Well, that was disappointing. Crushing. Heart-breaking. Frustrating. Also: classic, epic, rivalry-making. New York City played the New York Cosmos in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup — the second-oldest soccer cup competition in the world — tonight. I'll be blunt: I fully expected New York City to put up a game effort, but lose to what I considered a superior Cosmos squad.
Playing at home in Shuart Stadium, on an astonishingly bad playing surface — one that the Cosmos are deeply familiar with — against a deep and talented team that's unbeaten in 11 games? Yeah, I thought New York City were underdogs all the way.
For the first 15 minutes of the game, they proved me right. The Cosmos, buoyed by a sellout crowd, came flying out of the gate. They laid siege to New York City's goal, and had several scoring chances. In the 24th minute, though, the Blues flipped the table. RJ Allen got things started with a pass to Mix Diskerud. Diskerud then spun on his marker, and led Allen down the line. Allen then slipped an absolutely gorgeous pass to Kwadwo Poku.
Poku then fought off his marker, and scored on a sublime bicycle kick. That was his second goal in two games. Here, watch it.
From that point on, it was all New York City; the Cosmos looked suddenly vulnerable. Turns out that Kreis had spotted the Cosmos' great weakness: their shaky backline. With Poku and Mullins spearheading the attack, their speed overwhelmed Cosmos defenders Hunter Gorskie and Carlos Mendes. Time and time again, they scythed through the Cosmos midfield, finding themselves with all kinds of space. The Cosmos tried getting back into the game, to no avail. The half came; 1-0, New York City.
As in the first half, the Cosmos came out swinging in the second half. New York City dealt smartly with the pressure, but one thing became clear: the Cosmos' attack was being funneled down the left. Whether it was Hunter Freeman or Walter Restrepo, the Cosmos came barrelling down the left over and over, then crossing into the box. Over and over, Eirik Johansen was equal to the task.
Then, in the 57th minute, Diskerud pounced on a ball in midfield. He stroked it forward to Pablo Alvarez. Alvarez, seeing Poku on his right, chipped it over the Cosmos' backline. Poku stepped into the ball and rocketed it into the Cosmos' goal. 2-0, New York City, and the team was flying now.
It's a cliche to say that the most dangerous lead in soccer is 2-0; but that's because cliches have the element of truth in them. In the 65th minute, the relentless Cosmos' forays down the left finally paid off. Restrepo found Leo Fernandez on a cross, and he slotted the ball home. 2-1, New York City. As the Cosmos stepped up their pressure, New York City — whether due to weariness or pressure — eased off. This let the Cosmos, who are notorious for their late-game heroics, back into the game.
Things weren't helped by a series of strange subs — likely made with an eye towards Saturday's game against Toronto — by Jason Kreis. In the 64th minute, he replaced defender Jason Hernandez with Chris Wingert. In the 73rd minute, RJ Allen came off for Kwame Watson-Siriboe. Yes, that's right: that's two defensive substitutions. And finally, in the 87th minute, Poku came off for Ned Grabavoy; another tactical decision, likely made with closing out the game in mind.
Except that's not what happened. Two minutes before that, New York City had a glorious chance to ice the game. The Cosmos turned the ball over in midfield. Mehdi Ballouchy found himself alone, only goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer and a desperately sprinting defender to beat — and forward Patrick Mullins wide open in front of goal, waving his arms frantically.
You know what happened next: Ballouchy shot the ball. Maurer saved. Mullins screamed in frustration.
In the 90th minute, in an almighty scrum, Cosmos forward Lucky Mkosana pounced and scored. Just like that: 2-2, all square. The stadium erupted.
Extra time came. Again, the Cosmos laid siege, feeling victory within their grasp. And then: another lifeline for New York City. A penalty called against the Cosmos. Who would take it? Surely, Mix Diskerud. Or Patrick Mullins. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. Instead, Pablo Alvarez took the penalty.
