HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The New York Cosmos’ first home championship match since their inaugural one more than three decades earlier was billed as a going away party to send retiring Spanish soccer legends Raul and Marcos Sennna out on top.
While the 38-year-old Raul and 39-year-old Senna successfully finished as champions, it was an emerging star of the present and future that stole the show.
Forward Gaston Cellerino’s hat trick — with Raul assisting on what proved to be the game-winning goal — provided all the scoring the Cosmos would need to hold off the determined Ottawa Fury, 3-2, and capture their North American Soccer League record seventh title before a modern-day NASL record-crowd of 10,166 fans at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Sunday night.
Reflecting on the way Cellerino (who ironically made his first NASL start in New York’s loss to Ottawa) significantly improved in a relatively short period of time, head coach Giovanni Savaraese said, “We needed a striker with [Cellerino’s] characteristics, a strong forward that makes good runs inside the box, and we knew that he needed work… little by little, he started to find his way, and today, he was fantastic.”
After staking the top-seeded, 2015 Spring and Combined Season champion Cosmos to a 1-0 halftime lead on a goal which came the same number of minutes into the game that matched his uniform number, New York’s No. 8 added two second-half scores just seven minutes apart to offset the second-half brace tallied by forward Tom Heinemann.
Back on September 22, Heinemann’s shot which led to a Cosmos own-goal, before the striker scored directly, finished New York’s worst loss of the season (4-1).
“I think it’s a good game for us to learn a lot of things and be prepared for what is coming in the postseason,” Savarese prophetically said at the time.
Apparently, his team learned a lot, especially Cellerino, who joined the Cosmos late in the season, on August 17.
“I’m looking forward to getting to New York and starting training and doing whatever it takes to help this team win another championship,” Cellerino said then.
Entering the postseason with a lone goal in eight regular season appearances (including five starts), Cellerino (off of a Senna free kick) scored a tying goal before Raul netted a game-winner in the Cosmos’ 2-1 NASL semi-final victory at New York’s seldom-used secondary home, MCU Park in Brooklyn, last week.
Hard work by midfielder Danny Szetela kept the ball in the Fury’s end before it found its way to Cellerino in the box, where the 29-year-old Argentine native powered his way through two defenders before sneaking the ball past charging goalkeeper Romuald Peiser (one save) as he fell over Peiser, one minute after Cellerino was booked for the first of six cards (three for each team) during a sometimes chippy final.
“Scoring early was important for us,” said Savarese, whose club finished the year an unblemished 12-0-2 while remaining unbeaten (29-0-8) under Savarese when scoring first. “We spoke about that early goal, because [we knew] it would change the dynamics of the match, as we saw.”
Ten minutes after his netting first goal, Cellerino was looking to double New York’s lead when he took a nice pass from Raul in the left side of the box, but with a defender cutting down the angle, shot barely wide of the near post with his left foot.
Just one minute into the second half, Cellerino (who was unavailable for comment after the match) missed a wide open net on a bouncing pass into the box from midfielder Walter Restrepo.
A header by defender Roversio would have given the Cosmos their second goal a short time later, but a nearby foul in the box on Raul negated the score.
Things became action-packed over a short period of time later in the half, with a series of cards, goals and near-misses.
Eight minutes after midfielder Sebastian Guenzatti picked up New York’s third yellow card, in the 60th minute, defender Mason Trafford was sent off with a red card for stepping on Guenzatti following an intense battle with him along the sideline.
Being down a man over the final 22 minutes plus an additional four minutes of stoppage time didn’t deter Ottawa however, as Heinemman, who scored both of the Fury’s goals in its 2-1 semi-final home win over third-seeded Minnesota, beat goalkeeper Jimmy Mauer (two saves) just two minutes later to tie the score.
But only two minutes after that, Restrepo chipped a crossing pass from the right side of the box over a leaping Peiser, to the far post, where two Ottawa defenders tried to clear. However, before they could, Cellerino charged forward, got between them, and knocked in the go-ahead goal.
Yellow cards were whistled on a pair of Fury players four minutes later, before Cellerino narrowly missed his third goal of the night, in the 80th minute, when Peiser made a great stop on a close header attempt.
Cellerino soon got another chance, though, when Raul cleverly played a ball at midfield to Cellerino, who was able to move in all alone up the left side. Peiser came out to meet Cellerino, who put a deft, right-footed touch to Peiser’s left and just inside the right post for a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 lead in the 85th minute.
Yet Ottawa — the 2015 Fall Season champion, which lost for the first time in a 13 road matches and 14 overall, and for just the second time in 27 contests after finishing the regular season tied with New York (at 15-4-11) — wouldn’t go away quietly, as Heinemann found the net again, off of a Mauer deflection, two minutes into stoppage time to cut New York’s lead in half.
But time ultimately ran out on the Fury (who allowed three goals in a game for the first time since a 3-1 loss to Fort Lauderdale on April 25), as the Cosmos, who have been to the postseason in each of their three modern era years (all under Savarese), won their second Soccer Bowl over that time.
