Zaire Bartley: “The game is to have fun. Every game you’re supposed to have fun. ” (Photo courtesy of the Cosmos)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — When Cosmos B head coach Carlos Mendes said that some players had to step up their game in the National Premier Soccer League playoffs with the absence of the injured Bledi Bardic, several answered the call.

Perhaps no one has risen to the occasion more than Zaire Bartley.

Actually, make that soared to the occasion and then some. Bartley has become the face of Cosmos B’s playoff success.

In three games over an eight-day span, the 20-year-old forward from the Bronx has given the North Atlantic Conference champions a second life in the postseason. Bartley has scored four goals and converted a penalty kick in a shootout.

For some players, that’s a good month’s production.

For Bartley, it could be the start of something big.

It certainly has been for Cosmos B in the past week or so.

“Anyone, especially a young player, you’re playing up top, you need the goals to have the confidence,” Mendes said. “He has matured in the sense of tactically putting himself in better positions on the field, finding and stretching the game. We think he’s best at opening his legs, going 1 v 1. I think early on he was trying to do too much, trying too much to come into the midfield. You see the difference now when he’s stretching behind the defense and going at guys 1 v 1. He’s very dangerous.”

Dangerous enough to score both goals in the 2-0 triumph over FC Frederick in the Northeast Region semifinals Wednesday night.

Dangerous enough to get some praise from FC Motown head coach Sacir Hot, whose team will meet Cosmos B in the regional final at Commisso Stadium in Manhattan Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

“I’ve heard that he’s doing great,” Hot said. “He’s a person of interest, definitely a person of interest.”

Scoring a few goals certainly will do that.

“Just more confidence in the finishing areas of the game,” midfielder Jalen Brown said. “We’re starting to feed him in behind. He’s starting to make runs and just more confidence as a goal-scorer. I think he’s coming along very well for us.”

Added central midfielder Travis Pittman: “Even 7 v 7 in training I could see he has everything. He’s got the speed, he’s got the skill. Sometimes it’s mental. So, I’ve been encouraging him to just push and go and keep going. If you miss a chance, just drop it and keep going … go at players one-on-one. Just everything positive towards him. He’s getting confident at the right time and it’s showing.”

Until Wednesday night Bartley was a super sub. That is, until he looked at the Starting XI posted in the Cosmos B locker room at Hofstra University and noticed that he would begin the match.

It didn’t faze the 5-8, 150-lb. forward a bit.

“Same reaction if I was coming off the bench,” Bartley said. “Focused, coming in, work.

“It felt good starting. I haven’t played a 90-minute game in a year.”

Here is what he has accomplished during those eight days:

* On Wednesday, July 11, Bartley scored the insurance goal in extratime in the 4-2 victory over the Elm City Express in the North Atlantic Conference semifinals.

* On Saturday, July 14, he connected for the equalizer against the Brooklyn Italians to force a 1-1 tie and eventually a shootout in the conference final on Saturday, July 14. He also converted a penalty kick to help Cosmos B register a 5-3 tie-breaker win.

* And on Wednesday, July 18, Bartley tallied in first-half stoppage time and added an insurance goals in the 77th minute.

“This was the first time in the playoffs that we weren’t under a goal,” he said. “So for us to get the first goal, it gave the team enough confidence to get the other one.”

Needless to say, Bartley is soaring with confidence. After all, the former Jamaican international is having the time of his soccer life.

“The game is to have fun,” he said. “Every game you’re supposed to have fun. The team is jelling together and scoring goals. It’s fantastic. Now we have to just win the finals.”

FC Motown might have a say about that Saturday night, but Bartley is confident.

“Motown is like every other team,” he said. “We’re just going to work together to win.”