HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Three days after becoming a new father on Thursday, New York Cosmos captain Carlos Mendes unexpectedly, yet fittingly, provided an unforgettable Mother’s Day gift for his whole family.
The star defenseman doesn’t score often, but on the rare occasion he finds the net, his goals come in pairs during the first half of a match.
Such was the case again on Sunday, when Mendes — whose only other two scores in 38 prior North American Soccer League games came during New York’s 4-0 win over Atlanta on April 13, 2014 — netted two first-half goals to help keep the first-place Cosmos (4-0-2) unbeaten this spring during a 4-2 victory over FC Edmonton (1-2-2) on a warm, sun splashed Mother’s Day, before 3,383 fans at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium.
One of those supporters in attendance was Mendes’ mother, who while sharing her day with Moms everywhere, suddenly had a second big reason in a four-day span to be proud of her son.
“It’s special, it really is,” said Mendes, a nearby Mineola, N.Y. native and first-time parent at the age of 34, after his wife Jill gave birth to their son James Ryan Mendes. “Obviously, the win’s huge and it’s important for the team, but when you can get two goals — and you don’t [normally] score too many — on Mother’s Day, and my son just being born, it’s an incredible feeling. And having my Mom in the stands also. So, special all around and a great win.”
Wasting little time, Mendes scored the game’s first goal in the second minute after former Real Madrid star, forward Raul, crossed a high ball from the left side of the box to fellow newcomer Lucky Mkosana, who sent a weak, close-range header that was stopped by goalkeeper Matt VanOekel (five saves) just before Mendes’ left foot put away the rebound from the middle of the box.
In a touching tribute to his newly born son and wife’s recent pregnancy, Mendes celebrated the goal by tucking the ball under his shirt and kissing it with his hand.
Not long after that, a questionable foul call in the box allowed the Eddies to tie the game on a 17th-minute penalty shot from forward Tomi Ameobi.
Midfielder Danny Szetela (one assist) said, “I have no idea,” when asked why Ameobi was awarded the free kick.
“[The referee] didn’t really say anything, he just said it was a foul,” Szetela added. “He didn’t really explain himself, so we’ll just have to watch the tape and see what he called.”
Ameobi’s goal broke a New York shutout streak of 365 consecutive minutes, just seven minutes short of the Cosmos’ own modern-day NASL record set over the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Szetela’s lone assist later on came on one of the more unlikely and bizarre sequences to take place on a soccer field.
Set up perfectly by a Mkosana crossing pass that was rolled across the box from the left side, Szetela smacked a shot off of the cross bar.
His momentum carried him just past the end line before he reestablished himself back inbounds as New York kept the ball alive with a header following a high-bounding carom from Szetela’s shot.
Just four seconds after missing off the crossbar from the middle of the six-yard box with his left foot, Szetela glanced a leaning, off-balance, right-footed shot from the left side of the same box, once again, off the crossbar. But Raul easily put the rebound from that attempt past VanOekel for his first home goal as a Cosmo, to move New York ahead to stay, 2-1, in the 23rd minute.
“I was talking about it with the guys after Raul scored the goal,” Szetela said. “I’ve only seen it in [the video game] FIFA ’15. So, I think I’m actually going to put that clip up on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, my ‘FIFA ’15’ assist. I’ve seen it, I think, once or twice on a different clip [of] crazy soccer things that happen, but never had I seen it happen in person.”
Laughing at the craziness of the play, Savarese said, “[We were] a little bit unlucky, but at the end, we ended up scoring the goal. So I’m glad that the guys kept on going, even Szetela, [on] the second opportunity.”
Thirteen minutes after Raul’s goal, defenseman Ayoze set Mendes up on a much more conventional play, as he took a short pass off of a corner kick, and from the left wing, curled a ball deep into the box, where Mendes used a header to beat VanOekel, who imprudently gambled by coming out to play the ball.
Quickly extending the Cosmos’ lead after halftime, midfielder Leo Fernandes threaded a pass through traffic for Mkosana, who found himself all alone in the box to roll a shot by VanOekel for an easy goal that put New York up, 4-1, in the 49th minute.
Just three minutes later, Raul nearly made gave New York a 5-1 lead, but VanOekel stepped up to catch a crossing pass before Raul could connect on a header.
In the 66th minute, Mendes was looking for the hat trick, but a pass along the left side of the box was just out of his reach.
Consecutive saves by VanOekel, the second on a great diving stop to his left, to deny midfielder Sebastian Guenzatti from close range in the 79th minute, prevented Edmonton from falling behind 5-2.
