Ricardo Bocanegra is expected to play a key role for the Cosmos this season. (Photo courtesy of the Cosmos)
With the team’s National Premier Soccer League season opener tonight, New York Cosmos head coach Carlos Mendes sized up his team.
The Cosmos welcome the New York Athletic Club to Mitchel Athletic Complex in Uniondale, N.Y., Saturday at 7 p.m.
Here is a quick look at each platoon:
The team has four goalkeepers on the roster — Santiago Castano, Kevin Tenjo, who came off the bench to backstop the Cosmos’ postseason run in 2018, Paul Blanchette, and Jesse Corke of Valley Stream, N.Y. who starred at Molloy College. Last season the Cosmos also had four goalkeepers.
“It creates more healthy competition in a healthy, but tough environment to push each other,” Mendes said. “When I was a player, things didn’t go my way, I was on the bench, had to prove myself. That’s a good thing. That’s how you’re going to get better. That’s what we’re looking to create here. As long as there’s a respect and everyone works towards a common goal, that’s key.”
Castano, who played with New York Red Bulls II, appears to be sitting in the catbird seat for the opener.
“Santi is training right now at a good level,” Mendes said. “He’s done well in the preseason. We have confidence in all our ‘keepers. From Kevin, Jesse, Paul, they’ve all come in and understand the way we want to play. We’d be comfortable with having any of them in goal. There’s a lot of games, a long season. We need to use everybody. Very happy with all of them. Santi coming from a good level in terms with training in Colombia, looks sharp. Whoever’s playing best at the moment is going to get an opportunity.”
The leading candidates to man the back four are former Italian youth international Emmanuele Sembroni and one-time Fordham University star Matt Lewis, who are ready to be leading men in the center back roles. Albanian international captain Ansi Agolli is the top choice on the left flank and Kevin Venegas, if he has recovered from a calf injury, on the right side.
Garrett Halfhill, who enjoyed a productive season in the middle with the Cosmos last year, is recovering from a broken right wrist. Armando Guarnera also is another center back option. Queens, N.Y., native David Diosa, back with the team after a year with the Real Monarchs, will give the team depth at left back and also at midfield and the front line. Pedro Galvao brings experience abroad and playing in North America, while Dominick Falanga, a standout at the Brooklyn Italians and St. Francis Brooklyn, also will be deployed in the outside back positions.
In five preseason matches against college competition, the Cosmos recorded as many clean sheets.
‘We have a lot of good defenders,” Mendes said. “All of the guys have stepped up. We’ve had guys who have been professional a long time, a lot of experience. Even the young guys, like Matt Lewis, has stood out. He’s very comfortable on the ball, the way we like to play. Has a nice mentality. And Sembroni, with experience, the tactical awareness, the leadership. Outside, there’s Venegas, who has professional experience. We’ve got guys that know the game.”
Mendes has many options here, depending on the system, opponent, and who is on his game or fit.
The four biggest names could form an imposing midfield — team captain Danny Szetela, who has been with the club since its reboot in 2013, Ricardo Bocanegra, who brings valuable experience from Liga MX to the squad, Junior Burgos, a member of the El Salvadoran national team, and Darwin Espinal, who has turned heads during preseason after an outstanding year in 2018.
Mendes liked his flexibility, which includes former C.W. Post standout Charlie Ledula, who also can play forward, and one-time Adelphi University star Joey Sanchez of Uniondale, N.Y., and brothers Salvatore and Giuseppe Barone, who enjoyed outstanding careers at St. Francis Brooklyn and LIU Brooklyn, respectively. Former Cosmos Academy midfielder Bryan Moya, a standout at Martin Luther King High School, signed with the club this week.
“What I like about our midfield is that we have different options,” Mendes said. “We have players who are very comfortable on the ball, who can possess the ball, who are clever. We have some players who like to face goal, who will stretch the game. Having that available is huge. These are reasons why these guys are going to get an opportunity to play because if we need to stretch the game, if we need to put speed in, we have that. If we need a little more possession or maybe more combinations, we’re comfortable doing that.
“It’s our engine room and the leaders like Danny and Ricardo have to step up. With the experience, especially these games with crowds, big games in the Open Cup when you have to win, that leadership has to come through for us in the midfield.”
Mendes said that he expects a lot from Bocanegra, who won a gold medal with Mexico at the 2011 Pan American Games.
“He’s a great player. He’s a pro,” he said. “He’s got a good attitude. He’s adjusted to a new team, a system. He’s adjusted through preseason, but we expect a lot out of him. He’s a guy that can make the final pass and find the gaps, and really make a difference for us. I love what I’ve seen in the preseason.”
Returnee Bledi Bardic and Aly Alberto Hassan are expected to form a dynamic duo up front.
Bardic tallied a team-high 12 goals in 11 matches last season before a hamstring injury sidelined him for the playoffs.
“He has an engine where he’ll run all day,” Mendes said. “I think he’s been a little frustrated because he hasn’t maybe finished as much as he’d like to. And that’s something normal. That’s something strikers go through, finding the back of the net. I’m confident he’ll get out of it, snap out of it. The good thing is that he has put himself in good spots, gotten opportunities. As a coach you want to see guys in right areas getting opportunities. If they miss a couple, you know it’s going to come. He’s an experienced guy, he’s been a professional, so he understands. We’re sure he’ll get us some goals.”
Mendes was just as hopeful about Hassan, who brings United Soccer League, North American Soccer League, and NPSL experience to the club after playing for the Fort Lauderdale Striker, Ottawa Fury FC, Carolina RailHawks, San Antonio FC, and Miami FC 2.
“He’s a clever forward,” Mendes said. “He’s a different style forward. He’s a little more of a target. He can combine well. Lethal in the box. He’s a great finisher. We have that balance. If you look at those two players, the differences, I think they can complement each other. ”
Aaron Dennis, an Elmont, N.Y., native, is another viable option and Mendes can utilize Ledula in a forward attacking role as well.
“He can play wide, he can play top,” Mendes said of Dennis. “Charlie also has been excellent, whether we play him wide or up top. He can stretch the game big time with his speed. He’s got a work rate like no other. Those are big things. We have to find the best balance, but we have different qualities we can go to at different points.”