RedNation Online recently had the chance to catch up with Jay Long, a frequent contributor to the website IMS Soccer News and a long time observer and analyst of soccer in Puerto Rico. Long currently co-hosts a podcast on the North American Soccer League (NASL) and he was kind enough to chat with RedNation and provide his insights on the Puerto Rico National Team in advance of the upcoming World Cup qualifying match between Canada and Puerto Rico.
RedNation Online (RNO): After defeating St. Lucia in their first World Cup qualifying match on Friday, Canada will face off against the Puerto Rico National Team on Tuesday evening. What did you make of Puerto Rico’s performance against St. Kitts and Nevis on Friday?
Jay Long: Unfortunately, as is often the case when Puerto Rico plays, there was no video transmission of the match against St. Kitts and Nevis. Luckily, for those who follow the sport in Puerto Rico, one of the best known and respected media figures, Mr. Eduardo Cantore, travelled with the team. Thanks to him, an audio-only webcast was available. The biggest impression that I took away from the match was that the victory and the full three points that were up for grabs were well in reach. To be objective, St. Kitts and Nevis definitely had their chances as well. Puerto Rico returning home with only a point was a bit of a disappointment but anytime that you start a campaign on the road and don't return empty-handed, that is something positive. The finishing will need to improve and offensive chances will need to be converted in future matches. When Puerto Rico faces Canada in Bayamon on Tuesday, they must make the most of any scoring opportunities that they may have. Certainly, there will be even less margin for error facing such capable side.
RNO: What appears to be the mood down in Puerto Rico following the draw and heading into the team's home fixture against Canada?
Jay Long: There seems to be the feeling that an opportunity was lost on Friday. Prior to the match with St. Kitts and Nevis, a lot of importance was given to starting the campaign with a victory. Mr. Campos had stated that Puerto Rico was definitely not looking past St. Kitts and Nevis. Having said that, even with a limited training camp, the goal was very clear that Puerto Rico would be playing to win, as opposed to playing for a draw or to not lose away from home. After returning with only one point, some of the supporters have expressed that a victory in the match against Canada is absolutely imperative. I believe that I can accurately state that, in the mind of many supporters, and those involved, the match on Tuesday is considered one of the biggest matches in the recent history of the Puerto Rican men's program.
RNO: While Puerto Rico is ranked 144th in the world, many pundits consider them the only real threat to Canada in terms of emerging from Group D. That assumption is based on the fact that the majority of the Puerto Rico team is made up of players from the Puerto Rico Islanders club team and, thus, they play together a lot more often than the players on the Canadian National Team. Do you think there is significant truth in that assumption and how much of a threat do you think Puerto Rico will pose to Canada?
Jay Long: I think that Coach Hart is right to realize that Puerto Rico has the potential to be a problematic opponent for Canada, especially with the first match taking place in Bayamon. Winning at the Estadio Juan Ramon Loubriel has proven to be a bit more challenging than some of the opponents that have travelled there previously had initially anticipated, not only at the club level but even at the national team level. A lot of people forget that the very same Honduran side that went on to participate in last year's World Cup in South Africa arrived expecting a Caribbean vacation after trouncing the Boricuas in San Pedro Sula. Instead, they found themselves down, losing 2-1 and, quite honestly, they were very fortunate to have managed to escape that match with a draw.
To your very insightful point about familiarity, several of the guys who played with the squad that stunned Honduras that night are currently with the squad that will face Canada. Several others have played together with Islanders FC or together in clubs that participate in the domestic leagues such as Sevilla Juncos or Bayamon FC.
RNO: Looking at the rosters of both teams, on paper there is a significant difference in quality, with the Canadian team consisting of a large number of players playing at high levels in Europe and the Puerto Rico roster consisting almost exclusively of players competing in the North America second division. Who are some of the players to watch out for on Puerto Rico and which players should the Canadian team be particularly concerned with from goal scoring threat standpoint?
Jay Long: The Canadian roster is impressive, as it contains players who have enormous experience and who have played with in highly competitive leagues. When you compare the rosters, there is a huge chasm between the levels of experience, and the players' resumes and their corresponding salaries. To say that the Puerto Rico roster is "almost exclusively of second division players" is actually overstating the makeup of the current squad. Several of the players most recently played in the Puerto Rican first division, the PRSL (Puerto Rico Soccer League) and are currently playing in the the LNF (National League), now that the PRSL season has concluded. There are even a couple of students. A lot of the guys have NASL experience on their resume but less than half of the squad is currently playing at the North American second division or higher. Nonetheless, this is actually one of the strongest squads that Puerto Rico has ever fielded. The North American second division guys are not your "typical" second division players. They are guys who have travelled to compete in just about every corner of CONCACAF that you could think of as members of the Puerto Rico Islanders FC. Others have had experience in Serie B (Christian Arrieta), China (John Krause) and Serbia (Chris Megaloudis and Andres Cabrero).