Their two most recent championships have come after a 29-year-hiatus, which followed New York’s heyday, when the franchise, which began in 1970 and temporarily folded in 1985, won its first NASL title in the same stadium at Hofstra in 1972. The Cosmos’ four subsequent, early-era titles came in Soccer Bowls played at either their former home, the since demolished Giants Stadium in New Jersey, or in other teams’ NASL stadiums. The club’s seven titles, including six Soccer Bowl championships, are marks that far exceed any other NASL team. Only the defunct Chicago Sting (with league titles in the 1981 and 1984 Soccer Bowls) has claimed multiple league championships like New York.
“This is all about the players,” said Savarese modestly, before adding, “I’m very proud of the guys that I coached, of the organization, and the path that we’re going with the New York Cosmos, and trying to make the past teams proud… and to be able to bring the championship to New York, to play here on Long Island… since 1972… there wasn’t a final played here… so [I’m] very proud that we were able to win.”
Only somewhat joking, Savarese said, “At the end, a little bit [of a] heart attack, but our guys pulled it off and played a very good match.”
So far, so good for Savarese, who hasn’t felt the weight of having to live up to the great Cosmos teams of the past.
“Being in this job, there is no pressure,” he said. “It’s responsibility, it’s understanding that we have a job to do. We have to work very hard and we have the support of an amazing organization. Our owners, the staff in the office, the technical staff, all the players, everybody’s on the same page.
“In the past, all the players [on the old Cosmos teams], they were always very supportive. So [now] it’s just about making them proud [and] working very hard. So it’s no pressure.”
Unlike the 2013 Soccer Bowl, when Senna scored the only goal in Atlanta, winning at home, while letting Raul and Senna retire with a title meant even more, especially for players like defender and team captain Carlos Mendes, who grew up a few minutes’ drive from Hofstra, in Mineola, N.Y., and ex-Stony Brook star, forward Leo Fernandes, who after tying Raul for the regular season team lead with eight goals, received the 2015 NASL Young Player of the Year Award at halftime, in front of a start forward of a different kind — New York Knick Carmelo Anthony, who recently became the owner of a future NASL club in Puerto Rico.
“An incredible win,” said Mendes, who celebrated with his teammates on the field, under fireworks and confetti, before champagne bottles were later popped in the Cosmos’ locker room. “A difficult, difficult game. Ottawa was a great team all year. It’s just really special to get this win at home in front of our fans that supported us all year.”
Although he was happy with the play of his holdovers (like Mendes and Senna, among several others) from the 2013 title-winning team, Savarese said, “We added tremendous players this year. It was a better team, a stronger team and a better season [this year than in 2013].
“In three years, to win two championships, has been fantastic. I’m very proud of the team and they battled today to win another championship. It has been a tremendous year… and today, winning, just closed the year in a fantastic way.”
Savarese also recognized the contributions of his two departing legends.
“We feel very lucky, to have had these two great players retire with us… that I had the pleasure to coach… it [made my] life a lot easier… they were very important the whole year to push everybody to higher standards… but more than what they have done as players, is the kind of people that they are,” he said. “That’s the kind of players and people that we want in this organization… they’re great examples, they’re true professionals.
“When they came into the locker room, it was a great celebration with all the guys. We’re a family… so it was great to enjoy that moment in the locker room.”
Mendes concurred, “We were focused all year. We wanted to send [Raul and Senna] off as champions. We’re honored and very proud to have had the opportunity to share the locker room and the field with two great legends… they’re obviously a huge part of why we matured and why we had a solid season… two in three years [is great] but this year is very sweet.
“We’re going to miss them tremendously. Most importantly, two great people… you can’t really replace Marcos and Raul… but our coaching staff and front office has done an excellent job of bringing guys in… it’s not just two guys that have won the championship for us… we’ll come back strong next year.”
Appreciative of playing with a fellow superstar despite his own great career, Senna said, “It couldn’t have been any better than to win a championship alongside Raul. “It was an ideal situation, to finish together. I am thankful for having Raul on the team this year because he made quite a difference, not just with scoring goals, but with his vision, and tonight, no goal, but he had the assist.”
Admitting some decidedly more mixed feelings than Senna did, Raul, a former Real Madrid star for 16 years, who retires after adding a 24th title to his storied career, said, “This team has a big history, and this one win was amazing. “We played with passion and there [was] a lot of good feeling in the locker room. I could not ask for more. It is like a dream. The Cosmos, they have a big part of my heart.”
Despite finishing the season as New York’s leading scorer this season (with nine goals, including the postseason), Raul had no second thoughts, after announcing his retirement, about changing his mind and coming back for one more season.
“I’m very proud of everything that I did [in my career],” he said. “For me, now, [it’s time] to start a new life. I’m happy, but also I’m a little bit sad… it was amazing with my teammates, in the locker room, with the club, with the league, but three months ago, I decided to finish my career, and… to win a difficult game [in a final] was amazing.”
Judging from Cellerino’s performance in his first Soccer Bowl, Raul might be leaving his forward position with the Cosmos in good hands.
Thus, it was quite apropos that Raul delivered the perfect assist to Cellerino on what ended up being the goal which clinched the same number of Cosmos NASL championships as the No. 7 that Raul wore with New York.
Equally fitting is the notion that as Raul, along with Senna, leaves the game with grace as a winner yet again, he has passed the torch to Cellerino, who perhaps next year will lead the Cosmos to another title that will equal his own No. 8.