U.S. Open Cup chronicles, Round 5: Escape from New York
For a few brief moments the New York Cosmos are kings of New York.
After the previous round’s victory over New York City FC, a small scrum of reporters had gathered around the game-winning scorer, Danny Szetela, for his thoughts on the game. Szetela had mentioned that the team “want to be the kings of New York,” and given the U.S. Open Cup offers the only chance to claim that title in any direct competition, the Cosmos subsequent dream draw might have had them up against the New York Red Bulls in the fifth round.
Instead, when the draw happened the next morning, the Cosmos found themselves up against the New England Revolution - still an MLS side, but something of a thankless draw. The Revs would have the strength in depth to potentially end the Cosmos run early, without offering the particular buzz of local interest of a Red Bulls game. If playing a lower league team in the Cup makes you a hostage to fortune, playing a higher ranked team without any particular romance can be a thankless task, too.
U.S. Open Cup series
Graham Parker will follow the U.S. Open Cup alongside a team until it is eliminated, then latching on with that victor as the Cup progresses. Follow his journey here and on Twitter with #442CupTied.
There’s still a large degree of local political intrigue inflecting the occasion, though. For one, we’re back at Belson Stadium, where I spent the first three rounds of this competition, and could yet spend the next one, if the Cosmos get past the Revs. Hofstra Stadium, where the Cosmos play their home league games, have refused to host any more games against MLS opposition after some minor crowd trouble during a previous Open Cup tie against NYCFC.
It puts the Cosmos in a bind. Their CEO, Erik Stover, has already been on record this year expressing his frustration at the slow-moving process to approve the Cosmos’ proposed new-build stadium near Belmont Racetrack, remarking that the team “could have been playing” at the new stadium by now, had committees and politics not kept it stuck in a purgatory of Photoshop renderings. The temporary home of Hofstra has been serviceable but not much more, and there have been rumblings that it’s not just the Cosmos but the university who are keen for the temporary arrangement to come to an end.
In microcosm, the Cosmos are victim to the same forces that affect the team they beat in round four. NYCFC is playing its home games at Yankee Stadium while it tries to find a place for its permanent home, but it too is struggling to find the right location in a city where no square inch of space exists without multiple competing claims. Both the Cosmos and NYCFC might express sentiments to the effect of wanting to find the right place to build a home, rather than “just” getting a stadium built, but like the couch-surfer who’s outstayed their welcome, they might soon find themselves fielding questions from their hosts along the lines of how long exactly “just till I get myself sorted out” is going to be.
So with Hofstra off the table, the Cosmos are back at Belson Stadium tonight, and assuming they make club history and get to the quarterfinals, they’re here for the next game, too.
Vying for the crown
Arriving at the stadium, there’s little discernible to mark the increased significance or logistical challenges of this round, other than the plastic tables at the gates having been pushed down a grass verge a little, and a local soccer store having sent a portable truck to sell their wares. But otherwise, the stadium still feels demonstrably, even stubbornly, unpretentious.
The visiting Revs team has had a quiet start to the season. It has a lot of attacking talent, but has lacked a reliable goalscorer; at least, until the recent arrival of Kei Kamara from Columbus Crew SC. Kamara left Columbus under something of a cloud, infamously clashing with the team’s other star, Federico Higuain, but if he’s considered a risk, that’s offset by the fact that the man delivers goals, coming close to the MLS Golden Boot last season.
But Kamara is warming up on his own in front of me as I walk behind one of the goals before the game. He won’t start the game tonight, nor will 2015 league MVP contender Lee Nguyen, as the Revs try a little squad rotation.
Looking at the teams lining up to walk out before the game, though, and its clear that New England coach Jay Heaps is taking the competition seriously. Several regular starters are in the side. And it’s literally a muscular looking team that looms over its Cosmos peers. Compared to the teams I’ve seen so far in this tournament, the New England side looks the best conditioned and most physical.
The crowd yells encouragement as the teams walk out. In particular, one loud shout from behind me must have been heard clearly by the players a few feet in front of me: “Red Bulls up one nothing!” The Red Bulls’ game in Philadelphia kicked off half an hour before this one, and they are indeed leading and dominating the Union during the first half. A possible all New York quarterfinal is still on course.
