By Ben Ferree/NPSL.com
World Cup qualifying for CONCACAF nations will begin next week in an altered format, one of the many changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted on the soccer landscape. Puerto Rico actually used that time off to do some recruiting.
Ranked 178 out of 211 FIFA national teams, Puerto Rico is looking for an influx of talent. Andrés Mirabelli, the new general manager of the team, started making phone calls and chatting over Zoom with U.S. based players who had Puerto Rican eligibility. The end result is one of the youngest squads in CONCACAF with experience in leagues ranging from the NPSL to the USL Championship.
“I had to find players anywhere that I didn’t know,” Mirabelli said. “I went on the internet to Transfermarkt and many sites like that, looking through USL teams, asking anyone who knew any Puerto Rican players. One player tells me about another player, who tells me about another player, it goes like that. I went to the United States to meet with players and talk to them.”
Traveling during the pandemic was no easy task, and training a new team an even harder one. But the squad had a full January camp, and are currently training in the Dominican Republic ahead of their first qualifying match against St. Kitts and Nevis. One of those current players is team captain Sidney Rivera, who has been with the team since 2019.
Rivera is a true veteran of American soccer, having played for Orlando City in their USL days, as well as clubs like Louisville City, Puerto Rico FC, FC Motown, Virginia Beach City FC, and Atlantic City FC. He also has experience playing overseas in Vietnam and Bangladesh.
“Obviously during the pandemic you can’t really work out as a team,” Rivera said. “We had the January camp which is almost a whole month together, training we did almost a week and a half of two-a-days…we’ve been working super hard.”
The growth of soccer in America has helped raise the playing level for Puerto Rico.
“For us to be able to pull guys from professional levels that have experience in a professional game is big time for us,” Rivera said. “We’re bringing in experienced guys and that wasn’t always the case.”
Fellow NPSL alum Josh Danza, who is best known for his time with the Atlanta Silverbacks Reserves, is a former Puerto Rico national team player.
“Back when I was in college, there were only 12 USL teams and a handful of NPSL teams,” Danza said. “The significant growth in popularity of soccer in the U.S. over the past 10 years has led to expansion of clubs that offer more opportunities to players who seek to play at the next level. Many players here in the U.S. have gained experience and used this opportunity as a platform to showcase their talents. Some have been fortunate enough to go on to play for their national teams in smaller countries like Puerto Rico.”
The growth has even led to players getting to play for youth national teams. The Puerto Rico U-20 team features Roberto Ydrach, who played in the NPSL with the Central Florida Panthers.
“Beto is a player with a very bright future,” said Panthers co-founder and vice president Giovanni Taliaferro. “He joined the Panthers after graduating from a local high school becoming a key player during our inaugural NPSL season. His success on the field earned him a Sunshine Conference Best XI selection before joining the college ranks at the University of Central Florida. Only a couple months later he was selected to represent Puerto Rico at the U-20 World Cup qualifiers in early 2020. We are very proud of what he has accomplished so far and look forward to welcoming him back.”
For Ydrach, he hopes that experience helps boost him to the next level.
“My play on the Panthers helped me land a call-up to the U-20 Puerto Rican national team,” Ydrach said. “Representing the island that helps shape who I am as a person was an honor and a privilege. Hearing the national anthem play as you stand on the pitch in front of all your family and friends is a feeling I hope I am lucky enough to feel again.”
Only one team from each of the first round CONCACAF groups will qualify for the next round. Puerto Rico has Trinidad and Tobago in their group, the heavy favorites to advance, but they feel like they can pull off the upset.
“Our goal is the third round,” Mirabelli said. “Trinidad and Tobago is a really good team but we think we can win that match. We watched the match against the United States, and that was not a good team. That is not the team like 10 years ago. We have a really good opportunity to advance to the second round, which would be a match against El Salvador or Antigua and Barbuda, and we think we can pass on to the third round as well. Now in the third round we know our odds are almost nothing, but in the third round maybe a team in another country, Mexico or Honduras or Costa Rica, comes and buys any of our players, that is a goal for us as well.”
Qualifying begins on March 24th.
Photo Credit: Jim Auer, Federación Puertorriqueña de Fútbol, Scott Miller