A Sort of Homecoming: NYCFC v NY Cosmos

Before we dive directly into a discussion of this Round 5 game of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, permit me a few moments of nostalgia – because Wednesday night was a bit of a homecoming for me. The last time I walked onto the pitch at Shuart Stadium, I was 17 years old and wearing a goalie’s kit and playing in New York State’s High School semi-finals.

Indulge me a bit longer, if you will. Because when I was growing up, the Cosmos were, quite literally, the only game in town. We watched their games as religiously as the spotty TV coverage would permit. And we made the trek out to Giants Stadium as often as we could, where I would watch Beckenbauer and Chinaglia and Pele dismantle my hero, Gordon Banks.

But memories, as your man reminds us, are killing, and he warns us not to think of certain things.

Now, in an earlier piece for this publication, we speculated on who should start this match for the Citizens, since it not only fell between two important MLS fixtures but also because it was on FieldTurf, an artificial surface the NYCFC players were not used to. We were confident, for example that Villa would not play – and we were right. We suggested (erroneously, as our friends at Blue City Radio pointed out) that NYCFC should call up Zimmerman, Campbell and Fairclough, to both rest regular starters for the upcoming trip to Toronto and capitalize on their familiarity with the surface (which is also on the Hammerheads home field in Wilmington).

The fact that Coach Kreis did not, however, doesn’t discredit the strategy. Indeed, the case can be made that the difference on the pitch Wednesday night was, in fact, the pitch itself.

To be clear, while it is commonplace in American sport to blame the field for a loss, that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re, in a sense, blaming the strategy that did not acknowledge — as it did not on the first trip to the high altitude in Colorado in week 3 — that the location will impact the play of NYCFC.

For example, who scored NYCFC’s goals? Kwadwao Poku – who, not coincidentally, started the season in Wilmington. And where did he play last year? For the Atlanta Silverbacks who also play on FieldTurf. And where was Poku’s first game for the Silverbacks? At Shuart against the Cosmos. So clearly he has a familiarity with the way FieldTurf affects how the ball bounces and the pace of passes – a familiarity he demonstrated on Wednesday night, and which his teammates by and large do not have.

That was most evident in the first twenty minutes, when the great teamwork and passing that we saw against Montreal was hampered by strange caroms and rolls and ricochets. The possession game is, as we have mentioned before, a game of timing and anticipation, both of which are affected by the characteristics of the pitch you’re playing on. A pitch that players like Mix and Facey and Hernandez and Ballouchy needed time to adjust to.

The Cosmos, of course, didn’t need time to adjust, which is why they came out of the gate at full speed, and why Lucky Mkosana was giving the backline fits for the first twenty minutes. He knew exactly what the ball would do and Brovsky, Hernandez, Facey and Allen were fortunate on several occasions that he didn’t put the home side on the board.

Of course, by the 24th minute when Poku converted a lovely cross from Allen to put NYCFC up, you could tell the NYCFC players were starting to get the hang of the field. How much they’d learned in that first twenty, however, became apparent late in the second half, when Kreis brought in subs for Allen, Hernandez and Poku. One immediately became aware that those new players – specifically Wingert and Grabavoy who were trying to pass the ball up the field – were as frustrated and confused as their teammates had been when the game began. Not surprising, then, that both Cosmos goals happened during that period of adjustment.

But hats off to the Cosmos. They won, fair and square. And hats off to the fans, both the Cosmos faithful who filled the stadium nearly to capacity and the Third Rail supporters who packed the visitors section and demonstrated the kind of passion and intensity they are still negotiating with Yankee Stadium about.

As for me, well, I must admit, it was an unfortunately appropriate homecoming. For as on Wednesday night, the team that brought me to Shuart Stadium in 1979 also lost.

And I think we all know what this means.

It means I should probably stop going to Hofstra.

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images/Mike Strobe

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