By Michael Lewis
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Memo to teams in the Cosmopolitan Soccer League and Eastern New York State Soccer Association:
Be wary, be very wary of Cedar Stars Academy.
The CSL club made a statement or two at the Rapaglia Cup Sunday, winning all three of its matches and the championship game, a 2-1 victory over Grenada at the Verrazano Sports Complex.
Cedar Stars have quality, depth and some high aspirations to add to more trophies to its collection.
“What we’re trying to do is to put together a team that can win in the Cosmopolitan League,” said team owner and president Oliver Papraniku, who coached his final CSA game before Austin Friel takes over the reins this weekend. “We won here in the Rapaglia Cup and also go into the [Lamar Hunt] U.S. Open Cup with a fresh team because we also have the Motown team. We’re already in the Open Cup because of our positioning in the NPSL. What we’re looking to do is to just make a team for the Amateur Cup, the Fricker cup, have a pool of 60 players and be able to compete in everything. That’s our goal right now.”
(Papraniku is the president of FC Motown, which finished as the runner-up side in the National Premier Soccer League to Miami FC 2 in August).
Some lofty goals, but if you look at what Cedar Stars put on the field here Sunday and what it has in reserve, the team is in the position to make a deep run in many competitions.
In the Rapaglia Cup, assistant coach and captain Chris Katona, also a member of FC Motown, finished with two goals and three assists. Striker Bledi Bardic, who led Cosmos B with 12 goals in 11 NPSL matches this summer, struck twice in the opening before leaving to attend a wedding.
“We have a vision,” Katona said. “We have a new head coach in Austin. We’re all business this year, especially after last year after the unfortunate final and the run that we had in the NPSL just leaving a sour taste. This year we’re all business. It’s good. We’re starting to build some good chemistry early in the season. We look forward carrying the momentum.”
Cedar Stars was difficult to stop Sunday.
In Group A play, the squad registered a 4-1 triumph over CSL rival Lansdowne Bhoys and a 4-0 win over Kosmos United (Long Island Soccer Football League). In other group action, Lansdowne defeated Kosmos, last-minute replacements for Port Jefferson SC, 6-1.
“They’re a good side,” Lansdowne player-coach Sean Kelly said of Cedar Stars. “We’re still missing six or seven bodies today. Looking over at them, they are missing, four or five or six also. They’re a good strong squad. They’ve had a lot of guys who have been playing all summer. They’re a little bit sharper.”
The CSL side took on Grenada, the Central Brooklyn Soccer League representative that had much closer encounters in Group B. Grenada (Central Brooklyn Soccer League) downed Williamsburg International (CSL), 3-1, and edged Herradura, (Eastern District Soccer League), 3-2. In the other group match, Herradura nipped Williamsburg, 2-1.
In contrast to many finals in which teams deploy a rather dour and conservative style, both teams went out to play soccer in an entertaining affair that had end-to-end action.
Cedar Stars took a 1-0 advantage as Katona latched onto a long feed on the right side before beating goalkeeper Ken Searles in the 29th minute. The champions doubled their lead as Walter Calderon put in a Katona feed in front of the goal as he collided with Grenada defender Kwane Langdon in the 51st minute.
“It’s just a long day,” Katona said. “Everyone put in hard work. I did everything I could to get myself in shape. Toward the end had tired legs. I was just trying anything I could to change the momentum of the game and have an impact on it.”
With three minutes remaining in the 60-minute affair, Julien Marcus electrified the crowd with a shot from distance to slice the Cedar Stars’ lead in half.
In both its group matches, Cedar Stars rolled to 2-0 leads relatively early in both contests, but that didn’t worry Papraniku one iota.
“No, no, we were a little tired,” he said. “The heat beat us up. We’re not used to playing on this type of field. It’s not conducive to a good game.”
Papraniku gave credit to Grenada, which made life difficult for his side.
“We played a well-seasoned team,” he said. “They were a mix of strong youth players, younger players and some old veterans that were pretty savvy. It’s always a good game. You should always fear a team like that, but I knew we would win it. I think we had the right quality even though abot five of our players had to leave. A few of the guys were injured. We were missing quite a few players today. It shows our depth.”
Then again, teams should fear Cedar Stars because of its depth, and that includes several recent signings — Cosmos B midfielder Danny Szetela, FC Motown and former Trinidad & Tobago defender Julius James and midfielder Dilly Duka, who has played in Major League Soccer, among others.
The most anticipated group match was the first one, which kicked off at Field 1 — Cedar Stars vs. Lansdowne in a battle of CSL titans. Lansdowne has captured four of the last five CSL championships, defeating CSA this past June.
It was never much of a contest as Cedar Stars struck early and often. Bardic tallied from a severe angle on the right side in the sixth minute and Katona put home a rebound off goalkeeper Kabo Danso six minutes later. Bardic made it 3-0, rifling home a shot from the left side in the 22nd minute. Four minutes into the second half, Calderon scored goal No. 4 before Jack Doherty pulled one back for Lansdowne.
Lansdowne, which lost several key players and is undergoing a rebuilding process, hardly looked like the same imposing side that won not one, but two national championships during the summer of 2017 as it took home the Marth U.S. Amateur Cup and the Fricker Cup.
“This tournament, we’ve won it the last couple of years,” Kelly said. “We have a new bunch of lads. We have lost some players and have some new lads in. We’re kind of looking at it as getting some minutes under the legs of everybody. Obviously, the Stars, the first game didn’t go to plan. The first two goals were soft. Very uncharacteristic. It is what it is.”
Cedar Stars also used the tournament as to try out goalkeeper Claudio Santis, 25, a former Chilean Under-20 international goalkeeper who has played for La Serena the past three seasons. He wasn’t tested very often but was solid when called upon.
“He definitely didn’t do too bad at all,” Katona said. “He didn’t get that many contested shots on him, but as far as from the back, being able to keep the defense in front of him to space things, to be able to time manage the clock. little stuff like that, it’s just as effective even though you’re not getting so many shots on net. He played well and obviously led to a championship.”
A goalkeeper from Chile to complete what looks like an imposing team?
Cedar Stars certainly looks like it’s the team to beat this year.
Only time will tell.