Danny Szetela: “We want to go out on top. Hopefully, everything works out.” (Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — No one knows whether The Championship, the North American Soccer League’s title game Sunday between the Cosmos and the San Francisco Deltas, will be a league final or the league’s finale.
With the NASL asking an appellate court for a preliminary injunction against the U.S. Soccer Federation to keep its Division Two status for 2018, the future of the league is quite in doubt.
So many questions by the players, very few, if any, answers.
Will there be a league next year? Will there be a team? Where will I play? How will I be able to support my family?
The Cosmos players know what has been swirling around them for weeks and they say they are not about to let what is transpiring off the field to get in the way of what will happen at Kezar Stadium Sunday (beIN, 8 p.m. ET). The Deltas have endured their own problems as team owners said the team will not return next season, even if there is a league.
Eight Cosmos players interviewed by FrontRowSoccer.com after training at Mitchel Athletic Complex Wednesday agreed it was all about focusing on the task at hand, which would be winning the Cosmos’ third consecutive NASL crown and fourth in five years.
“Everyone realizes the situation,” captain Carlos Mendes said. “We know what’s going on. There’s uncertainty.”
Added goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer: “You hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
Club management and coaching staff have held several meetings with the players and the players have had a session amongst themselves.
“Listen, there’s only one thing we can control and that’s focused on playing and trying to win a championship,” Mendes said. “Regardless what will happen in the future, we want to go out and try to win another title. After the season we’ll see how everything unfolds and what the future has to hold. We want to do what we love most, which is playing soccer. We are focused on winning another title.”
Maurer, who lauded the Cosmos management and coaching staff for keeping the team in the loop, stressed that communication has been the key during these trying times.
“They have communicated with us every step of the way, as much as they can, as much as they know,” he said. “That’s one thing that has been really great about this club my entire career here, is the fact there’s not chirping, not little groups, there’s not people behind backs. If there’s something to be said, we get together and say it to people’s faces. The coaching staff promotes that. It’s very helpful instead of having whispers. We’ve talked about it. You hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
Maurer has a wife, three children and a house. He has acquitted himself well during his five-year tenure with the Cosmos, but there’s that uncertainty. From now until kickoff, Maurer doesn’t expect his teammates to speak much about 2018 and beyond.
“Off the field, there’s real life things,” he said. “You’ve got to be prepared. Things can go in different directions. but [it’s important] to be able to compartmentalize the situation and when it’s time to play, it’s time to play. Talk about it. The day before, a couple of days before the game, there’s no more talk. We play the game. If you’re talking about something, it’s about tactics it’s about the game. That’s it. There’s plenty of time to sort everything else out … after.”
Of course, everyone is human and while the players say they are focused on the final, it is difficult not to have concerns and worries about the future.
“Obviously, you think about it,” said forward Lucky Mkosana, who, along with defender David Ochieng, attended the original preliminary hearing in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn Oct. 31. “You cannot not think about it, even if you try to focus. Unconsciously, you think about it. What’s important for us for now is Sunday’s game. We have a big opportunity to do something really special for our families, for the team, for the staff, for the owner, too. I think it’s hard to do anything about it, but the reality is that we have a job to do.
“What we can control is Sunday. The court thing, we don’t know how long it’s going to go on for. We can think about it but we can’t make it distract us from the game.”
Midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma’s concentration has been hardened by a 10-year career that includes playing in his native Argentina, England, Italy and Greece.
“I didn’t think of these things,” he said. “Now, I am thinking the game, the final, training every day. When the season is over, then I will start thinking about the future. If you start right now, I get confused. My mind goes crazy and then I have a lot of things in my mind and I lose the focus in the game. For me, now, it’s more game, the final and that’s it.”
On the flip side, 19-year-old midfielder Eric Calvillo is just at the cusp of his career, having completed his second season with the Cosmos.
“I am focusing on the next game, trying to win another championship for my team, my captain, the club, the organization,” he said. “The past couple of weeks it hasn’t really been in my head. I have been trying to ignore it as much as possible, just to stay focused on this season, and then to worry about my future once the offseason comes.”
Sounded like a grizzled veteran, as did defender Jimmy Mulligan.
“I don’t want to be a guy who is not focused on what we have to do — the task at hand with all the rest of the guys — to get the job done,” he said. “That’s my main focus right now, and after the season, after we win the championship, that will be on my mind.”
Ditto for El Salvadoran international midfielder Andres Flores.
“Obviously, there is a lot going on outside the field,” he said. “For me, the most important thing is the game on Sunday. I’m trying to be just focused on that and we’ll see what happens.”
For midfielder Danny Szetela, it’s a deja vu feeling from last year, when the players were not paid down the stretch and in the playoffs. Yet, the team overcame those financial hardships and obstacles and won the title.
“It’s happening all over again,” he said, adding, “Maybe it’s a little different because now more it’s about sanctioning with U.S. Soccer. I’m not thinking about that too much. We have the final coming up on Sunday and my focus and the focus of all the guys here is on The Championship. We want to go out on top. Hopefully, everything works out.”