The Puerto Rican roster includes six "naturalized players" (GK Terry Boss, Defenders Arrieta, Krause and Scott Jones, Midfielders Noah Delgado and Peter Villegas). Each of the players was extended an invitation to play for the national team after residing in Puerto Rico and playing at least two years with Islanders FC. There are also a few players of Puerto Rican heritage incorporated into the squad who were raised in the States and who are the products of the US soccer structure (such as Striker Megaloudis, Defender Scott Horta).
Most of Puerto Rico's goals come from just simply working hard, from "grinding". That's why making the most of any offensive chances that present themselves will be crucial. I wouldn't say that the Canadian team should be particularly worried about any specifc goal scoring threat from Puerto Rico. They aren't known for a lot of scoring flair. Besides, Hart stated recently where he has no intentions of devising a Canadian strategy in reaction to what he anticipates that Canada's opponents will do because he would rather that Canada play its own style of soccer and impose its game.
Striker Chris Megaloudis has shown that he can manage to find ways to put the ball in the back of the net. And it would not surprise me if Delgado or Villegas can manage to sneak one in. I'm still hoping to see what young striker Hector "Pito" Ramos can do as he steps up a big level in competition. Will another young player, Andres Cabrero, (MF) actually earn a opportunity to get back onto the field and regain that form that made me declare him to be the "future of Puerto Rican football" a little more than three years ago?
RNO: Puerto Rico’s Head Coach Jeaustin Campos is a Costa Rican coach and former top level player in the 1990’s. He came on board as Puerto Rico’s Head Coach in February 2010. What have been your impressions of him thus far and what kind of tactical approach do you expect him to employ against Canada?
Jay Long: I have yet to have the chance to meet him in order to talk with him personally, but I am very optimistic about his selection and how he has started. His hiring marks an exciting and new chapter in the Puerto Rican National Team program. Since early 2008, Colin Clarke and his assistants Adian Whibread and Jack Setfanowski worked with Islanders FC, while also being at the helm of the Senior National Team. Although the national team was dormant for most of that time, at times, when it was active, those gentleman (along with the players who were involved with both squads) had an awful lot on their plate. When the national team was close to full strength, they managed to get some historic results, such as the aforementioned draw with Honduras and another one with Trinidad and Tobago, two teams which have successfully qualified for the World Cup.
Mr. Campos will not only be responsible for directing the Senior Men's National Team but he will also be in charge of the entire Puerto Rican Men's National Team program. It is role very similar to a U.S.A-Jurgen Klinsmann arrangement. Mr. Campos will implement his ideas and techniques, placing his imprint on the various national team levels, from the U-15's all the way up the ladder to the squad that he is leading during this current World Cup Qualification cycle. The goal is to help shape a tactical system and playing style that will be consistent and follow a player as he progresses during his development. This is something that has been discussed in Puerto Rico for a little while and Campos seems to be an excellent candidate to implement it. He had previously worked briefly in Puerto Rico with Bayamon FC during their CFU Club Championship/CONCACAF League Qualification last year.
In the interviews that he has given, he seems realistic about the challenges of the duties that he has undertaken. Personally, I find his comments about his goals and his belief that he can assist Puerto Rican football's progression to be highly inspirational. He has a charisma that may end up being very useful in the promotion of the program. His management experience with Deportivo Saprissa in his native Costa Rica can only be a "plus". The gentleman is very clear about the fact that he doesn't expect an easy success with this new endeavour but he does expect success. He has communicated on several occasions that he is interested in winning and not just competing. In many parts of the CONCAF region, people familiar with his impressive professional background think that he is crazy to have taken the position with Puerto Rico because, from the outside looking in, it seems counterintuitive to take one of the least glamorous national team positions in the region.
