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PUERTO RICO HERALD
Bayamon Mayor Levels Baseball Diamond To Put Up Soccer Field
By Gabrielle Paese
November 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
Can a pro soccer franchise survive in Puerto Rico?
Probably not, although I hate to be the voice of gloom and doom here regarding the news this week that Bayamon will play host to a pro team, the Puerto Rico Islanders, in the United Soccer League.
Personally, I would love to see soccer take root in Bayamon. I mean, it's the most popular sport in the world. Most of the rest of the Caribbean, Central and South America is soccer-mad. Soccer has even caught on in the United States, where it would have been virtually impossible to put a competitive World Cup team together 15 years ago.
Puerto Rico, unfortunately, has several major hurdles to clear before soccer could ever replace baseball or basketball as a "national" pastime.
The first blockade is the local soccer community itself. Years of bickering and infighting have left the island with no development program to speak of.
About five years ago, Carlos Moya put Puerto Rico in the American Youth Soccer Organization as an answer to the federation's lack of programming for youngsters. Despite the program's success, Moya himself estimates that only about 2,500 school-age children participate -- discouraging numbers for an island of nearly 4 million people.
As of this writing, Puerto Rico has no soccer federation under its Olympic Committee (PROC). In 2003, FIFA, soccer's world governing body, essentially repossessed Puerto Rico's soccer federation for alleged mismanagement of funds. FIFA had been giving the island a quarter of a million dollars annually to develop soccer. Dr. Josean Berrios, who heads up FIFA's investigative committee said the group still has no answer as to how the $250,000 was spent for three of the past four years. The federation's PROC aid is also currently frozen.
With no youth program, Berrios estimates it has been five years since the island fielded a national team, the heart and soul of any sports program.
Soccer enthusiasts say that even if the Islanders catch on, it could take years before Puerto Rico develops players of international stature. This means fans in Bayamon will be cheering a roster full of U.S. and South American players, hardly likely to pack them in over at Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium, the venue for the Islanders' 14-game home stand beginning April 17, 2004.
This is the second time the Islanders try to make a go of it in Puerto Rico. In 1997, the franchise lasted seven games in San Juan before problems with the local federation and low fan turnout forced them to move to Texas.
In defense of the Islanders this week, Bayamon Mayor Ramon Luis Rivera Jr said that having proven baseball wasn't much of a draw, he was willing to try something new.
Rivera said the city will kick in $100,00 to support league in addition to funding a $3 million renovation for the baseball stadium, which will lose its pitcher's mound and be converted to a FIFA-regulation size soccer field.
"There are plenty of baseball stadiums in Puerto Rico," said Rivera, who said the conversion will be permanent until the Islanders finish their USL 2004 season. "We tried baseball in Bayamon and it didn't work. It's no secret that baseball [the winter league] is in a huge crisis. It's time to give soccer a chance. This will be the only pro team in Puerto Rico and will attract people from the other islands. We hope to make this a family affair and develop Bayamon's youth leagues."
The Islanders will play a 28-game season in the nine-team East Division of the USL along with the following other teams: Montreal Impact, Rochester Raging Rhinos, Atlanta Silverbacks, Charleston Battery, Richmond Kickers, Virginia Beach Mariners, Toronto Lynx and Syracuse Salty Dogs. The home team opens season April 17 in Bayamon versus the Toronto Lynx and will play exactly half of the season in Bayamon and the other half on the road. The East Division also plays against a seven-team West Division, although Puerto Rico will play most of its games against the East Division teams.
Veteran Puerto Rico national team coach Victor Hugo will coach the Islanders. Hugo is currently in Brazil scouting for the five import players the league permits. He will make a second scouting trip in December to Argentina. With a 25-man roster, team president Joe Serralta estimates no more than seven Puerto Ricans will get contracts. The bulk of the team is expected to come from the United States. The league spans two countries -- Canada and the United States. However, Serralta explained that the Islanders' players must be U.S. citizens to be eligible -- with the exception of the five allowable imports.
Moya, a lifelong soccer enthusiast, said he thinks pro soccer will attract corporate sponsors.
"The sponsors are looking for something new. Baseball was a bust. Even the Expos didn't attract the crowds sponsors anticipated," said Moya.Indeed, Eric Labrador, coordinator of the project for the city of Bayamon, said the sponsors have been circling. He cited interest from rival airlines as evidence.
USL CEO Dave Askinas admitted fielding a team in Puerto Rico was a huge risk, but said he felt it was worth taking.
"All the impetus [to bring a USL team to Puerto Rico] comes from here," said Askinas, who said Puerto Rico's backers put the proposal in his mailbox. "Puerto Rico has a combination of factors that makes it attractive. There's support from the local government and the team's organization is impressive. We're always looking to expand and this will bring attention to the league. We're hoping to expand to the Miami area someday and this is also a good first step."
Askinas said the Caribbean move won't be easy on the other teams but added that he liked the idea.
"It was all subject to CONCACAF [the North, Central American and Caribbean Soccer Confederation] approval. Normally you can't bring a team from another federation into your league but FIFA let Canada in so it is very understanding about expanding soccer in this region."
Askinas didn't rule out further Caribbean expansion in the future, perhaps to islands like Trinidad-Tobago or Bermuda.
"We can give them better preparation in our league than they can get in England or Europe," said the Long Island native. "It wasn't like that 25 years ago. You only had two or three good American players. Now you can fill a whole squad with just Americans. For Puerto Rico, I think if you start out with eight or 10 native players on team, eventually you will develop a national team that can be competitive."
Islanders president Serralta said Puerto Rico's national team development was the ultimate goal.
"Now we're going into battle with machine guns instead of the knives we had before," said Serralta. "So that when we collect all of our players and they play at the national level we'll be competitive. I noticed the other day that Puerto Rico's basketball team was ranked eighth in the world by FIBA. That's our goal for soccer, to put our team among the top eight in the world."
Cracking the top 10 in the world is a little ambitious for an island with no soccer history. As I said, I'm betting the USL's Islanders won't last more than seven games this second time around. Then again, I hope I'm wrong. You have to admire the courage of any mayor in Puerto Rico who dares to level a baseball diamond to make way for a soccer field. Go Islanders.
Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.