October in the second round of Caribbean qualifying for the regional tournament Gold Cup. But since it was held outside of FIFA dates, Puerto Rico had to beg for and was not able to count on several important players, including Bill Gaudette of the New York Red Bulls.

In the first match in Jamaica, Puerto Rico's Under 20 team's tactical mistakes and rawness led to two Trinidad goals – on a set piece and a counter – and the 2-0 defeat. They faced a do-or-die match against Curacao, and came back from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1. Against Haiti, they tied 1-1, sealing the ticket to the next round.

"We had forgotten a little about the opportunity we had in our hands," said Flecha, the libero on the team. "That loss against Trinidad was bitter, but we learned. It was worth it." Now, they have three months to prepare for the next hurdle. "It's a total change in mentality. Third round we'll try to make it. It's the opportunity of our lives. Not just because the scouts watch, but also the chance to get to the World Cup."

Outside of the soccer establishment, few people in Puerto Rico understand what is happening. The team has some polishing ahead, especially in the tactical and technical aspects of the game. But the most important skill may be … language.

Players Marc Cintrón and Alvaro Betancourt are both in college soccer on the mainland. Betancourt, is at Valparaiso University, grew up on the island, and Cintrón, who scored Puerto Rico's only goal against Spain, is at Providence College.

"I don't know much Spanish, but I'm really going to take classes now," said Cintrón, who grew up in New Jersey.

Keyvan Antonio Heydari Keyvan Antonio Heydari

Keyvan Antonio Heydari

A journalist/documentarian, Keyvan has covered soccer for 20+ years, traveling as contributor to The New York Times, France Football, NPR, Univision, Terra and more. Sport through a cultural prism.

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