The big day has finally arrived. The first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal will feature the Puerto Rico Islanders of our USL versus Cruz Azul of the dominant FMF.
Puerto Rico was able to handle Santos Laguna at home during the group stages in a game which ended with typically unsporting play and chipiness from the Mexican based players. But at this stage of the tournament and considering the Islanders are still a month away from starting their regular season, beating a Mexican side even in the home leg is going to be very difficult.
Cruz Azul is struggling in the Mexican Clausura but one their previous trip in this competition to the United States beating DC United 1-0 in the group stage. The Mexico City based club does boast some big time players like Luis Landin, Gerrardo Torrado, and Joaquin Beltran.
Colin Clarke’s tactics are among the best utilized by managers based in MLS or USL. But Clarke has a number of decisions to make entering tonight’s clash. Does he start late game sniper Kendall Jagdeosingh up front to try and get an early goal in the critical home leg or does he bring him off the bench? Does Clark gamble with Peter Villegas who can either be spectacular or destructive? Will Johnny Steele be used to deliver long balls to the speedy athletic forwards, or should Clarke employ a second holding midfielder and try and grind out a home result?
Clarke has almost always gotten his tactics right in this tournament. A manager who was quite frankly given a raw deal when he managed FC Dallas, he has showen not only his tactical acumen but his player selection and management skills in this tournament. Clarke has also instilled a confidence in the team only a World Cup veteran and second all time leading scorer for his nation (Northern Ireland) could bring. The Puerto Rico Manager has convinced the Islanders they belong among the elite in the region. While many MLS fans have snickered at USL’s success in this tournament, Clarke has relished it and used doubters to motivate his team.
But can the Islanders do it again? One thing that has sustained Puerto Rico to this point is structure which leads to counter attacking opportunities. The Islanders led by Cristian Arrieta at the back have kept their shape well throughout the competition and often times against relentless attacking from the opposition. The Islanders athletic and speedy forwards have then been able to get loose and create counter attacking opportunities.
The Islanders have scored a remarkable six goals after minute eighty in ten CONCACAF matches thus far, many of those goals being of the counter attacking variety at critical moments. Bill Gaudette’s goal keeping has been outstanding, which isn’t a surprise because Gaudette has been since his St John’s University days a remarkably gifted keeper. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Gaudette is that somehow he avoided a yellow card for time wasting in the quarterfinals and now can pull his usual theatrics in this round should the Islanders grab a lead. While some of Gaudette’s stunts going back to the qualifying round last Summer have been annoying, others have been flat out smart: professional gamesmanship as we would say.
It is going to be very difficult for the Islanders, but if they can somehow escape without conceding an away goal, they have a real chance in Mexico City to make things interesting. For Cruz Azul’s part they seem very motivated for this tournament and unlike many Mexican teams, basically avoided playing their reserves in the group stage.
But the Islanders are ready. “We’ve got this far and we don’t want to be happy with that,” Gaudette told CONCACAF.com “We’ve got a great opportunity to advance, but we have a big club in our way in Cruz Azul. We know it’s going to be a tremendously hard game, both here and in Mexico City, but we’re here to get a result.” Let’s hope he and the troops are ready tonight, and can continue this magical run.