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U.S. Open Cup chronicles, Round 4: Diamonds and leaves in the Bronx

Photo by Graham Parker

In part four of Graham Parker's journey through the U.S. Open Cup, he catches up with a familiar face on the less recognized side of the New York soccer wars. Follow the journey with #442CupTied.

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The elevator starts to rumble, then the commotion resolves into muffled cheers audible through the metal box. As the doors open on the ground floor and I start making my way up the walkway to the front of the bleachers, a throng of pale blue NYCFC shirts is pushing past me. "Utter shite...again," mutters one, in a distinctly Manchester accent. 

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.

I make my way to the field and glance to my left. The green corner of the stands is one delirious, rippling wave. There are two minutes to go in this U.S. Open Cup fourth round fixture, and with extra time looming, it appears the New York Cosmos have scored. And the goal-scorer, in one of those gifts from the soccer writer gods, is one Danny Szetela. 

It's a gift because Szetela has been on my mind a lot in the lead-up to this game. Earlier that evening, there was a moment when the warm-ups were winding down at the Jack Coffey Field, prior to the U.S. Open Cup fourth-round game between NYCFC and the New York Cosmos, when I saw Szetela walking towards me, and I experienced something of a flashback.

I'd been wandering among the crowd and players, taking photos and noting the increased number of laminate-toting personnel of indeterminate purpose who've appeared with each passing round of the competition. One of them had just insisted I step back two feet from one neutral patch of artificial turf to a less contentious patch of artificial turf and in doing so I'd found myself directly in the path of the Cosmos players walking off the field. Szetela passed in front of me, ducked briefly to touch the turf, then crossed himself as he stepped across the white lines.

I snapped a couple of shots as he did so, without noticing at the time that the background contains the tower of the Fordham University Church, an imposing structure with a faux-medieval tower that looms over the broad trees of the leafy campus on which we were playing. Later, reviewing the shots, I'll remember Szetela telling me, "I'm a very religious person" and "that everything happens for a reason," and I'll wonder if the setting resonates particularly for him. But in that moment I pressed back awkwardly against a barrier as Szetela walked right by me, composed and seemingly deep in thought. 

Photo by Graham Parker

Photo by Graham Parker

The flashback part is that at this intimate distance, which will become rarer as the competition proceeds, I'd been reminded of another moment from another time, another New York borough. In 2013, I'd been at a field on a disused airfield in Brooklyn for a first-round game in this competition between Brooklyn Italians and a fifth-division team largely built around players who'd fallen through the cracks of the U.S. system. That team was called Icon FC, and one of its central midfielders was a one-time U.S. national team prospect making his first tentative steps back from long-term injury. There weren't many of us in the crowd that night, but Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese was there, looking for pieces to build his soon-to-be-launched team around. He'd come to see if Danny Szetela was really back.

I recall a slight sense of detachment on Szetela's part as he warmed up for that game a few yards away from me — a mode which I would see echoed in 2016 in the Bronx. Not uncooperative, or selfish, around teammates — just thoroughly involved with his own task in hand, right down to how he held his serious demeanor. He's sure of himself and his rightful place in U.S. soccer, however long injury might have derailed him for, but he's also grateful for what he has and taking nothing for granted. For a player who had a question mark around his discipline as a young man, his particular fate and his chosen path through it might have turned out to be one of his greatest assets.

A few weeks ago, I'd spoken with Cosmos COO Erik Stover about that Brooklyn Italians game, and he'd described the process of his technical team scouting that milieu "looking for diamonds in the rough," before hastily adding of Szetela, "Of course, in Danny, we already knew we had a diamond. It was just a case of being sure..."

There was a lot to make sure of. At one point, the principal question around Szetela's fitness had appeared to be not where he would play again, but if. From an MLS-contracted, national team future to hoping to be spotted by anyone for a professional contract, Szetela had dealt with months on the sidelines, and few, including himself, knew how his knee would react. 

Photo by Graham Parker

Szetela (Photo by Graham Parker)

When I ask Szetela about that period, the day before the NYCFC game, he offers a few of those spiritual platitudes about things happening for a reason, but to his credit appears to have spent a lot of time thinking through the "reasons" to working out what actual lessons to take from his trials. 

For one, he became a more avid student of the game. You hear of players whose injury exiles are compounded by their own self-enforced distance from teammates and the game itself — unable to bear contact with what they can't participate in. But Szetela used the "opportunity" of his months of absence to study the movement of the greatest players who played in his position — and when I ask him if he reads the game in general better now, he agrees: "You have an appreciation for what they do, how they do it — not just on the ball, but their movement... With the team I'm with now, if a younger player is out injured, I try to talk to them about how it was for me — and what I did."

