While most of the American soccer public was waiting for that other league to start their Conference Finals two weeks ago, there was another American professional soccer league playing a match. A league whose history dates back farther than Major League Soccer and whose new champion is arguably one of the most recognizable names in football. Although it may be a bit presumptuous to assume that the New York Cosmos and the North American Soccer League (NASL) are anything like the league that sparked the soccer revolution in this country in the 1970’s, the NASL Soccer Bowl match between the Cosmos and the Atlanta Silverbacks showed that this country is more than one league deep.
When I first turned on ESPN3 to watch the match the first thing that struck me was how serious the NASL was taking this match. Having watched a few NASL matches earlier in the season, I knew that the league did the best that it could to deliver a quality program. But when I heard a trusted voice of U.S. Soccer, Mr. J.P. Delacammera, explain the rich history of the NASL in the intro I knew that this was going to be a splendid viewing experience. If you have ever watched an American soccer game, be it MLS, U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams, or major tournaments like the World Cup, chances are you have heard this man. His knowledge of the game is unparalleled in this country.
Having Mr. Delacammera paired with the Cosmos color man, Former U.S. National Team player and current ESPN FC contributor Janusz Michallik was a masterstroke for the NASL. In a game where many people may be watching their first NASL match having two broadcasters who know the game well but won’t talk down to the audience is key. These two gentleman are two of the best in the game and it showed in this match.
Now for some of you who are scratching your heads right now about this second league, it is ok to be confused. Popular opinion would lead anyone to believe that there is only one professional soccer league in the United States. But there are actually quite a few. American football operates under a system is informally known as the American Soccer Pyramid. The top of the pyramid is Major League Soccer, with the North American Soccer League considered to be the second division and the United States Professional Soccer Leagues Professional Division, otherwise known as USL Pro in the third division. There are other leagues below USL Pro but to makes things easier I am going to leave it at that.
Sounds fairly simple right? Unfortunately it gets more complicated. Unlike our footy friends in pretty much every other country in the world, the United States does not have a promotion and relegation system. When the original architects of Major League Soccer were creating the league back in the mid-1990s, the decision was made to make the league fundamentally American. The assumption was that the American audience would not watch a league that foreign rules like a clock going forward or multiple leagues where teams could be knocked down to lower leagues. If you want to look at why American soccer has such a flawed development system, look no further than MLS.
The NASL, given that it takes its name from the league that existed from 1969 to 1983 and help start soccer in this country, considers themselves to be on par with MLS. During the entire match it felt like I was watching a competing brand. There were plenty of comparisons made between the two leagues and even a few good digs at MLS. When asked why the NASL spring season will be shorter next season (the NASL plays a split season in the spring and fall with the winner of the two “mini –seasons” playing in the Soccer Bowl) NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson said, “We want to respect FIFA and the 2014 World Cup. Any professional soccer organization should do this.” It should be noted that MLS does not respect the FIFA calendar and has routinely played matches on the same date as World Cup matches.
Although the league is relatively new and it is not exactly the Premier League, the quality of play from both teams was quite exceptional. Of course, one would expect excellent play from the New York Cosmos. Though Coach Giovanni Savarese may not have been able to call on the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Pele, Carlos Alberto, or Giorgio Chinaglia, the players on the pitch lived up to the name. Unbeaten in their last 11 matches, the Cosmos controlled possession for most of the match, building attacks from their defense and pushing the ball to the outside. Without question, their playmaker is Marcos Senna, the former Villareal player who is the marquee player for the league. At first when I heard of the signing I thought that this was another case of a veteran European player coming over to the United States to start a soccer academy and make a quick buck. But he looked quite impressive in this match drawing the attention of the Silverback defenders on countless opportunities and creating space for the two Cosmos forwards up front: Diamar Diaz and Stefan Diametchekov.
The Cosmos midfield is loaded for a NASL team. Senna is joined by former U.S. National Team player Danny Szetela and former Sporting Gijon midfielder Jorge Ayoze. The level of comfort that the three of them have in the midfield was evident in the first half by setting the pace. The Silverbacks would go who 5 to 6 minutes at a time without having a quality possession. Having watched many MLS matches this year where clubs struggle to make simple passes, it was nice to see teams playing the right way. Both teams played with a certain level of class and professionalism that one rarely sees in the United States.
The Cosmos were held down for most of the match thanks to the stellar play of Silverback Goalkeeper Joe Nasco. The former backup keeper for Real Salt Lake made several spectacular saves including a toe save off of cracker of a shot by Diaz. In the 28th minute Nasco once again kept his team in the game by making an excellent save on a free kick by Senna. Although the Silverbacks had lost 4 of their last 5 matches coming into the championship match, they looked to be the Cosmos equal in this fixture defending well and taking their chances up front when they had them. Coach Brian Hayes, the former Trinidad and Tobago international, has this team playing a very physical style but not reckless. The Silverbacks understood that they could not take any chances against the likes of the Cosmos.
As the match entered the 50th minute I did what every fan does when watching a close match: I began to think of overtime. Despite the Cosmos maintaining control of possession, the Silverbacks have had a few opportunities to make things interesting. Their #9, Pedro Mendes, has largely been kept out of the game by a tight defense but he was able to have a decent shot stopped by Cosmos Goalkeeper Kyle Cranish. This game had all of the makings of a 120 minute affair. At least that is what I thought until Marco Senna broke the hearts of the 7,000 Silverback supporters with his superb volley in the 56th minute.
You can always tell a good a goal if it makes you say out loud, “Oh Shit.” A simple volley that knuckled over the Silverbacks defenders and past Nasco, his shot took the air out of the voices of a raucous Atlanta crowd. There are two truths in soccer: exceptional talent always comes through in difficult circumstances and nothing kills a crowd like a shocking goal. Both of these idioms were proven correct in this moment.
With a victory near, the Cosmos were more than happy to drop back and let the Silverbacks try and even up. Unfortunately the Silverbacks just lacked that last pass to Mendes that would allow him to put some fear into the Cosmos supporters. Given that their Technical Director is Eric Wynalda, the former U.S. Men’s National Team player and now terrible talking head for Fox Sports, I am sure that addressing their offense will be a priority come the offseason. As for now the Silverbacks attempts were not enough to overcome the Cosmos.
I am asked all the time why I think that soccer is improving in this country, and the thing that I always tell people is to look into the stands. The Silverbacks supporters groups (The Ultras 101, the West Side 109, and the East Side 309) and the hundreds of Cosmos supporters made this match by being loud and fierce. So much of what makes soccer great, what makes matches like this matter is the response of the crowd. The organization and the response of the supporters was as strong as any second or third division game in Europe. There is so much more to American soccer than Major League Soccer and the U.S. Men’s National Team. This match proved it.
Where the NASL goes from here is anyone’s guess. It could end up being a league that rivals MLS. Or it could be just a really sound second division league that strengthens the American soccer system. But what can be said is that the NASL is once again relevant in the soccer world and the New York Cosmos are its champions.