Pleased with his team’s play in building a big lead, Savarese felt the Cosmos lost their focus down the stretch.
“I felt until 4-1… we had a great game,” he said. “[We were] moving the ball well, [we] pressured in good areas, not allowing them to be able to counterattack. I thought we had a very, very solid game until [it was] 4-1. After [that], we got confused in what it is to manage the game and what it is to relax… we relaxed a little bit too much and then we gave them a little bit of life and the game became complicated.”
Sure enough, that’s when Eddies got within two goals, as Ameobi left a nice touch pass to midfielder Ritchie Jones, who beat goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer (two saves) in the 74th minute.
Although New York allowed twice as many goals as it had all season, the Cosmos — who temporarily ditched their normal home green jerseys in favor of debuting their new blue kits — scored only one fewer goal than the five they had tallied during the spring coming into the match.
“I think we keep on understanding each other more,” Savarese said. “We started to feel that we know each other more and more.”
Szetela added, “I think our chemistry’s building. We’ve got new players on the team and it’s only our sixth game together in the season. The chemistry is still building… I think every week we’re getting better and better.”
Against Edmonton – which often gave New York a lot of space to roam free in the attacking end — Mendes said, “I just think our movement was good… that’s the way we want to play and it made it difficult on them.”
For one day, at least, that included Mendes leading the way offensively.
Savarese joked that Mendes’ scoring outbreak was a result of “the baby effect.”
“I guess, I don’t know,” was Mendes’ response to that notion with a chuckle, before he added, “Sometimes, you play a game and a couple bounces don’t go your way. Today, the first one fell right in front of me and the second one, I got on the end of it — a great ball too, a cross from [Ayoze]. It’s exciting just to win. It’s an important win at home because [we] need to get these points at home.”
Praising Mendes’ play, Savarese said, “He had a great game defensively… and then, offensively, on the set pieces that we worked on, he was very good getting in there on the rebound, and then the second goal that he scored, was excellent, the way he just flicked it over the goalie, was fantastic. So [he had] a very good match.”
Backing Savarese’s words, Szetela and midfielder Andres Flores each captured how happy Mendes’ teammates were to see him have a big game during his first match as a father.
“He had a great game, two goals, he did it for his baby,” Szetela said. “This is going to be a day where James Ryan grows up and he’s going to remember this game.”
Catching himself, Szetela laughed with the media before adding, “Well, not remember it, but he’ll be able to see what his dad did on this day.”
Certainly, the Mendes family will let the youngest member of their crew view his father’s accomplishments from the game when he’s ready.
“Hopefully, he can watch it someday when he’s old enough,” Mendes said of his son.
Earlier, Flores said, “As a team, we’re very excited for him, that Carlos [scored] those two goals and we wish the best for him.”
Speaking with his teammates, Mendes reflected on the way his goals have come as braces, even if far between, while humbly choosing to keep the team’s objectives top of mind.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “Everyone was like, ‘Yeah, when you score, you score two.’ Listen, whoever scores, it of course, doesn’t matter. The team’s playing well and we’re in first place. A lot of work to do, but we can improve and hopefully we’ll be champions of the Spring.”
Positioning themselves well for an automatic playoff berth as possible champions of the short, 10-week Spring Season, the Cosmos (14 points) hold a sizable five-point lead over two (expansion Jacksonville and longtime rival Tampa Bay) of the league’s three Florida teams with four weeks to play.
While Mendes admitted that New York’s quest for a Spring Season title is far from over, he noted that a blend of important roster additions along with a strong collective team drive has propelled the Cosmos to where they are now.
“We picked up some big players in the offseason.” he said. “All of our squad [is playing well], but bringing in a guy like Raul with his experience also helps. I just think as a team, we’re playing with a purpose. We’re playing as a unit and that’ll get you wins. Overall, we’re excited, but [we have] a lot of work to do. We can improve in a lot of areas.”
On possibly being able to take advantage of a playoff route via the 10-week Spring Season versus the 20-game Fall Season yet to come, or through a third route as a wild-card over both of those seasons in 2015, Mendes said, “It’s great, [in] a short season, if you can get it, that’s key. We’ll keep working [and] improving, and hopefully at the end of the Spring [Season], we’ll have that spot.”
New York’s next test during that journey is a trip to Carolina, where the Cosmos are 0-2 without a goal all-time. The opening kickoff between New York and the Carolina Railhawks is set for Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m.
All photos by Jon Wagner (New York Sports Day)