Some of Szetela's newfound awareness may also be to do with the particular redemption he has been offered — the Cosmos are the flagship NASL team, but they've also got their own point to prove on the national stage, particularly when it comes to the Open Cup. The national knockout tournament represents the Cosmos’ only opportunity to play MLS opposition in meaningful competition, and given the regional structure of the early rounds, that means there's always the likelihood of a local rivalry match up like tonight's game against NYCFC. 

New York is divided

The Cosmos beat NYCFC on penalties last year, before crashing out to the Red Bulls in the following round (they did beat the Red Bulls the year before, though). Within the ongoing New York soccer wars, the U.S. Open Cup represents the one chance the team in green has to stake their turf on the field. And for players like Szetela, it's also a chance to nudge MLS coaches and scouts about what they might be missing out on.

If Szetela et al were hoping to test themselves against the best of their MLS peers, however, the competition rules and general priorities of those MLS sides somewhat mitigate against that. Each team is allowed only five international players, and by the time NYCFC have placed the fringe players who need games into their roster, there's no room for any of their Designated Players.

While walking around before the game, I'd seen a portable NYCFC merchandise truck proudly displaying miniature plush toys of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. Heading back to the tunnel/back-of-a-storage-building for the pre-game ceremonies, I see the real-life trio making their way behind the goal to a plexiglass-covered bench on the far side of the field, resplendent in chinos and expensive shirts. They'll sit there stoically grimacing through the evening's events, with no more chance to influence them than their own dolls. 

Photo by Graham Parker

Photo by Graham Parker

It is possible to feel sorry for them. At least they've showed up in support. Thierry Henry, for example, would have been nowhere near the stadium under the circumstances, despite his otherwise genuine commitment to the Red Bulls — while on one memorable occasion Henry's then coach Hans Backe, did not even show up for an Open Cup team, sending his deputy Mike Petke instead. It's fair to say that the U.S. Open Cup has not been a historic priority for most MLS teams, at least until the later rounds.

That said, the possibility for embarrassment is real. If the third round is a thankless one for NASL sides like the Cosmos, the fourth round, when the remaining lower-league teams get their tilt at MLS sides, is one where the higher-league teams have to balance personnel needs with the need to save local face. But with the international players rule, Patrick Vieira is limited on who he can send out from NYCFC's cosmopolitan roster.

Photo by Graham Parker

Photo by Graham Parker

It's not really a problem for the Cosmos, who have made it their business to vacuum up underrated U.S. talent like Szetela as the core of their team, and who, despite a rash of injuries, are able to name a strong team for this game.

The game is being played on turf — the Cosmos' natural environment. For NYCFC it's an additional wrinkle — they may be hosts tonight, but there's no question of using Yankee Stadium within their current deal, or within the mathematic realities of a game that's expected to draw around 3,500 people. So we're at Fordham University, next to the Bronx Botanical Gardens and Bronx Zoo — collectively a leafy idyll at odds with the borough's unfortunate and rarely examined reputation for urban blight. Looking at the surroundings, we could be at an affluent English university, were it not for the beefy NYPD officers patrolling the perimeter, the softball diamond at the far end of the stadium, and the American flag flying at half mast for the Orlando massacre.

On that note, as the stadium fills up, I see a fan in an Orlando City t-shirt and an NYCFC scarf walking along the front of the stands. It seems like a nice gesture of solidarity, of the sort we'll see later in the week when Michael Bradley dons a rainbow-colored armband to captain the U.S. against Ecuador. Then a fellow fan yells a volley of abuse at him for wearing another team's colors, before pulling a pristine (I think he ironed it) orange bandana over his face to confirm both his own plastic gangster credentials and the fact that he's too hard to read news, or feel empathy. His fellow supporter shakes his head in mild disbelief and walks on. The soft-bellied hard man pulls his bandana down and wipes his brow. It's a warm evening and lifting cloth is hard work.

Photo by Graham Parker

Security preps for fans (Photo by Graham Parker)

The stadium is filling nicely before the start of the game. A sizable NYCFC contingent takes up maybe three-quarters of the stands, while a smaller but more vocal Cosmos group is animating one end of the stands. I recognize a few of the prominent ones from the previous round, as I pass by them to the tiny press box high above the action. I also recognize a fair few familiar New York writers and bloggers filling up the rows of outdoor seating reserved for the inevitable overflow of local press interest. I nod to a few, slightly embarrassed that I've got one of the few allocated seats in the box, even though I'll spend half the game running back and forth from there looking for photographic color.

By way of penance I choose a seat just inside the door that's wedged up against a wall that's also host to a trash can, a large stack of catering boxes of chips and a hospitality fridge. On the other side of the wall is a tiny box, usually reserved for technical staff, but which in the first half at least, will be home to U.S. Soccer supremo Sunil Gulati. I resist the urge to offer him some chips from my industrial supply, to brighten his somewhat Spartan-looking executive experience.

