HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Fresh off their undefeated, championship-winning season, the New York Cosmos weren’t ready to lose in 2015 just yet, especially not in another highly anticipated New York derby, with a return trip to the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 on the line.
Four nights after hoisting the North American Soccer League Spring Season trophy on their home field, the Cosmos overcame a 2-0 second-half deficit at the same site to pull even with Major League Soccer’s New York City Football Club, 2-2, before eking out a thriller on penalty kicks (4-3) in a U.S. Open Cup fourth-round matchup — billed as the Easter River Derby — which more than lived up to the pre-game hype in front of 11,446 boisterous fans at James M. Shuart Stadium on Wednesday night.
Following last year’s easy U.S. Open Cup home win over the MLS’ New York Red Bulls in the same round, the Cosmos weren’t prepared to stake claim as the best soccer team in New York, even if they own some bragging rights over a local MLS rival for a second straight time.
“I wouldn’t look at it that we are the best team in New York,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “We look at it that people have to know that we can compete with anyone in the United States, and that any time we step on the field, we are a competitive team. If the press wants to talk about [us being the best in New York], that’s on their own accord… [and] that’s for the fans to talk about.”
Although the inaugural meeting for two clubs was historic, it didn’t figure to ignite much of a rivalry moving forward, with each team playing in different leagues. But at least for one night, the East River Derby provided a bevy of excitement, particularly throughout some very tense moments in the second half, overtime and penalty kicks, when Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Mauer (three saves in regulation) made three clutch saves prior to defender Hunter Gorskie’s game-winner in the shootout’s sixth and final round.
Before that, the home team attacked relentlessly and nearly scored on a couple of different occasions while keeping most of the play in the visitors’ end over the first 20 minutes, until four minutes later, when former NASL forward Kwadwo Poku ended a scoreless tie with a gorgeous effort for the first of his two goals for NYCFC.
Poku was set up after defender R.J. Allen streaked along the left side and curled a crossing pass into the box, where Poku dazzled the crowd by kicking the ball up and out of the reach of Mauer before finishing the play with a spin and an impressive bicycle kick into an empty net.
While a television showed Poku being offside in the 57th minute, Poku nonetheless doubled NYCFC’s lead off of a Cosmos giveaway in their own end and a straight-ahead pass into the box from midfielder Pablo Alvarez.
“I didn’t see it, so I wasn’t sure if it was offside or not,” Savarese. “It wasn’t clear from my angle, but everybody that was aligned in the right area, they said [it was offside]. So I haven’t seen anything yet to be able to make a comment [either way].”
Reflecting on the Cosmos’ MLS opponent being led by an ex-player from his own league, Savarese said, “I think the NASL has some interesting players… Poku is a talented player… [NYCFC] made a great decision bringing him in.”
Although NYCFC managed 11 shots and was only outshot by the Cosmos by one attempt through regulation, Poku’s second score not only accounted for each of his team’s goals, but both of NYCFC’s shots to that point.
Battling back, the Cosmos got an instant spark from midfielder Leo Fernandes, who is on loan from the Philadelphia Union, which ousted the Cosmos from their first U.S. Open Cup in the fifth round last year.
Fernandes, who was a major contributor to the Cosmos’ highly successful 2015 NASL Spring Season, cut NYCFC’s lead in half, in the 65th minute, just two minutes after entering the match, when Lucky Mkoasna bent forward and redirected a cross from the right wing by defender Hunter Freeman with a slight header, to Fernandes, who quickly deposited a shot from the middle of the box into the lower left corner of the net.
“It doesn’t get better than that,” Fernandes said. “As soon as I came on, I just wanted to make an impact any way that I [could], and I was lucky enough to make a good run, and the ball found me, and put it away.”
Late in regulation, Fernandes almost equaled the score in the 88th minute, but his header off of a left corner kick was a bit too high.
Prior to that, NYCFC missed a few of good chances to extend its lead, as Poku set up forward Patrick Mullins, who blasted a hard shot off of Mauer in the 81st minute. The rebound caromed to the right, for Alvarez, who shot just wide of the far post from the right side of the box.
Two minutes later, midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy was all alone in the box on a breakaway, but Mauer came out and made a brilliant, sliding stop with his left leg to keep the Cosmos in the match.