And after another half hour or so, it looks even more likely. The Cosmos have been tackling hard but holding their own rather than dominating in the opening part of the game. But with halftime looming, Jairo Arrieta’s burst into the box ends up with the ball spilling off Revs goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth into the path of Ruben Bover. Bover finishes neatly into the corner in front of the Cosmos fans, and they and Bover duly celebrate wildly.
But hopes of going in with a halftime lead are dashed just a few minutes later. I’m down behind the Cosmos’ goal when Revs’ attacker Teal Bunbury picks up the ball on the right of the box and fires high past Jimmy Maurer. Bunbury barely celebrates. If anything, his finish and turn away look more like that of a defender kicking the ball back into his own net in frustration after conceding a goal. He probably knows what’s coming from an unimpressed Heaps at halftime.
Slobbering selfies, flights to catch
There’s a small cohort of New England fans behind me, who now start chanting “It’s all your fault” at Jimmy Maurer. They seem happy enough headed into the interval, but in truth the game is finely poised, and the Cosmos will be happy enough to be in this position. Wandering back beneath the stands, where a few bemused looking Queens cops have been added to the St John’s University staff marshaling proceedings, I wonder just how much of a headache an all-New York quarterfinal at this stadium might be.
As it turns out, the nearest I’ll see to crowd trouble tonight is at the start of the second half when a visibly lubricated New York Italian is cheerfully demanding a series of selfies with the Cosmos Girls cheerleaders in the corner next to mine. An older security guard makes a half-hearted intervention only to be greeted with a volley of Italian and a New York “What’s the matter wit' you?" When the man eventually moves on, the guard offers that he "didn't want him slobbering all over you?" To which one of the dancers shrugs and says, "He was nice, really. Some of them ..."
Before she can elaborate, however, there's a commotion at the other end of the field. The Cosmos have scored. The dancers hurry in front of me to perform their goal celebration routine, and I'm left checking my phone to confirm that it is indeed Sebastian Guezatti who's just turned and finished a low shot across Shuttleworth. Since I'm on my phone, I check on news from Philly. From leading, the Red Bulls are now trailing to two rapid fire Union goals, and a few minutes later that result is confirmed. The Cosmos are on course to be the last remaining New York team in the competition, if they can hold out. Kings of New York, indeed.
But the Revs, whether through pride, ambition in the competition or, as rumor has it around the stadium, because they have flights booked that clash with potential extra time, have woken up in a big way. Kamara is on the field now, soon to be joined by Nguyen, and the dividends of the Revs heavy hitters soon become apparent.
In the 75th minute, Kamara forces his way into the box, and after his first shot is parried, shoots high into the net from an acute angle. Again the limited celebration is all business, and New England immediately go about trying to find a winner. By now, cheerleaders or not, the Cosmos support is sounding a little muted. A sullen voice tries heckling Diego Fagundez with a shout of "Nice hair" as he goes across to take a corner, then "Nice kick" at the underwhelming set piece, but it's a temporary reprieve.
In the 83rd minute Kamara bursts forward into the box again, before slipping the ball to his right to where Bunbury is running through to finish. This time, there's a more relieved celebration from the New England players, as they can see the end (and the plane home) in sight.
The Cosmos continue to battle, but they look tired, while the Revs' conditioning sees them finishing fresher.
When the final whistle goes, I jog onto the field to take some photos and run into New England defender Andrew Farrell. I've know Farrell since before he was drafted for New England and had briefly developed an unfortunate knack of showing up at games he'd subsequently lost. He smiles when I tell him "I told you I'd seen you win," then we walk off the field together. "The Cosmos are a good team. I think we were just a little bit stronger towards the end." He heads into the shadows around the top of the stairs that serve as a tunnel, and I'm left on the field watching a group of journalists hover around Kamara and Bunbury.
The crowd disperses quickly, as often happens after home losses, and by the time I get back to the press box, a lot of the local writers have gone, too. They take with them the last local hopes in this competition. It's doubtful the Cosmos will see any virtue at another fifth round elimination. Despite outlasting the Red Bulls by minutes in the Open Cup, another chance to be "Kings of New York" goes unclaimed.
This time, finally, I'm leaving Belson Stadium for this year — indeed, finally leaving the Five Boroughs. I've spent the entirety of the tournament so far in Queens, with a brief detour to the Bronx, and it will be nice to go further afield, even at this late stage. New England and Philadelphia next. For now, escape from New York.