New York is green

It's not like the game will offer rich entertainment. In a tense opening half, the Cosmos are trying to find their wide men with balls over the top of the NYCFC defense, while the hosts have more possession but apparently little idea of what to do with it. Kwadwo Poku is his characteristic bulldozer up the middle, while just outside him, Mix Diskerud looks similarly direct, but the Cosmos seem wise to them and more often than not their defensive midfield and defenders are able to crowd out any threat and try to force breaks. 

Szetela looks solid — noticeably more composed on the ball than some of his teammates, and reading play well as he chooses his moments to make runs behind the NYCFC defense. One such perfectly-timed run is just let down by a poor first touch as he goes one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but as it turns out that will just be foreshadowing for events later in the game.

At halftime, the press corps complains about the quality of the game, compare Copa America travel notes, and check in on the scores from other Cup games. Just as in the last round, where NASL sides generally prevailed against USL opposition, there are few indicators of shocks — the draw is seeded so that most MLS teams are playing a lower-league opponent, and despite a couple of tight games most of the results are going as expected.

Photo by Graham Parker

Photo by Graham Parker

Back at our own game, the second half starts with the Cosmos looking encouraged by what their organization has achieved so far. They're sticking to their individual and collective tasks well, and if they don't look spectacular they're not in any great trouble, either. There's a momentary scare when Patrick Mullins gets a touch ahead of Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer on a bouncing ball into the box, but as he tries to dribble the ball into the net on a tight angle, a sprawling Hunter Freeman gets across to make an awkward but effective block at the near post. And as the darkness over the stadium deepens, so does the sense of foreboding among the NYCFC fans, with their team's continued failure to make a breakthrough.

With extra time looming I make the fateful decision to grab the elevator down to ground level to try and get some shots of the players on the field before the change around. That's when I hear the rumbling celebration of the Cosmos goal. 

In the moments leading up to the goal, the Cosmos have introduced a substitute — Adam Moffat. Like Szetela, Moffat is a former MLS player who'd had his own unsatisfactory exit from the league. (Moffat and his young family were at one point shunted between Houston, Dallas and Seattle within the space of a few short months in one of those player-unfriendly foibles of life in a closed-shop league.) Whether he feels his own need to prove a point or not, what becomes clear from the replay of the goal is that he's not been introduced solely to help shore up the midfield. With the clock counting down, Moffat steps forward with purpose to the left side of the NYCFC penalty area and sends a cross to the edge of the six yard box. 

And there's Danny Szetela, making a crashing run into the box to get his head to the ball ahead of Eirik Johansen in the NYCFC net. As the giant Norwegian keeper flails at the ball flying past him, Szetela is already spinning away in delight to celebrate the winning goal. There may still be a couple more minutes of limited huffing and puffing to go as NYCFC tries to force an unlikely equalizer, but the delirious Cosmos fans and the majority of the home fans can just tell that the game is up. 

The final whistle goes and blue smoke bombs go off in the NYCFC end, though it's unclear whether it's in protest at the result or just because it's a shame to waste a nice smoke bomb. It's a dramatic effect against the night sky though, and I experience another flashback to watching D.C. United fans set off a red flare at the end of penalties in an Open Cup game in Richmond, Va., back in my 2013 version of this journey. 

Photo by Graham Parker

Photo by Graham Parker

As the smoke clears I briefly wonder if D.C. might be in my path again this year, but as it'll turn out they'll join NYCFC and San Jose as the three MLS casualties from this round. Right now, the NYCFC designated players make a brisk break back for the locker room, while their defeated teammates slide off behind them. Most have their heads down and grim expressions, though Mikey Lopez is defiantly blowing kisses at the gauntlet of Cosmos fans, who for their part are...well, they're not blowing kisses.

In a corridor of a college building, a Cosmos staffer has erected a step-and-repeat banner in the lobby and a sweat-drenched Szetela is being interviewed by a modest scrum of reporters. He talks about being a childhood MetroStars fan and hoping to get the Red Bulls next (as it turns out the Cosmos will be drawn against the New England Revolution, with a possible game against the winners of Philadelphia versus the Red Bulls in the quarterfinals), and also mentions that his agent has told him about some MLS interest in him. 

But that's as speculative as it gets. Szetela's having a good moment and he seems content to be in it, as "a diamond" for the Cosmos. I'll see him again. No more New York City FC though — I take one more trip back to the press box for my equipment, through a dwindling band of NYCFC laminate passes, then head for my car through the leafy campus grounds. This corner of New York is very green tonight. 

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Follow Graham Parker's journey here. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.