It appeared that Mauer’s efforts would be in vain until a prognostication by Fernandes became reality when some earlier bad luck turned fortunate for the Cosmos, with the perfect first name being the one responsible for changing their fortunes.
“I feel like we just needed one goal, one goal to change the momentum,” Fernandes said. “We knew that in the first half, we were playing good soccer, we were just getting unlucky… I knew that once I scored, we were going to get another, whether it was going to be five minutes later or in the 90th minute.”
Sure enough, seconds before regulation stoppage time began, Freeman again found Mkosana with a cross from the right wing that Mkosana drove into the net to tie the score in dramatic fashion.
“It was a good ball from Freeman,” Mkosana said. “I tried to gamble, get the first touch and get [the ball] off my foot real quick, and it worked out.”
Shortly thereafter, Cosmos supporters at the opposite end of the field taunted a larger, previously vocal contingent of NYCFC fans near their own goal with chants of “We can’t hear you!”
Moments later, midfielder Hagop Chirishian was taken down in the final seconds of stoppage time, just after he entered the box from the right side, but no call was made.
With no golden goal rule enforced, each team had some great chances to find the net in the first overtime, but narrowly missed on their respective opportunities.
Mkosana had the first of those chances in the second minute of extra time, after a long ball by Gorskie, from the Cosmos’ end, that was chased down by forward Mads Stokkelien (who entered the match in the 87th minute). A nice feed by Stokkelien set Mkosana up in the middle of the box, but Mkosana rolled a right-footed shot that glanced off the bottom of the right post. Midfielder Walter Restrepo immediately followed with a rebound blast that was too high.
Three minutes later, an Alvarez pass led Mullins, whose left-footed drive missed just wide of the left post.
Countering within the same minute, Mkosana took a bad pass by NYCFC into its own box, and smacked a hard shot off of goalkeeper Eirik Johansen (three saves in regulation).
Things looked bleak for the Cosmos in the 97th minute, when midfielder Andrew Jacobson was grabbed and pulled down in the box by Freeman, off of a corner kick. Jacobson was awarded a penalty kick, which was taken by Alvarez, who had an open net to put NYCFC ahead, as Mauer dove low and to his right. But Alvarez slammed the attempt off of the crossbar.
Midfielder Mix Diskerud had a decent chance from just inside of the top of the box, but his shot was too high.
The second overtime was far less eventful, although Maurer needed to make a terrific diving stop in the 114th minute on a close-range shot by midfielder Ned Grabavoy, before Fernandes blocked a rebound attempt by Alvarez.
Defender Chris Wingert and Stokkelien traded goals to start the shootout, before Grabavoy and Freeman were each stopped on diving stops, low and to the right, by Mauer and Johansen.
Ballouchy scored to the left as Maurer guessed to his left, before Fernandes was too high on an open net, to leave NYCFC with a 2-1 edge after three rounds of penalty kicks.
Diskerud extended that lead to 3-1, and was one Cosmos miss from a victory, but Mkosana snuck a shot under a diving Johansen to keep his team in it.
With a chance to give NYCFC a win in the fifth round, Mullins was denied by a great diving stop to Mauer’s left before Moffat tied the shootout at 3 apiece with a goal low in the lower left corner.
“[Maurer] has done a tremendous job this year,” Savarese noted. “He has matured tremendously and it doesn’t come as a surprise that he was big on the PK’s.”
Maurer joked, “I really just try and make sure the ball doesn’t cross the line,” before revealing his true thought process on his involvement in shootouts.
“There’s a lot of guessing involved.” he said. “I like to try to know what type of player it is. If it’s a crafty player, a lot of times, I like to try and cut [the angle down]. If it’s a big, strong player, sometimes I try and smash through. [I] kind of trey and read tendencies and at the last second, [I’ve] just got to go with [my] gut, and whichever way [I’m] feeling, and just push a hundred percent.
“Getting those saves, more than anything, just kept us in it, to get to [penalty kicks]. Any time, as a goalkeeper, you get to PK’s, you’re just excited; finally a chance to be the hero instead of catching the blame.”
Coming up huge yet again, Mauer started the final round by diving to his right and using both hands to stop a shot by defender Shay Facey.
