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Former SJU keeper leads upset-minded Puerto Rico

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From his deck, Bill Gaudette has a great view of the beaches of San Juan, Puerto Rico and, by all indications, the former St. John’s University goalkeeper is living a charmed life.

But while warm tropical breezes make it a lot easier to be a professional soccer player, Gaudette is all business — especially with it comes to the Puerto Rico Islanders’ remarkable run to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals.

Three teams from the Mexican Primera Division are among the final four teams still alive in the inaugural tournament, patterned after the popular UEFA Champions League in Europe.

Joining Cruz Azul, Atlante FC and Santos Laguna is the Puerto Rico Islanders, the minnow in a pool with three sharks from the region’s most powerful domestic league.

“When you take a step back and look at the whole competition, it’s definitely rewarding to see your club in the semifinals with three Mexican powerhouses,” Gaudette said. “We still have some work to do. We’re not just happy to be in the semifinals. We want to push here and see what we can do to hopefully progress to the next round.”

The Islanders are out of the United Soccer Leagues First Division, the second tier of professional soccer in North America, and were a long shot just to get out of the preliminary round.

The Islanders upset 24-time Costa Rican champ LD Alajuelense in the preliminary round 3-2 on aggregate. The fifth-year club advanced to the group stage, considered a heavy underdog in Group D with Santos Laguna, seven-time Panamanian league champion Tauro FC and 26-time Guatemalan league winner CSD Municipal.

A dramatic 2-2 draw on Oct. 29 against Tauro sent the Islanders to the knockout stages.

“If you look at our whole Champions League run so far, it’s pretty amazing,” said Gaudette, who spent three years with the Columbus Crew of MLS. “We’ve put ourselves in great position to get some exposure for the USL and Puerto Rico and hopefully we can keep going.”

The magical run continued on Tuesday night in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, with the Islanders stunning Cruz Azul 2-0 in the opening leg of the home-and-home series at Estadio Juan Roman Loubrie.

Sandy Gbandi struck inside of five minutes and Nicholas Adderly, a 27-year-old Jamaican forward and D.C. United castaway, scored for the third time in as many games in the 36th minute.

Gaudette, named the USL-1 goalkeeper of the year after helping lead the Islanders to the league final last season, was spectacular to keep the clean sheet. The 27-year-old made nine saves, including a pair from point-blank range in the 71st minute and an acrobatic stop in the 76th minute.

“You’re talking about one of the premier clubs in the world in Cruz Azul,” Gaudette said. “They’ve won numerous championships throughout different competitions, domestically and internationally. They have fantastic players and it’s going to be a tremendously hard game.”

Gaudette isn’t the only local product to find a home in Puerto Rico. Queens resident Kevin Mesa, released last year after signing a developmental contract with the New York Red Bulls, has resurfaced with the Islanders. He signed with the club last year and was sent on loan to Sevilla FC Bayamon for the remainder of the season.

Now Puerto Rico has a two-goal advantage against one of the most decorated teams in Mexico. But the Islanders have to play at the altitude and in the smog of Mexico City, a difficult place for visiting teams, in the return leg April 7 at Estadio Azul.

“We’ve got this far and we don’t want to be happy with that,” Gaudette said. “We’ve got a great opportunity to advance, but we have a big club in our way in Cruz Azul. We know it’s going to be a tremendously hard game … in Mexico City, but we’re here to get a result.”

Posted 6:35 pm, October 10, 2011
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