The Carolina RailHawks aren’t in Atlanta for this weekend’s North American Soccer League championship, the self-explanatory Soccer Bowl 2013. But Neil Morris is there to provide his observations on the occasion and Saturday’s match between the New York Cosmos and Atlanta Silverbacks for
ATLANTA—It took me 19 hours to reach Atlanta from North Carolina. That was my choice, mind you, the consequence of splitting up my southbound sojourn with an overnightlayover at my brother’s home in Charlotte. But the end of my trip came just in time for the early Friday afternoon meet-the-media session with select members of the New York Cosmos in the lobby of the Holiday Inn that the Cosmos, league officials and various media will call home this weekend. The session was literally a round table affair, in that various Cosmos players and coaches met a literal quartet of journalists seated around a circular coffee table.
The Cosmos face the Atlanta Silverbacks Saturday evening at Silverbacks Park for the overall NASL crown. Each team has already claimed silverware during the league’s debut split regular season: the Silverbacks for winning the league’s spring season and the Cosmos for winning the fall stanza after not starting play until August. Those achievements earned each team their berth in the Soccer Bowl 2013.
The Cosmos fully expect the Silverbacks team they face tomorrow will play more like the one that clawed their way to the spring crown, not the one that faltered in the fall and staggered to the end of the regular season by losing five of their last seven games.
“We realize that they have good players and they’re dangerous,” says Cosmos team captain Carlos Mendes. “Even though they had it locked up in the spring in terms of this game, I think they’re going to be fired up. They’re at home and they’re playing with great energy and a great crowd—it should be sold out—and they’re going to make it hard on us.”
Cosmos manager Giovanni Savarese says he’s also preparing for a different Silverbacks squad.
“We don’t think that this team is going to come and be the same team that played a few games ago,” Savarese says. “They were experimenting, they were doing different things. The season wasn’t meaningful for them, and they’ve been focusing since July 4 on this match. So, they’re going to be more than prepared to step on the field and do the job.”
Notwithstanding playing only half the overall NASL regular season and purported high layouts for players such as former Spanish international and Villarreal standout Marcos Senna, the Cosmos still competed in a 14-game round robin season and not only finished eight points clear of the second-place Carolina RailHawks, but they only lost a single match (a 3-0 defeat to the RailHawks in Cary, NC).
Savarese recoils at any suggestion that the Cosmos’ success came suddenly, saying the groundwork began over a year ago with a strong developmental plan and the December 2012 signing of Mendes, the longtime New York Red Bulls defender, who Savarese calls the team’s “pioneer.”
“It starts with a good ownership that backs you up and provides you a strong platform to create a base,” Savarese explains. “Second is making sure we select the right type of players with the right mentality. And ultimately, it’s just work, work and work, constantly every day from the morning to the night, making sure that everybody is pushing together.”
For all their hard work and due deference to this weekend’s opponent, the other thing the Cosmos possess in abundance is confidence. Savarese says his team has developed a “habit to win,” and that they “have no thoughts about losing this game.”
That confidence extends to their perceived stature in the NASL.
“Just by us being part, there’s more awareness of the league, there’s most awareness of the team, there’s more presidents wanting to invest more to be more competitive,” Savarese says. “We have ESPN3 and ESPN Deportes live in our final, which didn’t happen before. I think there are many things that are changing for the positive for the league, and not only because of the Cosmos but I think is because of soccer [and] the way it’s growing in the United States. Some of the good teams that are going to come in the future to be part of this league also have good ownership, they’re good places to play and I’m sure are going to make this league more competitive.”
Cosmos goalkeeper Kyle Reynish, who won the 2013 NASL Golden Glove award by virtue of finishing the year with the lowest goals against average (GAA) in the regular season (0.92 over 13 games), says he realizes the Cosmos became the team that the rest of the league loves to hate.
“I think just because of the history of the team, I’m sure it was a little bit frustrating for some of the NASL teams to have a brand new team who hasn’t played a game in the spring season to have all the hype and media and everything that we had,” Reynish says. “But that’s a good thing. It brings out the best in you when you have a target on your back and you’re the team that teams want to beat.”
And what accounts for that target?
“I think a lot of it’s the name, the history and the hype,” Reynish responds. “But at the same time we have done well enough that I think that by the end of the season, you’re building the target for the right reason. Not because of what the team used to do a long time ago, but what we’ve done [now].”