That set the stage for Gorskie, who put a shot low and to the right. Guessing correctly, Johansen dove to his left and got his left hand on the ball, but Gorskie’s effort had enough on it to get inside the right post and touch off an exuberant on-field celebration, as the Cosmos’ bench and coaches rushed onto the pitch.
“The whole time I was just kind of saying to myself, ‘I’m going to win this game,’” Gorskie said. “I had faith in Jim to get the saves, and then I was in the situation [at the end]. It was a little surreal.”
Failing wasn’t an option for a Cosmos squad which has been steeped in confidence ever since coming up short in the 2014 NASL playoffs.
“Definitely, [we could come back against NYCFC],” Savarese said. “I think we started the game very well, we created chances, I thought we had the better of the play until they scored the goal.
“After they scored the goal, towards the end of the first half, I think we had a lot of trouble. We kind of deflated… after the talk at halftime, the team came into the [second half] with a different mentality, and we believed that we were going to be able to win the game.”
Gorskie concurred, “Absolutely, we’ve done it time and again. This team just has a tremendous belief in what we’re doing and in each other… and no matter what the situation is in the game, we’re confident that we’re going to get back in it.”
Playing for each other as much as for themselves, has helped the Cosmos maintain that type of feeling regardless of the situation.
“The guys are willing to fight no matter what,” Maurer said. “We’re a close group. People throw the word family around a lot, but it’s not even a cliché [with us]. We’re all very close. It’s the least amount of [in-]fighting in this group that I’ve ever seen in a professional club and it shows in a moment like that — that even if things aren’t going well, we still stick together.”
Mkosana added, “It comes down to getting that confidence from your coaches, from your teammates… from the players around you, and I feel like [there’s] a lot of [that] here with the Cosmos. Everybody is working hard, and if the next person’s working hard, you’ve got to work hard to.
“There [was a feeling at 2-0, NYCFC] that we’re not going to lose at home, we’re not going to end like this… I felt like if we went to PK’s, we were going to win.”
Putting another derby win in perspective, Savarese said, “These kind of games are different games… they shape the history in the [New York] City [area]… I think the most important thing is that they take us seriously, that they know we are capable of big things and that we can compete with anyone.”
Adding to those thoughts, Gorskie said, “I think the brand has already been built with the Cosmos of old… we’re just trying to maintain that legacy… for us, there is a big emphasis on the Open Cup and establishing ourselves as [even more of] a global brand… I’m just glad that we could go out and prove that we’re a talented team and that we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
Certainly, the environment — one that Savarese’s players reveled in — helped to push the Cosmos to that level.
“What a special game, for the players that are involved, to the fans, it was just a total experience,” Gorskie said. “You felt the atmosphere. There’s nothing like it.
“Hats off to our fans, and even to the NYCFC fans. They really made it a special game. It was just an incredible atmosphere, especially a win like this at home, it was one of the best moments of my life.”
Echoing those thoughts, Mkosana said, “Probably the best moment of my life. A great feeling, I can’t even explain it. [We] haven’t lost this season. It means a lot to the team, it means a lot to the fans, the coaches.”
Fernandes called the night, “Amazing,” adding that it was, “Definitely one of the best games I’ve been a part of in my career, and I hope there’s more games like this.”
But of course, what has made the Cosmos so successful in 2015 thus far, is their ability to keep looking forward to the next task at hand, with the reminder of a narrow loss to the Philadelphia Union — which ended the Cosmos’ first appearance in the U.S. Open Cup last year — serving as a further motivator to achieve even more.
“We remember what happened in Philly,” Savarese said. “This year, we feel that we have a stronger team, and we are going to compete as much as we can to try to go all the way because [winning the U.S. Open Cup] is for us, a way, to be able to make the CONCACAF Champions League. So, for us, it’s very important. For tonight, besides being a great match for our fans… it puts us closer to our goal.”
As one of only 16 teams left in the 102nd edition of the oldest soccer tournament in the United States, the Cosmos are the only NASL club to reach the Round of 16, along with the United Soccer League’s Charlotte Independence and 14 MLS clubs. The Cosmos will learn their opponent for that round on Thursday morning.
That match, on June 30 or July 1, will send the winner to the U.S. Open Cup East Region Final and will precede the start of the Cosmos’ 2015 Fall NASL campaign, when the team currently holding New York bragging rights hosts the Indy Eleven on July 5.
video: One World Sports