That's right: a little-used midfielder who hasn't scored once all season took the biggest penalty of the season thus far, with the game on the line. The goalkeeper dove to the left. A wide open goal. And Alvarez bounced the ball off the crossbar.
New York City had yet another chance to win the game in the second period of extra time. Grabavoy found himself with only Maurer to beat; he shot, and Maurer saved.
So it ended 2-2. We go to penalties. Here's how that broke down.
Chris Wingert took the first one for New York City, and scored. 1-0, Blues. Mads Stokkelien led off for the Cosmos, and scored. 1-1. Grabavoy stepped up for the Blues — and took a weak, weak penalty. Waist high, easily saved by Maurer. Still tied at 1.
It's Hunter Freeman's turn to put the Cosmos ahead — and he has his penalty saved by Johansen! We're still tied at 1 apiece. Ballouchy then earned some small measure of credit by coolly slotting his penalty home. Blues, 2-1.
Leo Fernandez stood for the Cosmos...and missed! Mix Diskerud up for New York City. A smart penalty saw the Blues take a 3-1 lead. Lucky Mkosana scored to draw the Cosmos within one at 3-2. That left Patrick Mullins to win it for New York City. Score, and the Blues win; miss, and the Cosmos would still be breathing, but needing to score.
Adam Moffat squared the accounts for the Cosmos at three penalties apiece. Shay Facey then missed for New York City; that left Hunter Gorskie to score for the Cosmos to win it. Which he did.
Just like that, the Cosmos escaped with the win; New York City's inaugural Open Cup campaign over at the first time of asking.
I'll be blunt: this was an incredibly frustrating game to lose. What makes it so?
- Losing from a winning position — particularly when the team had been dominating the game.
- Losing in a penalty shootout — from a winning position in the shootout.
- Losing in a penalty shootout, having multiple starters go 120 minutes with a game in three days — and crashing out of the best chance for a trophy for the team in the near term.
- Losing yet another New York rivalry game.
- Losing not just another New York derby game, but losing a New York derby game to the New York Cosmos. Cosmos fans may cheer against the Red Bulls, but they positively despise New York City. They see New York City as the epitome of everything "bad" about the modern game of soccer; they consider it an abomination, and lacking the ability to extinguish the team, they'll settle for beating them.
[SIDEBAR: I find this hilarious, and I say this with all respect to the Cosmos, who are an excellent team, and an excellent organization from top to bottom. But let's be real: everything "bad" about modern soccer was pioneered by the New York Cosmos. Buying your way to success? Check. Assembling a superstar-laden team? Check. Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris-St. Germain? Their spiritual father was the New York Cosmos. When the current iteration of the Cosmos talks about "Twice in a Lifetime!", this is what they're referring to.
That $400 million stadium at Belmont? Yeah, it ain't going to feature a squad full of homegrown players. The Cosmos desperately want to be the equivalent of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Paris-St. Germain. That's the whole point! Mock New York City fans for being "plastic", and the team for being an artifice if you want, but there's precious little difference between the two. Both teams came out of nothing; both sets of fans have a lot more alike than either would like to admit. Hence the hate.
I'd just like Cosmos fans to admit that and own that, rather than pretend that they're some kind of AFC Wimbledon/St. Pauli fandom. If they were, they'd be packing the stands for the Brooklyn Italians. They're not. Moreover, they don't pack the stands for their own games. So enough with the sanctimony about "plastic fans". It's arrogant, and it's not a good look.]
I exaggerated on Twitter when I said that there were no positives to be taken from this. Of course there are; Poku served notice of his prodigious talent yet again. There were no injuries. It was a brilliantly competitive game; if you'd told me a month ago that New York City would take the Cosmos, at Shuart, all the way to penalty kicks, but lose, I'd have been happy with that. Building a winner takes time! I'm always banging on about patience, so it behooves me to exercise some here.
But it's a sign of how well New York City played tonight — and really, over the last couple of weeks — that tonight's result feels frustrating at best. In the end, you can't ask for more than that.