He and Senna Have a Chance to Go Out on Top Together
Brooklyn, N.Y. — Although Spanish soccer legends Raul and Marcos Senna mutually decided that this year would be the final one of their respective storied careers, they weren’t ready to call it quits without the chance to leave the game on top.
Thus, with the top-seeded New York Cosmos’ season on the line, the 38-year-old Raul and 39-year-old Senna came through to guide the Cosmos to their seventh Soccer Bowl — their second in the three years of their modern era — and their league-record eighth North American Soccer League title game overall, against either second-seeded, Fall Season champion Ottawa or third-seeded Minnesota, who will meet on Sunday.
Down 1-0 late in the first half at New York’s home away from home, at MCU Park in Brooklyn, Senna’s free kick set up an easy follow-up equalizer by forward Gaston Cellerino before Raul’s deft touch inside the box in the 61st minute gave the Cosmos a comeback 2-1 NASL semifinal playoff win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, who were trying to reach the Soccer Bowl as a four seed for the second straight year.
Considering that New York has produced drastically different results in its modern era — an undefeated 28-0-8 mark (including 11-0-2 in 2015) when scoring first, and a losing record of 8-12-9 (including a mediocre 5-4-6) when conceding a goal first — an early score by midfielder Victor Giro, better known as PC, in the 16th minute, provided cause for concern that the Cosmos’ Spring and Combined Season championships might have been for naught.
Four minutes after Raul intercepted a Strikers pass and fired a hard shot in the box right at goalkeeper David Meves (four saves), PC took a pass on the right wing from midfielder Marlon Freitas, dribbled just inside the box, and with defender Ayoze turning to the side rather than challenging, glanced a low shot off of the far left post and into the net.
Whether or not the Cosmos saw that play coming, given the venue — at the home of minor league baseball’s Brooklyn Cyclones, due to a scheduling conflict that moved the game from New York’s regular home field at James M. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University — and the spot where PC took the shot from, the goal literally came out of left field.
“PC was able to find on the right side, space, and then he scored a great goal,” New York head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “He found the only area that was open [inside] the [far] post. He tried on a second time on a great save by [goalkeeper Jimmy] Mauer.”
That came later on, in the 32nd minute, when PC once again tried to beat Mauer (three saves), who with the stop, might have saved the Cosmos season.
“It was a tough one, just skipping off the hard turf,” Mauer said. “[PC] put some nasty spin on it and luckily, I was able to dig it out and push it wide. They had just scored one to go up, and luckily, I was able to make the play and keep [the deficit at] one [goal]. If the game goes to two, it can be tough.”
Five minutes after Maurer’s key stop, Senna’s free kick from just outside the left corner of the box caused Meves to make a diving save to his left and leave the net wide open for Cellerino to easily redirect the rebound in for a tying score that changed the match’s momentum in favor of the Cosmos.
“Lately, I haven’t been able to score a goal and I’m very happy I was able to do so today and [help us get] to the championship [game] next week,” said Cellerino, who scored his second goal of the season in his ninth appearance as a Cosmo after he joined New York late in the season and took over the starting spot for Lucky Mkosana, the team’s third-leading scorer this year, with five goals.
Despite controlling possession 58 percent of the time in each half, the Cosmos outshot the Strikers just 9-7. But some nice teamwork set the retiring Raul up for a storybook finish when a short pass from defender Hunter Freeman was quickly played through on a single touch from midfielder Danny Szetela, to Raul at the top of the arc.
Controlling the pass nicely with his left foot, Raul moved into the middle of the box before rolling a left-footed shot off of the right post and into the net to put New York up for good.
“I thought we were playing well,” Szetela said. “We were keeping the ball. I was going forward a little more in the second half, trying to connect, and saw Raul just making a run, and Hunter played the ball and I just played it across, hoping that Raul would get it. It took a little deflection but still ended in a spot where Raul got it and he had a great finish.”
Asked if thoughts seeped in at halftime about whether Raul (a former Real Madrid star for 16 years) and Senna (a Brazilian Villarreal star for 11 year) might each be facing their final half of soccer, Savarese said emphatically, “No, no. Never, never, never, because he have no time to think about those things.
“We [had] to correct [mistakes], we [had] to make sure that we fixed some things that we felt in the first half, we could have done better. We liked the energy that we put towards the last few minutes of the first half, and we just had to make sure that we maintained that energy. So at no point [did] we [have] time to think… ‘This could be the last game [for Raul and Senna.’”
While Raul, who was off to attend his son’s soccer game right after his own match, was unavailable to the media for comment, his coach and teammates had high praise for him, as well as Senna.
“He’s always been that player that puts something of genius in the game,” Savarese said of Raul. “Today, we saw [in the] second half, he started finding the space, he started creating, he started doing so many different things, breaking them down, making plays, and then the goal was very important for us also. Not only that, but the last few minutes of the game, for him to be able to hold the ball in the right areas… and keep the ball in those situations, that was very important for us.
“[Raul] and Marcos, today, were very good.”
On Senna, the 28-year-old Szetela said, “He was out there running around like he was 20 years younger, so I might talk to him and tell him to stay another year… I’m excited to play in the final with him.”
Szetela later added of Raul, “Him too, I think I’ve got to talk to him not to retire either… it could [have been] their last game and they’re playing like they’re 20 years old. Raul had a great game.”
