It was a common refrain made by Long Islanders as the final moments ticked away on the Islanders’ season this year: The Island was losing its sole professional sports team.
New York Cosmos fans would likely disagree.
After trailing by two goals Wednesday night in its inaugural match against Major League Soccer’s New York City FC, the underdog Cosmos battled back to tie the score seconds before the end of regulation and capped a dramatic, 2-2 game by winning on penalty kicks (4-3)—prompting players, and a spattering of fans, to run onto the field, their faces beaming with child-like joy as they embraced anyone who reciprocated their hard-earned moment of sheer jubilance.
The circus-like atmosphere was noticeable hours before the game, with a group of Cosmos fans nonchalantly kicking a soccer ball across the pavement while rhythmic pop music blared from James H. Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University, the home of the Cosmos.
Always cognizant of their team’s long history, fans draped a flag emblazoned with the face of legendary Brazilian Pelé over a nearby wrought-iron fence, a reminder of the club’s glory days.
NYCFC fans have no such history to boast about or look back on in tough times, though you wouldn’t know it by the way they were whaling and gesticulating for the upstart team, albeit one with an outsized budget.
Cosmos fans had been waiting for this matchup for a long time—at least since the expansion NYCFC made their long-awaited debut this spring.
Because the two clubs are in different leagues—Cosmos in the North American Soccer League and NYFC in Major League Soccer, the more high-profile of the two leagues—they wouldn’t typically play one another. But the US Open Cup brought them together for a fourth-round match, with the winner advancing to the Round of 16. Up until Wednesday, all the teams that had advanced resided in MLS.
For one night, Long Island was the center of the soccer universe in New York.
Both teams had been on top of their game coming into the match. NYCFC notched consecutive wins for the first time in its brief history and the Cosmos this past Saturday had been crowned NASL Spring Champions.
“N-Y-C-F-C! N-Y-C-F-C! N-Y-C-F-C!” fans of the Bronx-based club chanted in succession as they found their bleacher seats.
As warmups progressed, NYCFC fans—a group known as “The Third Rail”—yelled and swung their arms. They defiantly raised their blue scarves toward the overcast sky, gyrating and hopping around as though they were back home at Yankee Stadium.
The upbeat Cosmos contingent seated on the opposite side of the pitch waved green and white Cosmos flags. Not to be outdone by vocal rivals, the home team’s supporters sprung into action, their fists smacking the air and voices crackling across the stadium.
The Cosmos had been seeking back-to-back US Open Cup wins against its New York rivals; last year, the Long Island-based club defeated the favored New York Red Bulls, which played without international star Thierry Henry and several other key starters.
In front of more than 11,000 fans, the clubs walked onto the field, NYCFC in their powder blues and Cosmos in royal blue. A much-anticipated match-up between Spanish legends David Villa of NYCFC and Cosmos’ Raúl didn’t materialize, with NYCFC coach David Kreiss choosing to rest the injury-plagued captain. But NYCFC did play most of its starters, including Mix Diskerud, a member of the US national team.
The opening whistle blew and the Cosmos appeared to be the more spirited side, navigating congested lanes with deft passing and opportunistic runs. The home club dominated the early moments and had a chance to break the scoreless tie with a Raúl header in the 13th minute, but the Spanish star was called offsides.
Cosmos forward Luckymore “Lucky” Mkosana gave NYCFC’s defensive back line fits all game, making strong runs up the middle of the field, at times outpacing defenders.
“We started the game very well; we created chances,” Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese said after the game. “I think we had the better of the play.”
But it was NYCFC who struck first with an acrobatic goal in the 24th minute from forward Kwadwo Poku.
Poku raced toward the net and signaled for the ball as he approached the box. RJ Allen lofted a nifty ball into the center of the box for a streaking Poku, who guided the ball down with his chest and calmly directed it over his head before twisting and striking it into the net with an overhead kick as he landed on his back. NYCFC fans erupted into cheers, dozens in blue thumping like a pulsating river.
The Cosmos had several opportunities to tie the score early on.
An unmarked Raul missed a chance for an equalizer in the 35th minute, overrunning a pass from Mkosana that appeared destined for the back of the net.
After going into the halftime down one, the Cosmos came out with the same energy as they did to open the game.
But Poku struck again.
The striker beat his defender and controlled a pass from Pablo Alvarez that slipped passed goaltender James Maurer, who made three saves during regulation and extra time. He was impressive in the shootout. Poku appeared to be several yards offsides but the apparent violation was never called. NYCFC led by two goals to none.
The Cosmos finally responded in the 64th minute when reserve Leonardo Fernandes, barely in the game for two minutes, calmly directed a deflected header from Mkosana into the net, cutting NYCFC’s lead in half.
NYCFC had a chance to extend the lead with roughly 10 minutes left in the game, but Maurer made a tough save on a Mehdi Ballouchy shot to keep his club within striking distance.
With time winding down on the Cosmos’ US Open Cup run, the Cosmos in dramatic fashion knotted the game at two seconds before the 90th minute when Hunter Freeman floated a cross into the middle of the box, which Mkosana converted for a score. The home crowd went delirious, chanting and waving as one.
The Cosmos carried their late second-half momentum into extra time with Mkosana nearly breaking the tie, but his shot smacked off the right post.
NYCFC had a gift-wrapped opportunity to take the lead in extra time when the Cosmos were called for a penalty in the box. But Pablo Alvarez’s penalty kick hit the crossbar and the rebound sailed wildly over the net.
Thirty minutes of extra time expired, and both teams headed to a shootout.
Babylon-native Chris Wingert started off the scoring by beating Maurer for the first goal of the shootout, but he was matched immediately by the Cosmos’ Mads Stokkelien.
Both goaltenders made impressive stops in the second round of the shootout, but after four rounds NYCFC had a 3-2 lead.
Maurer made a game-saving goal on Patrick Mullins, setting up do-or-die opportunity for the Cosmos’ Adam Moffat. Moffat struck, and the ball passed the goaltender’s outstretched arms, sending the shootout into sudden death.
Mauer made yet another clutch save on Shay Facey’s attempt, his third of the shootout.
Hunter Gorskie stepped up for what turned out to be the game-clinching goal, burying his shot into the net. A celebration ensued.
After the game, Savarese, the Cosmos coach, credited his team for having a tough mentality.
“We have a very strong group now,” he said.
Despite beating the Red Bulls and NYCFC in consecutive years, Savarese demurred when asked about being the best team in New York. Such comparisons, he said, are for fans to make.
“I think the most important thing is that they take us seriously,” Savarese said. “They know that we are capable of big things, and that we can compete with anyone.”
It’s been a whirlwind month for the Cosmos, traveling to Cuba, where they beat its national team and then securing the Spring Championship weeks later. On Wednesday they came out ahead of the favored MLS club.
Long Island may not have the Islanders anymore, but the Cosmos are doing all they can to inject much-needed energy into a sports-obsessed region constantly lamenting the exodus of its hockey team.
And all they do is win.