The choice of MCU Park in Coney Island was a curious one. The site of the first NASL Semi-Final drew 5,061 fans, but when Raul scored the go ahead goal in a 2-1 win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, it sounded like twice that number.
These two ancient rivals from the NASL Glory years played a first half that showed how closely matched these two were. The Cosmos, inspired by the desire to get retiring legends Raul and Marcos Senna a championship to cap their respective brilliant careers, did not show in the opening 45 minutes.
“They had alot of energy at the beginning,” Cosmos Head Coach Giovanni Savarese explained in the postgame. “They have some quality players.”
The Strikers came out moving the ball well from one end to the other, probing for spots to quick strike the Cosmo defensive back four. They were up to the task for 15 minutes until one of those players of quality, PC, found a spot by the right post and slotted it low across the goal, beating Cosmos netminder Jimmy Mauer. But Jimmy was stubborn from that point on making great saves later on and playing perfect in the box. “I had to hold it to one, if it becomes two then that makes it tough,” Mauer recalled, “We were the top seed and its great. But if we lost today what would the top seed matter?”
The best player for the Cosmos in the half was Gaston Cellerino, who showed toughness and grit and lead the attack with three shots on net. But it was his 37th minute goal that changed the momentum of this contest. After Striker goalie David Meves saved an initial shot, Cellerino swooped in and tapped in the rebound to even matters. To Savarese, it was a matter of giving Sebastian a little more support.
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“We had to find the gaps, not leave Cellerino by himself,” Savarese explained. “Raul found the wide areas and Restrepo and Senna went inside.”
The Cosmos were already taking command in the closing minutes of the half and as the two teams returned from intermission, it was Raul who took center stage. Raul had come close to scoring earlier when he rocketed a shot straight to Meves.
Raul grabbed a pass in center area in front of the box in a crowd and quickly split three defenders, and blasting a missle through Meves to scorch the nets and put New York up for good, 2-1 in the 61st minute.
“He’s always been that player who puts some genius into the games,” Savarese said. “He started to find the spaces, creating, doing different things, breaking his man down. The goal was important for us.”
But maybe as significant was the ability to keep possession and Raul coukd be seen taking the ball into corners with two or three defenders, then losing them with a clever nutmeg, or on a crossover that shook a defender out of his shoes and crossing for a near goal to Senna, only to be denied by Meves excellence. ‘
“He held the ball in all the right areas,” Savarese recounted.
Raul will have an opportunity to win a championship in his final game next Sunday, in Long Island. Marcos Senna summarized his thoughts on his upcoming finale as well. Senna came three years ago and led the Cosmos to the NASL title in 2013.
“Being able to play until 39 here is a great feat,” Senna responded. “To be able to play with a great legend is another great feat of mine. I’m leaving on top and I’m very happy.”
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