Given that a Puerto Rican victory is critical to the success of the current campaign, I anticipate that Campos will emphasize the importance of his side on being defensively sound, playing with poise and focusing heavily on maintaining ball possession, in order to develop it's rhythm and confidence. He has already made several public statements that they have enormous respect for Canada but that they will not fear Canada. Rather than focus on their failure to convert chances when they faced St. Kitts and Nevis, I believe that he will reinforce the the concept of "they put on their boots, one foot at a time, just like you do". Encouraged by the nervous twenty-five minutes or so that Canada had after giving up a goal to St. Lucia, he likely will stress the importance of focusing on drawing first blood and insisting that the mission is to secure the full three points. If his team has a misstep, then he will still try to rally them by explaining to them how St. Lucia was able to change the momentum after drawing level, all in the hope of settling down the squad.
RNO: CONCACAF teams in Central America and the Caribbean are notorious for playing a particular style of game that can get under the skin of North American soccer fans due to theatrics and perceived diving. Puerto Rico, by virtue of its relationship with the United States both politically and in terms of professional soccer, is a bit of unique situation when it comes to a CONCACAF soccer nation. In terms of its soccer culture, how does Puerto Rico compare with the other nations in the Carribean?
Jay Long: Of course, that is a very broad generalization but as someone who follows a lot soccer in the region, I do understand some of the cultural nuances that you are referring to. I would like to suggest that, in my personal opinion, the tactic of trying to "sell" fouls to the officials is less common in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. I also cannot recall seeing very much diving out of squads such as like Bermuda and Barbados. I'm not really sure that it is much of a Caribbean-wide phenomenon as some of the Canadian and US fans might tend to think. That's an awfully broad brush. I hope that particular tactic is never one adopted by Puerto Rico, because, personally, I can't stand it and I wish that it would just magically completely disappear from the game.
A major part of the decision to bring in Campos was the goal of trying to overhaul the soccer culture in Puerto Rico. He has stated that he prefers short passes and a very offensive style of play. Changing an identity usually takes time. If Campos is successful with his plans, it will be curious to see what the influence will be on the field and in the stands. He has said that he believes that the climate in Puerto Rico is favourable to helping to grow the sport. He sees that as a part of his mandate.
RNO: Former Toronto FC defender Marco Velez was the captain of the Puerto Rico National Team under coach Colin Clarke. What is Marco’s current involvement with the team?
Jay Long: Unfortunately, Marco has been injured and is not on the list of the 19 players selected for the two opening round matches. It's a real shame because Marco is very passionate about representing Puerto Rico and his hometown of Carolina. He takes great pride in wearing the jersey and no matter what jersey he wears or where he may be playing--I know, for a fact, that he also carries an enormous sense of responsibility along with that honour. A lot of the supporters are keeping him in our prayers because he's an incredibly well-loved figure by many soccer fans in Puerto Rico. It's very hard for a lot of people who don't have a connection down there to understand. The best way that I can explain it is that he was the guy who inspired an awful lot of Puerto Rican young people who play the sport - especially the ones who actually grew up in Puerto Rico and not in the States - to believe that if they worked hard enough, that they too could play professionally outside of Puerto Rico or maybe earn a collegiate scholarship at the University level, outside of Puerto Rico. To a lot of people he's just a guy who had a stint at Toronto FC, but for many of us who follow Puerto Rican football, even his detractors - Marco is a trailblazer. He's got an iconic-like stature in Puerto Rico. Although he's injured, he still has made himself available to attend events such as the press conference to announce and introduce Jeaustin Campos as the new coach. Even when he can't "go", he's still "representing", trying to promote the sport. That's Marcos Velez.
RNO: Canadian National Team Head Coach Stephen Hart has often stated that playing away in the CONCACAF can be the great equalizer against lower ranked teams. Canada and Puerto Rico will face off on Tuesday at the Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. It’s a stadium that has some history and that has been harsh to visiting teams. What do you think will be the challenges that Canada will face playing there?
Jay Long: Factors such as the climate and the condition of the field obviously play a factor in some of the "surprise" at the JRL. Visiting players can find the JRL to be very hot and often struggle with the humidity. If it rains, then the field becomes a major factor due to the drainage issues (or the lack there of). Huge puddles of water form and the result is the "air being taken out" of the ball. In the worst of those conditions, the ball will actually come to a complete, dead stop on the field. Passing and shooting techniques and the ability to run at defenders are rendered all but virtually useless. It's not pretty to watch but it has been very helpful to the home sides that play there.
One thing that I expect the more experienced guys to drill into every player who puts on a Puerto Rico jersey on Tuesday night - and anytime that they play at home - is an awareness of recent history. They need to remember that many "Goliaths" (in the football sense) come to the JRL expecting an easy night's work but that more than a few of them have encountered a "David" that has managed to give them a bit more than they bargained for and, thus, leaving with a result that they had neither anticipated, nor desired.
