Puerto Rico beats Cruz Azul in CCL semi first leg
The Puerto Rico Islanders jumped out to an early lead and tacked on an insurance goal late in the first half to cruise to a 2-0 victory on Tuesday over Cruz Azul in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.
The Estadio Juan Ramon Luobriel had a large crowd on hand to support the surprising Islanders who made it to the semifinals at the expense of Marathon, one of the top club sides in CONCACAF.
Still, Cruz Azul came to town clear favorites to dismantle the USL-1 side after strolling past Pumas in the quarterfinals, winning both legs without conceding a single goal.
But the underdog role seems to fit the orange-clad Islanders and there was little doubt entering the match the Puerto Rico would come out and try to force their will on the highly-favored Mexicans.
From the onset it was Puerto Rico on the attack, creating the first clear chance of the match before the minute mark, and opening the scoring just minutes later.
A great combination of flicks from a goal-kick started with Nicholas Addlery's head and found the feet Joshua Hansen, who slipped Sandy Gbandi in behind the Cruz Azul back line. The midfielder had acres of space and made no mistake on the finish, banging his shot low into the left hand corner and giving Puerto Rico the early lead.
The next 30 minutes of the match played out with little in the way of telling events. Both sides managed to find spells of possession with Cruz Azul knocking the ball around casually and Puerto Rico forcing hopeful balls forward.
Puerto Rico made its first real error of the match in the 36th, carelessly giving away possession from a set piece, but the Cementeros could not capitalize on the counterattack.
Moments later, a foul on the other end of the pitch led to Puerto Rico's second goal of the match. This time Gbandi turned supplier as his curling ball in was met in midair by the boot of Addlery, who flicked it nicely into the Cruz Azul net.
The Mexicans came close to pulling one back in similar fashion on 44 minutes when Gerardo Torrado's service found a free forward at the back post. The header back across goal forced an acrobatic save from Bill Gaudette, but the Islander net-minder held was up to the task.
The match went to the break with Puerto Rico two goals to the good.
Puerto Rico started brightly again in the second half, but it was Cruz Azul that came close early. Julio Cesar Pardini had two looks at the net from the top of the box, but Guadette punched the first back out and the second was hard and high.
The Islanders got right back on their attacking horse in the 49th when Christian Arrieta had a free header at the back post from a corner, but could not get the effort on target and missed a golden opportunity to put his team up three goals.
On 56 minutes Noah Delgado had claims for a penalty when Cruz Azul keeper Alfonso Blanco seemingly tripped the midfielder, but the referee judged it to be a fair challenge and let play continue without any action.
Guadette would be called back into action throughout much of the rest of the game, coming up with one big save after another and frustrating the Cementeros. On one occasion, Gaudette managed to save a rifle shot from inside his box before pouncing in time to keep the rebound from drifting over the line. On two other occasions, the keeper's quick reflexes kept out close range chances, and it seemed Cruz Azul was going to have to conjure up some magic to beat the former Columbus Crew man.
The rest of the Islanders pitched in on defense, routinely sitting with 10 men behind the ball and forcing Cruz Azul to hit speculative shots from distance.
Despite the constant pressure from Cruz Azul, Puerto Rico managed to keep its shape and not allow many opportunities in the last 15 minutes. The game ended when Kendall Jagdeosingh's long run to hold possession for Puerto Rico in the attacking third eventually won a free kick and killed off the clock.
The near capacity crowd in Bayamon cheered widely as the final whistle blew and the Islanders claimed victory.