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Imagine if Toronto FC was the only fully professional team in Canada. Imagine that, except for a very few elites in superior leagues and a couple "free radicals" on other teams, quality Canadian players naturally gravitated to Toronto. Surely, when the time came to pick Canada's national team, you'd wind up with a vast Toronto FC contingent. A group of players who might not be the most skilled in the world but who know each other, who can anticipate each others' moves. A whole that's more than the sum of its parts. The team would play regularly at Canada's national stadium and know every sprinkler head on that pitch inside and out.
It sounds like a formidable advantage, doesn't it? Well, in 2008, Toronto FC wasn't Canada's only professional team but they were its only MLS team and employed a wide swathe of Canadian talent. Thanks to MLS roster rules of the era Toronto ran out eight Canadian players on at least a semi-regular basis. Three of them, Greg Sutton, Kevin Harmse, and Jim Brennan, were regular national team players. You may recall that team did pretty badly.
Today, the Canadian men's national team play the Puerto Ricans; not a nation as such but still eligible for the World Cup. Puerto Rico's dominant soccer force by far is the defending second-division champion Puerto Rico Islanders: the Islanders play at the national stadium and will contribute six players to today's national team. "Their chemistry!" the pessimists bemoan. "We're lucky when Canada plays as eleven individuals; what will we do against a quality team?"
I have as much respect for the Puerto Rico Islanders as anybody (probably more than most). There's no doubt Puerto Rico will be a more considerable adversary than St. Lucia, but are we going to be sunk by the Islanders connection? We shouldn't be.
The first reason I'm not worried about the Islanders connection is that I know my history. The Puerto Rico Islanders were formed in 2003 and have been a quality second-division team almost since day one. However, we haven't seen much improvement in Puerto Rico's results.
At the 2005 Caribbean Cup, the Puerto Ricans got to the group stage but managed only a single draw against bottom-feeders Suriname. Recording a -8 goal differential in three games when their group included Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, and Suriname, Puerto Rico was nowhere near competitive. Their attempt at qualifying for the 2010 World Cup ended in the Second Round to Honduras, losing 6-2 on aggregate (although their 2-2 draw at home in the second leg showed what they can do against a complacent opponent). They won the first qualifying group for the 2010 Caribbean Cup in fine style against the very lowest minnows of CONCACAF. In the second qualifying round three losses to Grenada, Guadeloupe, and St. Kitts saw Puerto Rico go out in flames before reaching the tournament proper.
In the last six years, Puerto Rico has only one quality result: a home draw to a Honduran team that already had a 4-0 aggregate lead and was just trying to avoid injury. Yet in that time Puerto Rico has been second only to Montreal as the most consistent dominant force in North American second-division soccer.
So much for chemistry.
Look at Puerto Rico's roster. Defenders Richard Martinez and Alexis Rivera are the only first-class players who play for both Puerto Rico Islanders and the national team: Rivera is a limited but savvy veteran fullback with pace and sense like a poor man's Wes Knight, while Martinez is a promising utility defender who's a little undersized for his role but has earned a solid reputation since joining the Islanders in 2010. The rest of the Islanders' contributions are relative journeymen and interchangeable parts who won't put terror into any hearts. Noah Delgado is a well-known name but was never that good and is a liability as often as he's an asset these days. Midfielder Petter Villegas was a real threat in his day but at 35 years old his best years are long behind him and he struggles to even make the Islanders bench.
Many of Puerto Rico's leading players play off the island. Defender Cristian Arrieta, a dangerous wild card Canada will have to watch out for, plays for Fort Lauderdale. Another defensive stalwart, John Krause, plays for Martin Rennie and the Carolina Railhawks. Goalkeeper Terry Boss is a member of the Seattle Sounders. Leading striker Chris Megaloudis plays for FC New York in USL PRO.
You'll get the impression from reading this that Puerto Rico's strength is their defense. Arrieta is arguably Puerto Rico's most talented offensive player even at 31 years old, and Martinez is raw but also very capable. It'll take quality shutdown play from Canada's midfielders to keep Puerto Rico's back line from springing the occasional scoring chance. Arrieta, in particular, was never very mobile and is now as quick as a refrigerator: if Will Johnson or Julian de Guzman can make sure Arrieta has no time to make a play he will effectively be neutralized.
How often do you say "shut down the opposing team's defense and you shut down their offense"? Yet in the case of Puerto Rico it's almost true. Their only threats at forward and midfield are Delgado (mediocre), Villegas (completely washed up), and Megaloudis (a decent finisher but somebody who struggles with composure and seldom makes his own chances). The greatest fear is that Canada grows complacent and allows precision passes from the defense to break their defensive line.
Canada should also be wary of the infamous pitch at Estadio Juan Ramón Loubriel. It's natural grass, which will impress a certain sort of fan, but it's also the most treacherous surface in MLS or the NASL. Uneven, rough, and often enough pockmarked with divots; some pretty good teams have crumbled trying to play the ball along that notorious grass. The good news is that the forecast is for clouds but no rain: Juan Ramón Loubriel in the wet is murder.
Like every game in this round, Canada should win this one. Playing in Puerto Rico is a challenge but there's no reason to believe chemistry between the Islanders players will have anything to do with it. Canada will have to show more than they did against St. Lucia and if this qualifying campaign is going to go horribly wrong then today is the day we'll know. Our first game was effectively a warm-up. This one could be a trap, but if the worst happens it'll be because Canada threw the game away.