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The USL's Short-Lived Caribbean Experiment

When multiple clubs from the United Soccer League First Division broke away to form their own rival lower division league in 2011, the already-unstable North American soccer scene outside of Major League Soccer underwent rapid change in a short period of time.

While the newly-formed (re-formed?) NASL had aspirations of challenging MLS for top division status, at the beginning it merely featured several established clubs with strong fanbases mostly located on the East Coast.

Meanwhile, the USL rebranded as USL Pro and debuted with nearly twice as many teams as the NASL's eight.

The league began with 15 teams split into three divisions for the 2011 season. The Charleston Battery, Charlotte Eagles, Orlando City SC, Richmond Kickers, and Wilmington Hammerheads made up the American Division while the National Division included the Dayton Dutch Lions, F.C. New York, Harrisburg City Islanders, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and Rochester Rhinos.

The third grouping was labeled the "International Division" and featured Antigua Barracuda, the Puerto Rican trio of Puerto Rico United, River Plate Puerto Rico, and Sevilla Puerto Rico. Rounding out the teams were the Los Angeles Blues, who were included despite existing the farthest away from all four of their new rivals -- the closest divisional away game for the Blues was over 3,000 miles away.

Antigua seemed like a strange choice for the USL. With a population of roughly 100,000, the Caribbean island nation only contained more people than 12 other fully sovereign nations. The team would play out of St. John's, which at 22,000, less than half the size as the next lowest city to field a team in the league. The country did, however, punch above its weight in soccer. The same month the USL announced Barracuda's entry, Antigua and Barbuda occupied the 123rd place in the FIFA rankings, ahead of Haiti, Vietnam, and Kazakhstan.

At least with the Puerto Rico clubs, Antigua would have three local rivals.

According to the September 2010 press release published by the league, Sevilla Puerto Rico was founded as an affiliate to the Puerto Rico Islanders, who now competed in the rival NASL.

"This unique new initiative designed to promote the growth of youth soccer in Puerto Rico was originally discussed when USL officials entered into formal discussions with the Puerto Rican Football Federation in April," the league wrote in the release. "The relationship between USL and the PRFF is expected to grow in the coming years with a focus on the development of men's and women's soccer, starting at the youth level."

On May 10, 2011, fewer than eight months after the three teams signed on, the USL announced their removal one-third of the way into the league's inaugural season.

"In the best interests of USL Pro and its teams, it was necessary to remove the three PRSL teams," USL CEO Alec Papadakis said in a five paragraph release making the announcement. "USL Pro has established high standards which are an integral component of the league model, and we are determined to preserve the integrity of these standards on and off the field. Dealing proactively with this situation allows us to reset our daily focus on supporting the efforts of our USL Pro teams in maintaining the league's position as the strongest, best operated domestic league below MLS."

The announcement came eight games into Antigua Barracuda's first-ever USL season, one that saw them collect the second-most points in the league in that time period with 18. Only Richmond's 19 was better.

The league quickly allocated Barracuda to the American Division and the Blues to the National Division and rescheduled games for the remainder of the 24-match season. The result left the USL looking like this:

The travel, while not as horrible as it was for the Blues, would still prove grueling. Orlando, the closest league opponents, sat nearly 1,500 miles away.

When the USL withdrew the three Puerto Rico squads, Antigua had a record of 6-2-0, though five of those wins came against their Caribbean rivals. Barracuda's last 16 fixtures featured a win against future champions Orlando and a pair of victories against the Blues, who they played six times in 2011. But overall the club went just 3-11-2.

From the time the three Puerto Rico clubs left in 2011 until Antigua folded after the 2013 season, the team compiled an 8-55-3 record with 43 goals scored and 164 allowed. The club spent their entire last season playing on the road, a campaign it finished 0-26-0 in. The club's 91 goals allowed in 2013 is still a USL record as is their minus-80 goal differential. The next highest goals allowed figure ever allowed in the league is 80, a mark that's been hit three times, though all in 34 game seasons.

In their 74 game history, Barracuda garnered 45 points from 74 games, or 0.61 per game. To put that into context, there have only been seven seasons in which a team has averaged fewer points per game than Antigua did in their history: Loudoun United (2020, 0.46 ppg), Loudoun (2021, 0.47), Portland Timbers FC 2 (2015, 0.47), Dayton Dutch Lions (2011, 0.5), Toronto FC II (2018, 0.53), Philadelphia Union II (2020, 0.56), Portland Timbers FC 2 (2020, 0.56).

There have been 265 non-Antigua Barracuda seasons played in the USL through 2021. Just 2.6 percent of those have finished with a team earning fewer than 0.61 points per game.

Antigua averaged just 0.8 goals per game, while allowing 2.34. Of the club's nine wins over non-Puerto Rico USL clubs, just one came via multiple goals. Barracuda were shut out 37 times in league play, exactly once every two games.

On November 16, 2013 Reckless Challenge's Chad Hollingsworth reported that Antigua Barracuda were folding. "It's no surprise to learn that Antigua is bowing out," Hollingsworth wrote. "The Barracuda failed to put together a competitive team since joining USL Pro, and there have been reports of financial problems that might have even brought US congressmen to their knees. The club did not even have a home venue."

Two months later the USL officially confirmed Hollingsworth's report, ending one of the stranger episodes in American lower division soccer history.

It did appear that Antigua and Barbuda benefitted from the club, though. With a national team squad made up of mainly Barracuda players, the tiny nation reached the Third Round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying for the first time during the 2014 cycle. The team finished bottom with just one point but grabbed a scoreless home draw against Jamaica and only a 90th minute goal from Eddie Johnson prevented them from also tying the United States at home. Three of the four goals the country scored in that round came via current Barracuda players. Antigua and Barbuda reached their highest-ever FIFA ranking in October of 2014 when it rose to 70th following Caribbean Cup qualification victories over Anguilla, the Dominican Republic, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Saint Lucia.

As of June 2022, Antigua and Barbuda are ranked 132nd by FIFA.

The Puerto Rico Islanders went on hiatus after the 2012 NASL season. The Carmelo Anthony-owned Puerto Rico FC joined the league for the league's fall campaign in 2016 and in 54 games throughout the next two years, posted a 10-25-19 record. The club folded along with the NASL following the 2017 season.

Lower division American soccer hasn't returned to the Caribbean since.


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