Thursday June 18th, 2015

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – In the 79th minute of the fourth round U.S. Open Cup match between New York City FC and the New York Cosmos, NYCFC’s regular starting goalkeeper Josh Saunders stood behind the Cosmos goal, watching Eirik Johansen, a backup keeper on loan from Manchester City’s youth team, make his New York debut across the field.

Saunders, one of the best keepers in Major League Soccer this year, was held out of Wednesday night’s game (as was star forward David Villa). Watching from the opposite net, Saunders had been impressed by Johansen, but offered what proved to be an ominous caveat as time ticked down.

“The last 10 minutes can be the toughest,” Saunders said. “He’s done very well so far, I’ve seen a lot of good things, but he has to button up and continue to keep the ball in front of him.”

Johansen, ultimately, wasn’t able to keep the ball in front of him. Saunders watched as the Cosmos’ Lucky Mkosana scored at the 90th minute, tying the game at 2-2 and sending it to extra time. At the end of 120 minutes of play, the score still 2-2, NYCFC built a 3-1 lead on penalty kicks before succumbing 4-3. Still, the game, dubbed the “East River Derby,” was a major step toward New York reaching its potential as American soccer’s Mecca. The players knew it, the coaches knew it and the fans—all 11,446 of them—made sure every living thing within earshot of Hofstra University knew it.

On this occasion last year, the New York Red Bulls fell hard to the Cosmos 3-0 in a match that some suggested may not have been a major priority for the MLS side. On May 10, the Red Bulls won the first clash with NYCFC, a team still struggling to find its form. 

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New York City FC and Red Bulls are on course to become natural rivals in Major League Soccer. The teams are a lock to play multiple matches a year. The only occasion on which either team would play the New York Cosmos—champions of the second-tier North American Soccer League’s 2015 Spring Season—in meaningful competition is in the U.S. Open Cup. In this one, NYCFC was denied what would have been a chance to make an area statement.

“Any time you have a two-goal lead [and lose it], you’ve got to scratch your head and sort some things out,’’ said NYCFC coach Jason Kreis. “A lot of players can take responsibility for this, so we can stay together in doing so.”

Indeed, NYCFC had many chances to walk away victorious. After 90 minutes, the club was clinging to a 2-1 lead, courtesy of two tremendous goals from Kwadwo Poku. The midfielder, who continues to see starting minutes, has been hot of late and integral to NYCFC’s recent turn of the tide. After starting its season 1-7-4, NYCFC was boasting a three-game unbeaten streak before this loss.

“We should have finished this game off earlier,” Poku said. “Sometimes it’s not what you want. Sometimes you miss chances, stuff happens. We have to just focus on the next game.”

When Mkosana leveled the score, a last gasp for the Cosmos turned into a gut punch to NYCFC that they never recovered from. In extra time, NYCFC earned a penalty kick, but Pablo Alvarez’s shot sailed over the bar.

In PKs, NYCFC looked like it was going to overcome all of the opportunities that it had squandered when Mix Diskerud put his team up 3-1. Mkosana, a hero again, scored to keep the Cosmos alive. After Patrick Mullins missed, Adam Moffat leveled. Cosmos keeper Jimmy Maurer saved a shot from Shay Facey, and Hunter Gorskie put away the winner.

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The upset became the story of a second-division team refusing to kneel to either of its MLS adversaries, something the Cosmos players and head coach wanted to make completely clear.

“This team has tremendous belief in what we’re doing and in each other. No matter what the situation is in the game we’re confident we’re going to get back in it,’’ Gorskie said. “The whole time I was saying to myself, ‘I’m going to win this game.’ I had faith in Jim to get the save. The situation was a little surreal.’’

For everything this game had–Poku's bicycle-kick goal, comebacks, penalty kick shootouts–and everything it didn’t–the anticipated matchup between Spanish legends Villa and Raul didn’t materialize because Villa was protected from the Shuart Stadium's artificial turf at Shuart Stadium–it will be remembered for is the atmosphere that enveloped the match. More than 1,000 NYCFC supporters found their way to Hofstra University's stadium, many for the first time. Their passion was not lost on the players on the field.

“The atmosphere out there tonight was fantastic. Hats off to our fans, and hats off to the NYC fans as well,” said Gorskie. “They really made it a special game. To win at home like this, in that atmosphere, it’s one of the best moments in my life.

With the win, the Cosmos now head to the round of 16 in the U.S. Open Cup, where they'll face the Red Bulls for a second straight year. The Red Bulls advanced with ease, taking their 2015 U.S. Open Cup debut seriously by dismantling the Atlanta Silverbacks 3-0 with a first-choice lineup on Tuesday. 

New York City FC, meanwhile, is now 0-2 in local derbies, but the team won’t have to wait long for a third crack. After an away game against Toronto FC this weekend, NYCFC welcomes the Red Bulls to Yankee Stadium for the first time, looking even out their rivalry.

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