In a rebirth of the rivalry which defined the 1970s of North American professional soccer, the New York Cosmos played host to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in their NASL Spring Season home opener on Saturday night. Reintroduced to the league in 2013, the Cosmos are currently top of the NASL table, winning two of their opening three matches and drawing the other. Following a difficult away draw with Indy Eleven, the Cosmos were eager to make the right start at home in front of its modern era record crowd of 12,550. And they did just that.
Despite the crowd being dominated by those sporting the unmistakable Green and White of the host side, plenty of fans were bedecked in Real Madrid and Spain jerseys bearing the name of the man they came to see: Raúl. So it came as no surprise that, when the Cosmos came out for warmups, a roar erupted from all in attendance.
However, even Raúl’s reception was a mere shout compare to the raucous cheers and screams from delighted fans when Pelé made his entrance – on a golf cart flanked by security and accompanied by his entourage. Fans young and old bunched together to get a glimpse of the legendary player who helped make the New York Cosmos a global brand.
Dubbed by New York Cosmos Coach Giovanni Savarese as “definitely one of the greatest days of the new era,” the home opener kicked off on a beautiful Spring evening in Uniondale, NY. While the stadium wasn’t quite full at kickoff, it soon became difficult to find an empty seat. Behind one goal, New York Cosmos’ loyal fan group, La Banda del Cosmos, were in fine voice, providing percussion and organized chants for the Cosmos faithful.
While much of the focus was on Raúl, Marcos Senna quickly showed why he’s been so indispensable to this squad. Always calm in possession, Senna helped link attacking players like Long Island native Leo Fernandes with hard-working defenders like Rovérsio. His ability to quickly transition from defense to attack was one of the Cosmos’ most dangerous assets as time and again he would spread the play out wide to Fernandes or Restrepo who terrorized Rowdies defenders throughout the match.
It was Senna who scored Cosmos’ first goal, converting from a penalty kick just eleven minutes into the match after Raúl and Restrepo linked up well down the sideline. From the resulting cross and header, Rowdies’ Darnell King handled and the referee correctly pointed to the spot. Senna’s calmness was clearly on display as he sent Contofalsky the wrong way and finished for the first goal of the night.
Despite complaining of a slight hamstring injury sustained in the week ahead of the match, Raul was definitely up for this one, pulling out the nutmegs and party tricks throughout the first half. Rowdies forward Georgi Hristov and midfielder Verneri Välimaa were happy to see the back of the Spaniard when he was removed late in the match. Although he didn’t get on the scoresheet, Raúl repeatedly humbled opponents with the trickery and guile the likes of which have been hallmarks of his career. As the fulcrum of the offensive thrust, he helped connect numerous counter-attacks and frequently frustrated the Rowdies midfielders who failed to prevent him from making an impact.
The second half began much like the first ended with the Cosmos firmly in control. Just minutes after the restart, local boy Leo Fernandes stretched the home side’s lead to two, finishing off an incisive move that left the Rowdies completely exposed. Instrumental yet again, Senna played an inch-perfect pass out wide to Restrepo who found a relatively unmarked Fernandes to slot home. Marcos Senna deservedly won Man of the Match honors as he was easily the Cosmos most influential player on both sides of the ball.
Cosmos captain Carlos Mendes put in an admirable shift in defense. The Rowdies were kept to just two shots on goal, and much of that was due to the commitment of the home side’s defenders. Home side goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer was relatively untroubled, marshaling his side from the back and earning his clean sheet.
Speaking to fans ahead of the match, many admitted that they were eager to see how Cosmos defenders handled the daunting Maicon Santos, and were surely pleased that he was essentially neutralized over the full 90 minutes.
Minutes from the final whistle, Raúl was subbed off to a standing ovation from the proud home support whose cheers illustrated their firm confidence in their new talisman.
Following the final whistle, the Cosmos did a lap of honor, clapping the fans and accepting the deserved praises from the Cosmos faithful. As Raúl joined his teammates, Rowdies forward Darwin Espinal approached him for an autograph, cementing, if only for a second, his unwavering celebrity status among fans and players of the beautiful game.
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