Continuing, Szetela said, “I think when you have guys like that… Marcos has been with us three years, Raul, his first season with us, you learn from them. You pick up the game from them. You learn how to be composed on the field. Definitely for me, I feel a lot more composed since I started playing with Marcos the first year. When you have guys on the field like that, you always feel confident that you’re always going to play your best game.”
Reflecting on the chance to be a teammate of Raul and Senna, Maurer said, “It’s meant the world to me… how many people can say they’ve played with two guys like them? And not just play with them but really learn from them on and off the field; their personalities, their character… and moments of magic like Raul’s touch on [our] second goal was just ridiculous. We get to see it every day in training, but you could tell [Raul and Marcos] were going to do whatever it took to win today.”
Echoing Szetela’s admiration of the ability of Raul and Senna to compete at a high level in their late 30s, Maurer added, “[In] the 85th minute, those two were sprinting around the field, pressuring Fort Lauderdale to win the ball back. Raul takes the ball 60 yards down the sideline to hold it up and kill off another couple minutes with P.C. just harassing him the whole time. I can’t say enough about the work that [Raul and Marcos] put in.”
Given that Raul’s goal was his ninth of the year, to give him the team lead for 2015, and where Raul is now compared to when he first joined the Cosmos last offseason, it’s easy to understand why Szetela (and others) would want to talk Raul out of retiring.
“[Raul] is reaching now, a point where he’s very comfortable physically,” Savarese said. “I think at the beginning, sometimes, he was trying to get his top shape.”
Senna, who has remained in impeccable shape himself while helping his team to a 2013 Fall Season championship, and 2015 Spring and Combined Season titles, as well as scoring the lone goal the last time New York played in the Soccer Bowl, in 2013, admitted “mixed feelings” about reaching his second title game while knowing it will be the last match of his career.
“I’m very happy that we were able to win and go to the championship, and that I was able to win so many things with the Cosmos,” he said. “But on the other hand, I’m very sad that I’m no longer going to play with my teammates.”
While he’d of course love to win another Soccer Bowl, Senna already feels like he’s leaving a winner regardless of what happens next week.
“Being able to play until the age of 39 is a great feat, and another, being able to play next to one of the great legends, Raul, is another great feat of mine,” Senna added. “So I’m leaving on top and I’m very happy.”
Knowing there’s still work to be done, Savarese was prepared yet to jump ahead to the Cosmos hosting the Soccer Bowl for the inaugural time in New York’s modern era, and the first NASL title game at Hofstra since they captured the first of their league record six league championships.
“First of all, let me swallow tonight,” he said with a smile. “I think it was a good game today. We knew that Fort Lauderdale was going to be a tough team to play against. They had a lot of energy at the beginning… and they have some quality players.
“I think at the beginning, we had a little trouble, and in the second half, we were able to be a little more dominant.
“Once we were able to close them down, close the spaces well, put the right energy, move the ball quick, I think it was a different game completely.”
Pointing out another main factor in turning the match around, Szetela said, “We started slow, but after the first 25 minutes, we picked it up and we started keeping the ball… we had to match [the Strikers physically] and after we did that, everything fell into place.”
Maurer credited both the Strikers and his own team’s ability to maintain its confidence, despite its poor record when conceding the opening goal.
“Fort Lauderdale is set up very well, they were very well organized, Maurer said. “They worked really, really hard and made it tough for us.
“People always use that Cardiac Cosmos name with us. We never give up, so for me, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary to come back. It didn’t faze us at all going down a goal. We kept playing the same way and knew that our chances would come.”
Allowing himself to think only briefly about the Soccer Bowl — which will take place at Hofstra on Sunday, November 15, at 5 p.m., Savarese noted the contrasting styles of his team’s two potential opponents. “Whoever it’s going to be, two completely different teams, Minnesota and Ottawa… once we know who is going to be in the final, then we prepare for that,” he said.
New York is 1-0-2 against Minnesota this year, with a 2-1 win over the United on August 8 in the teams’ only meeting at Hofstra in 2015.
A matchup against Ottawa would be even more intriguing, as the Cosmos beat the Fury at MCU Park on May 2 and played to a scoreless draw in Ottawa on August 26, but on September 22 at Hofstra, suffered their worst loss (4-1) of the year.
The focus, though, will be primarily on winning a championship, even more so than competing in the last match for both Raul and Senna.
“It’s a final,” Savarese said. “Finals are finals. Either you’re [a] champion or [not].”
Maurer added, “It’s huge, it’s what you work all season for… everything we did all season to end up in the top seed, it’s great and that’s what we wanted, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean anything… if we would have lost today, what would that top seed have meant?
On a personal level, Maurer, who was the backup keeper on the 2013 championship team, said, “As a professional, you want to play in finals. In 2013, it was awesome being a part of the team and winning, but it’s always a little bit different when it’s your team, when you’ve been playing all year. I’m really excited and looking forward to a great match [next] Sunday.”
Putting into perspective what it would mean to send Raul and Senna out as winners, Szetela said, “Obviously, we want to win it for them, but everyone wants to win it for themselves too, for the team and for the fans. It’s a special game being the last game for Raul and Marcos, so we’re going to go out there and win it for them and for our fans.”
He added, “Since the beginning of the year, our goal was to win the Soccer Bowl. We’re just one game away [from that], so we’re happy to be there and we’ve just got to continue to work hard this week and play one more game.”
One more game to add yet another title to the incomparable legacy of the NASL’s best team ever, and one more to possibly have Raul and Senna finish their brilliant careers as the champions.