When Puerto Rico’s last foray into professional soccer ended in 2012 with the organization dissolving, it was unclear when — or if — soccer on that level would return to the island.
But three years later — amid a backdrop of perhaps the worst economic period in the island’s history — soccer in Puerto Rico got a second chance from a committed owner.
His name? Carmelo Anthony.
Yes, the NBA star with career earnings approaching $200 million made an investment that was as much about business savvy as it was about giving back. His purchase of an expansion franchise in the North American Soccer League was announced in 2015, and Puerto Rico FC began play in this year’s fall season.
“To the thousands of soccer fans in Puerto Rico that have been waiting for soccer to come back, I can promise a world-class organization in a world-class league,” Anthony said after he bought the team.
When Minnesota United plays at Puerto Rico on Saturday, the Loons will get a firsthand look at the early returns.
“It’s not a short-term thing with Carmelo,” team president Tom Payne said. “I asked him, ‘why Puerto Rico?’ He said he wanted to do something great for the island. He wants to lift the island and build the sport on the island.”
Anthony, a soccer fan who is of Puerto Rican descent and has a charitable foundation that raises money on the island, still has his primary focus on his NBA career with the Knicks. But he is by no means an absentee owner.
“He texts me during games, and we talk relatively regularly on e-mail, text and phone about the big picture stuff,” Payne said. “When he’s here he goes to the games and takes a really active role. He’s a really impressive individual.”
Puerto Rico will need an owner invested in the long haul in order to chart progress. The Puerto Rico Islanders, who played in the NASL before dissolving in 2012, left behind some hard feelings in the corporate world that the new organization is attempting to overcome during already dire economic times.
Still, there is optimism. The organization staff moved into a permanent office recently and Payne boasts that some of their business deals are as good as any in the league. Average attendance has been around 3,500 and Payne is optimistic of some late-season crowds topping 6,000.
On the field, the Islanders started slow but are undefeated in their past six matches (three wins and three draws). After waiting to begin play until the fall season this year, Payne is optimistic that playing a full season in 2017 will allow for better player recruitment.
But it will take patience. Payne, who comes from a background of working with the Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy — where megastar David Beckham helped the franchise value soar — is thinking three years ahead while also keeping an eye on today.
Luckily, he has an owner with the same vision — giving Puerto Rico a real chance at soccer stability.
“He has a really big heart,” Payne said. “It’s my job to build the best business I can. I’m hoping that within a few years the economy can start turning, and we can really start judging what we’ve built.”