RNO: In some ways, Canada and Puerto Rico have faced some similar challenges in terms of financial support for their soccer programs, media coverage for their matches and in dealing with the fact that other sports (hockey for Canada and baseball in Puerto Rico) seem to hold more sway in the national consciousness. What is fan support like for the Puerto Rico national team and what type of home crowd can Canada expect to be up against on Tuesday?
Jay Long: Puerto Rico is crazy about sports and athletic competition. It doesn't even have to be "athletic"; it can be a game of dominoes in the park - there is a love of competition and strategy. You referenced the country's rich baseball history. Basketball is also enormously popular in Puerto Rico. I think that a lot of people would argue that it is currently, at the very least, as popular as baseball.
Let me put it this way, ss much as Campos and the current Puerto Rican Football President (FPF), Mr. Eric Labrador, have both appealed to the public to come out to support the team for one of the biggest soccer matches ever played in the history of the national team program - a game with ramifications in regard to where the program may headed - the Puerto Rico vs. Canada match that the average person will most likely be talking about on the Tuesday is not the one that we are currently discussing. It will be the second round, FIBA Men's Americas Basketball Championship/Olympic Qualification match that will tip off earlier that morning. That match will literally be front page news and will dominate the next day’s sports sections (and I believe, rightfully so, given its popularity). Guys at the bakery will be discussing that match, people at a Denny's restaurant will be watching it on big screen TV's. Coaching selections will be critiqued and dissected by journalists and argued about by hosts and callers on sports radio programs.
Conversely, the same two major newspapers and the same few tireless, dedicated journalists who cover soccer in Puerto Rico will write about the Puerto Rico-Canada match taking place on Tuesday night. The newspapers will give it a few paragraphs and it will get casually mentioned on a few the sports radio discussion shows.
The JRL is a converted baseball stadium with a capacity of about 12,500. The separation between the field and the supporters seems enormous by typical Canadian and US standards. Even when there are 6,000 spectators, to the eye, it seems like a lot less. Because it is so cavernous, an attendance of 2,000 looks like the stadium is practically empty when viewing a match on television. I expect the fans who do make it to the match to be very vocal.
I realize that it sounds like the "same old story" but Tuesday night is a hard night to get folks out to a sporting event, let alone a soccer match. The FPF tried to offer an incentive and managed keep the ticket prices at about the cost for an Islanders FC match (where you can get one for $10, including tax). A long overdue, updated federation logo and uniform have both been unveiled. The federation is hoping that the public will respond to its call to come out and get behind the team.
RNO: Puerto Rico is actually a nation that did not participate in World Cup qualifying until fairly recently. Given the history and struggles of the program, would it be a huge surprise if Puerto Rico was able to leapfrog Canada and qualify for the next round out of Group D?
Jay Long: One of the major obstacles that the national team program has faced is its inactivity. In recent history, there have been periods where two and three years have gone by with the national team not even playing as much as a single, solitary friendly. This has made both World Cup and Gold Cup qualifying even more daunting.
The operating budget is very limited and there is a lack of sponsorship. Those have been two massive factors in the lack of progress at the full national team level. When Puerto Rico does compete, resources are often very limited, making it very difficult to build on any momentum that may have been gained from its last period of activity. That makes it even harder to successfully market the team, which results in lower awareness or interest in the team. It is a very vicious cycle.
Obviously, Canada is clearly the favourite to make it out the group. If Canada fails to do so, then heads will most certainly roll and their will be a gnashing of the teeth up north that would be absolutely devastating for the CSA. When the draw was announced, many people just assumed that Canada would be a lock to win the group and advance to the next round.
From where I sit, my take is that, after the first match day results, there is something to be said for the other three teams, especially Puerto Rico, to take the perspective of "Hey, it's Canada's group to lose". Canada has all the pressure, the burden of being viewed as a colossal failure and being seen as a laughing stock if it does not move to the next round. A disappointing result for Canada could sow the familiar seeds of doubt and frustration in a program that has developed a reputation (fair or unfair) for underachieving.
Let me be clear, though, I'm not talking about lowering their expectations. To the contrary, as Campos stated, Puerto Rico must make the most of it's home matches. They already have a point from the road. They face Canada twice in the next three matches. They also get another shot at St. Kitts and Nevis, but the next time, they will be playing in the friendly confines of Bayamon.
Even if Puerto Rico can only manage a 1-0 victory and mange to take three points away from its match with Canada on Tuesday night, the group will suddenly become a bit more interesting.