New York ends Fort Lauderdale Strikers NASL title hopes – where does FTL go from here?

Photo courtesy of the New York Cosmos

Photo courtesy of the New York Cosmos

Unfortunately controversy is never far from any important soccer game, wherever it is played in the world. The New York Cosmos defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers 2-1 in Brooklyn on Saturday, but both teams could feel aggrieved by officials decisions late in the match.

In a rivalry that dates back to 1977, when 77,000 plus fans attended the first postseason game between these sides in the New York area, today’s smallish aground on Coney Island was somewhat surreal. But the atmosphere delivered today by the die-hard Cosmos fans showed that all of the money in the world cannot manufacture a legacy – The Cosmos have something special that their in-town rivals from MLS, the Abu Dhabi-owned, Anglo-Spanish managed New York City FC might never create – a real history and character. The Cosmos are a special club, a real football club in a nation dominated by manufactured soccer franchises with little history or regard for the past. The Cosmos will  have a chance to win seventh NASL title thanks to this result.

The decision by PRO the governing body for pro soccer  referees in the United States to assign the highly-controversial Sorin Stoica as the center referee for Saturday’s NASL semifinal between New York and Fort Lauderdale in Brooklyn was meet with much criticism by fans including yours truly. Stoica missed a clear penalty that might have given New York an opportunity to put the game away when leading 2-1 midway through the second half, and then his linesman waved off a Fort Lauderdale goal in minute 89 for offside. Jose Angulo appeared from TV replays to be onside when the ball was played to him on a dead ball from PC, but it was a close call and ultimately the goal was waved off. However, it must be noted that Stoica had a very good first 60 minutes of the game, and often in tense, pressure situations like this match, officials in the United States lose control much quicker than that.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Strikers head coach Günter Kronsteiner. “Even the other coach told me that we scored a regular goal; it’s more than a little disappointing.  I think we were the better team. Then, in the second half, we weren’t so strong anymore.  We didn’t deserve to lose this game — that’s for sure. I feel sorry for the guys — extremely sorry — because they played a great game. I feel like we got robbed.  To play against (the Cosmos) in New York with the way they play, is extremely special.  Everyone involved has my respect.”

The Strikers scored first behind thanks to PC in the 16th minute. The midfielder returning from a injury absence of three weeks, received a square pass from Marlon Freitas on the right corner of the penalty area, and then fired a low shot between the legs of Cosmos defender Ayoze and across goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer into the far post. The goal was the culmination of solid defensive play from the Strikers, as Walter Ramirez dispossessed Hunter Freeman after a long ball forward by  Strikers central defender Jordan Graye.

The lead  lasted for over 20 minutes but New York netted the equalizer in the 37th minute, after Maurer had made an incredible reflex save on PC – Fort Lauderdale’s missed chance to double the lead opened the door for the Cosmos. Marcos Senna’s free kick from 30 yards out was parried away by goalkeeper David Meves, but the rebound struck Gastón Cellerino, who was perfectly positioned to level the match at one.KartikReport_FTL (1)

Real Madrid legend Raúl who is retiring after this season scored the game winner shortly after the hour mark when he slipped past the defense unmarked and converted on a close-range shot that hit the post and bounced in. Daniel Szetela provided the assist on the play. Raúl — along with teammate and compatriot Marcos Senna — has announced that he will retire after the season. The pair will play their final professional matches next Sunday when the Cosmos host The Championship Final.

Raúl’s goal culminated 15 minutes of complete domination by the Cosmos after halftime. Kronsteiner had made a halftime sub, bringing Gabriel on for Walter Ramirez, but the veteran Brazilian’s insertion into the game simply gave the Cosmos additional bodies forward and created a situation where the Strikers lost their shape tactically. After the Raúl goal, Fort Lauderdale brought on Angulo and the Strikers shape never looked symmetrical again, with players consistently out of position. It wasn’t until about the 83rd minute that Fort Lauderdale looked right again, and for the game’s final seven minutes plus stoppage time the Strikers were clearly the better side.

Kronsteiner’s feeling that the Strikers were the better side throughout the game is off the mark. Fort Lauderdale was certainly the better team in the first 30 minutes and should have been two clear by that point. They were also better in the final ten minutes of the game, but in period in-between from minutes 30 or so through 83 or thereabouts, New York were the superior side.

While the Strikers are one of only NASL teams to make the postseason every single year the league has had a playoff tournament, they still haven’t won a title and this team on paper gave Fort Lauderdale its best shot yet. Regardless of whether the officials were to blame or not, the failure to clinch a playoff spot when it was on the offering, thus needing Tampa Bay loss to open the door again, and today’s defeat will leave a bitter taste in the mouth of many fans and the ownership. This was a team that was built with short-term goals in mind thanks to taking players on loan and offering experienced veterans short-term contracts. Not winning the NASL title this season might require a rethink, or simply doubling-down on the players and coaches the squad currently has. Doing that wouldn’t be the worst thing but it might require a financial commitment beyond this ownership group. Things might be about to get very interesting in southeast Florida for the Strikers.

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