When Afro-Boricua Carmelo Anthony purchased Puerto Rico FC in 2015, the dream was that he could elevate soccer on the island.
— Puerto Rico FC (@PRFootballClub) June 11, 2015
To outside sports consumers, Puerto Ricans are known for their prowess in boxing, baseball, and basketball, perhaps even in that order. So when VICE cameras followed the 10-time NBA All-Star during a 2015 summer visit, it was a landmark moment of optimism. Anthony even stood inside Estadio Juan Ramón Loubriel —then home of Puerto Rico FC— and said, even with the island-wide economic slide withstanding, why not now?
“This is the best time to do it, and when it’s down, you really show your true colors,” Anthony said. He even had PRFC face (and defeat 1-0) the Puerto Rican National Team before the 2016 Puerto Rican Day Parade, where he was crowned king. “Right now, it’s a down time in Puerto Rico. But I could see Puerto Rico in the next five years coming back around.”
Unfortunately, the club last played during the 2017 North American Soccer League season and dissolved following Hurricane Maria. But Joey Serralta, a 2007 Puerto Rico Soccer Hall of Fame inductee who is now the CEO of the Puerto Rico Soccer League, said Anthony should’ve gone about the experiment differently.
“I think he would’ve been better served if he had somebody like me, because I’m not the only one, in his corner who knows the business. His intentions were right, but unfortunately, he was in the shadow of another team, the Puerto Rico Islanders,” Serralta, a founder of the original Islanders in 1995, told Latino Rebels.
“He didn’t know me, and that’s okay, I get that. He had other people influencing him in Puerto Rico. That’s the problem with soccer, right? How would Carmelo know who to trust? Nobody knows,” Serralta added.
“For someone that grew up during the silver age of fútbol, I look at what’s going on right now, and it’s frustrating,” Jusino explained.
Jusino was referring to the 2004-2011 period as the silver age of soccer in Puerto Rico, or “the professional era.” It’s where the island experienced incremental growth, nearing the level of interest from the previous golden ages of 1973-1982 and 1985-1995, which even included a personal-best 97th FIFA World Ranking in March 1994 for the men’s program.
And despite the economic crisis that began infiltrating the island in the mid-2000s, soccer again saw an uptick locally, highlighted by a 4-1 Islanders blowout over then two-time MLS Champion Los Angeles Galaxy in the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League preliminaries. Jusino said, even today, amid challenges stemming from COVID-19 and the aftereffects of Hurricane Maria, there’s a pathway to soccer thriving in Puerto Rico.
“We know what it is to live in a professional environment, or what seemed to be a more professional environment than what we have right now,” Jusino noted. “That is the central conflict, whereas the new Federation, they said they’re going to start from zero. They act as if there was no fútbol before they came.
“And that is part of why fútbol is not growing,” Jusino continued. “It’s because the people who run the Federation, the people who run the clubs, the people who run the leagues, they’re afraid of losing their privileges. They’re afraid of losing their small economic interest. Instead of thinking big, they just say, ‘We can’t do it.’ [It’s the] ‘yo no puedo, es imposible’ mentality we have on the island.”
For Serralta, a large part of the problem stems from the lack of exposure.
“In the soccer community, and I blame a lot of it on the media, they had decided that they weren’t going to cover soccer in Puerto Rico. I’m not saying there wasn’t coverage. I have bins here full of articles from when I played. But not at the level of baseball, basketball, and boxing had,” he said.
“When my father [Joe] sold the club to the [Andy] Guillemard group, and they put the Islanders back together, put some money behind it, you would see packed stadiums watching the Islanders play,” Serralta recalled. “I remember from afar just sitting and crying like a baby because I was the one who got that started in my last year [playing] with the Charlotte Eagles. I still get emotional about it. I knew Puerto Rico had the fanbase for it.”
And even before that, soccer mattered in a distinct way. The 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico saw the only year that the men’s team qualified, finishing fifth. They haven’t yet qualified for the Olympics, a FIBA World Cup, or a CONCACAF Gold Cup. The women did make it to the CONCACAF Women’s Championship in 1998 but lost in group play.
Comparatively, women’s basketball —who made their first Olympic appearance ever this summer— is 17th out of 124. Men’s basketball is 19th out of 168. In boxing, there are three current world champions of Puerto Rican-descent: Amanda Serrano, Wilfredo Méndez, and McWilliams Arroyo. In men’s baseball, the Boricuas are 12th out of 85 teams. And in women’s softball, they rank fifth out of 67 teams.
To narrow the gap between them and other Boricua sports teams, along with other national soccer clubs worldwide, Puerto Rico’s soccer system also needs to look at the MLS and European models, Jusino said.
“We need to start thinking that we’re going to build a league in the European fashion and actually look at the American model that, economically speaking, is a much more attractive model for investors,” he explained. “With our relationship with the United States, both its pros and its cons, and with our geographic location, we should be in the top five of the Caribbean. We should at least be in the top 10 of CONCACAF.” (As of today, they are 22nd in CONCACAF.)
And it starts with the national team, added Serralta, who pointed out that it’s not enough for just every one of Puerto Rican descent to participate—you have to feel it.
“I’m a big proponent of having a system where you could somehow, in a process, really see where the heart is for that person who has Puerto Rican heritage,” he declared. “Are they really committed to Puerto Rico, or are they just looking at it as an opportunity to show themselves?
“There has to be a way for us to know that the Puerto Rican that has been raised in the United States feels that commitment [to Puerto Rico] because it was taught to him or engrained in him,” Serrralta added, tilting the camera on his Zoom up toward a map of Puerto Rico, “The only way you’re able to give that and more is if that island means something to you. And that goes for the guy in Puerto Rico. They have to feel it, too.”
Bryan Fonseca is an award-winning sports journalist, with bylines for Deadspin. He is also founder, host and executive producer of the Ain’t Hard To Tell Podcast and Side Hustle. Twitter: @BryanFonsecaNY.