The Throw-In: Castaways Clarke, Puerto Rico have something to prove

There’s no need to write a film version of the Puerto Rico Islanders’ success. It’s already been done. It’s called Cast Away, and it starred Tom Hanks as Colin Clarke and a volleyball named Wilson as Bill Gaudette.

Alright, not exactly. But the imagery of a guy lost at sea washing up on a tropical island, where he eventually takes control of his life and thrives far from home – well, that isn’t far off.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Clarke coached FC Dallas to the best record in the Western Conference. Yet another playoff failure found the former Northern Ireland national-teamer out of a job and without a sniff in MLS. And that, perhaps, is where the legend began.

Back in the fall of 2006, Clarke admits, if you had mentioned Puerto Rico, the best he probably could have done was point it out on a globe, make a passing mention of baseball and West Side Story, and that’d be that.

Fast-forward to today, and Clarke has resurrected his career by taking a minor-league club and piecing together a bunch of cast-offs, never-weres and never-heard-of-‘ems into the biggest giant-killers in North American soccer.

For the third straight edition of the CONCACAF Champions League, Clarke’s Islanders have made a stunning scalp of a heavily favored side and continue to defy logic in a tournament where the biggest and best are supposed to rise to the top.

In 2008, it was Santos Laguna who were left crying, and Cruz Azul who had to summon everything they had to get past the Islanders to reach the finals. Last year, Toronto FC were the ones dumped out of qualifying by a team below them on the soccer ladder.

And last week, before the Islanders finished the job on Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Galaxy became the latest big fish to learn what all those favorites learned before them: Discount Clarke’s minnows at your own risk.

After invading the Home Depot Center and stunning the Galaxy 4-1 in last week’s first leg, Clarke’s men held down the fort at home in the return, their enormous aggregate advantage enough to weather a 2-1 loss.

Clarke didn’t employ defensive tactics against MLS’ most potent offense. He didn’t tell his men to wait out the league’s toughest defense, either – he told them to take chances and attack. They got some breaks, sure. But it worked; and the mighty Galaxy – perhaps the biggest shoo-in of all three MLS qualifiers – are now the team sitting out the Champions League.

Though giant-killing has become Puerto Rico’s calling card in the Champions League, this one was particularly gratifying, Clarke told MLSsoccer.com.

“With the players they have, with all the hype of the World Cup, that made it extra special,” he said over the phone on Thursday. “They’re a class organization. I take great satisfaction in that one.”

Some small part, perhaps, in that Clarke got to stick it to the league that let him go? Probably a little bit of that, too. Now his team is the one no one wants to face in CONCACAF play.

“This tournament has grown, and with it, the respect for Puerto Rico has grown,” Clarke said. “[When] we made it to the semis the first year, a lot of people thought it was a one-off. Now, they’re beginning to look at us and think, ‘We don’t want to be drawn against Puerto Rico.’”

The Islanders’ success is as improbable as the characters on their roster. But Clarke isn’t the only castaway. Goalkeeper Gaudette spent three seasons in Columbus as a perennial backup to Jonny Walker, Jon Busch and William Hesmer. Now he’s one of the best netminders in the USSF D2 and has come up enormously for Puerto Rico in all three of their Champions League runs.

Jamaican striker Nicholas Addlery had a brief cup of coffee with D.C. United in 2007. Just last year, defender Marco Vélez was part of the Toronto side that was upended by the Islanders. Barely a week later, the Puerto Rican defender was released and returned to join his former team.

Add in some other assorted talent like Trinidadians Nigel Henry and Kendall Jagdeosingh, Real Salt Lake loanee David Horst and English youngster David Foley, and Clarke has a nice unit of scrappers you may or may not have heard of.

But it’s not just that underdog status they love. Clarke agrees that many of them believe they’ve got something to prove to the various teams who overlooked them. And perhaps, he added, CONCACAF play provides the possibility to step back onto a bigger stage – as it did for former Islander Cristian Arrieta, who now suits up for the Philadelphia Union.

“It gives them the opportunity to be in the shop window,” Clarke said. “It’s an opportunity to be seen. We tell them we don’t want them playing here their whole lives.”

That goes for Clarke, too. He admits he’s got his eye on an eventual return to MLS some day. And thanks to the Champions League, he has a new opportunity to showcase what he continues to accomplish in this tournament to a national TV audience.

“Would I like another chance? Of course I would,” he said. “But it has to be the right time and the right opportunity.”

For now, Clarke will keep making his Tropa Naranja believe they can beat anyone. Maybe being stranded on a sunny Caribbean island isn’t such a bad place to be after all.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.