Well the big day has finally arrived. After three weeks of waiting, the Puerto Rico Islanders of USL-1 face off against Mexican giants Cruz Azul in Mexico City in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Semifinals. The Islanders hold a 2-0 aggregate lead with the winner of the tie advancing to the Confederation finals with an opportunity to play in the FIFA World Club Championship.
The Islanders had two real good chances in addition to a penalty shout to extend the first leg margin to three goals, but failed to extend beyond the same two goal lead going to Mexico which was not enough for Houston in 2007 or Montreal in the previous round of this competition. Thus it is imperative the Islanders do not give up an early goal tonight.
Cruz Azul has been struggling in the Mexican Clausura, most recently blowing a two goal lead against rival Pumas on Saturday in a 3-2 loss. But the Mexico City based club still has several recognizable names: Carlos Bonet, Gerrardo Torrado, Jaime Lozano, and longtime Chivas attacker Alejandro Vela.
Manager Colin Clarke has typically gotten his tactics right in this competition. This match, like previous away fixtures provides a stern test for the Islanders, and their coaches. With three weeks to prepare and some time to get used to the altitude in Mexico City we can only hope the Islanders have used that time wisely.
From the Puerto Rico perspective several keys to this match are outlined below.
Score an early away goal
The altitude is bound to get to the Islanders at some point. It’s probably smart if you are Colin Clarke to start Kendall Jagdeosingh who is a lethal counter attacking threat since Cruz Azul is likely to be pushing up early to try and get a quick goal. The other option is for Clarke to start Josh Hansen right behind Nicholas Addlery in a 4-4-1-1 look where Hansen can hold up play and hit Addlery quickly on the break to stimulate counter attacking opportunities.
With question marks surrounding the keepers behind Brad Guzan in the US player pool, Gaudette may very well be auditioning for Bob Bradley tonight. The last USL-1 player to be called into the national team was then Richmond Kicker Clyde Simms in early 2005.
Gaudette’s play beginning with his penalty kick save in dying moments of the opening qualifying round match in Costa Rica against LD Alajuelense has been brilliant throughout the tournament.
It’s not just the great saves Gaudette has made in this tournament that have been impressive. It’s the vocal leadership he’s displayed on set pieces and the organization of the back that has also stood out.
But Gaudette in his years of NCAA, MLS and USL football has likely never been in the sort of pressure cooker he will be in tonight. Keeping his cool and organizing his defense is a key.
Jonny Steele and Christian Arrieta: European experience to keep the Islanders cool in a tough atmosphere.
The two best field players for the Islanders grew up steeped in European football culture. The Italian-American, Arrieta was USL-1′s defender of the year last season, and has extensive Serie B and Serie C experience in addition to a trial at Inter.
Tough atmospheres typify the lower leagues in Italy and Arrieta will need to help keep his team mates, particularly those who’ve never played outside MLS or USL cool. They’ve probably never seen an atmosphere like Estadio Azul except on Television.
Jonny Steele, the Northern Irishman must not only keep his side together on the pitch but control the tempo in midfield teaming with Sandy Gbandi and Noah Delgado in creating counter attacking opportunities.
The Islanders have been brilliant at creating set piece goal in this tournament. The size advantage for example that Nicholas Addlery has over any Cruz Azul defender must be exploited on the rare goal scoring opportunities Puerto Rico will get on the road.
The officials in matches of this importance in Mexico tend to fall victim to the crowd and atmosphere themselves. For evidence of this just check the Dynamo’s 2007 loss to Pachuca and the Montreal Impact’s loss last month to Santos Laguna in similar second leg ties. This makes defending on set pieces critical for the Islanders.
Cruz Azul’s players are sure to become chippy and unsporting as they did in the first leg if they are frustrated early in the match. If they act out, that can be taken as a good sign that the Islanders have done well to that point in the match.
Gametime is tonight at 10pm ET/9pm CT on Fox Soccer Channel and Telefutura.