The Cosmos are vying for title No. 9. (Photo courtesy of the Cosmos)
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — It can’t be any more appropriate.
The two best teams in the National Premier Soccer League will tussle for the championship Saturday night.
The top-ranked Cosmos, who will vie for their ninth title, will welcome No. 2 and defending champion Miami FC to Mitchel Athletic Complex here for the 7 p.m. kickoff.
“It is a true final,” said Albanian national team captain and defender-midfielder Ansi Agolli, who tallied the winning goal in the Cosmos’ first two playoff games.
“I think it’s ideal,” Cosmos midfielder Junior Burgos said. “You always want to have the two best teams play for the championship. We know that Miami is the defending champion and we respect them because of that. We are excited for the opportunity to win a title here.”
Added forward Bledi Bardic: “We haven’t won anything yet. Saturday, we have to come out and do anything we can to bring the championship home to win it.”
Prior to the season, the Cosmos set three goals: win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the NPSL title and the NPSL Members Cup. After they were eliminated from the former competition, the NPSL became the top priority.
“When you start preseason, your goals are to get better every day as an individual and as a team,” Cosmos captain and midfielder Danny Szetela said. “We’ve all worked hard all year and our goal was to win the NPSL championship. Now we’re 90 minutes away from another championship. Hopefully, it will be 90, it could go 120.”
The Cosmos are undefeated in the regular and post seasons (16-0-1) while outscoring their opponents, 53-5, and recording 12 shutouts. They have not allowed more than one goal in a game.
“Guys look sharp and we’re excited,” Szetela said. “It’s probably going to be the most difficult game we played all year so far, but we’re looking forward to it.”
Coached by Paul Dalglish, Miami FC (14-1-0) has outscored its opponents, 61-9. The visitors are led by Ariel Martinez, who has connected for goals in five consecutive playoff games for a total of seven post-season goals (three penalty kicks) and two assists. Goalkeeper Mark Pais has registered seven shutouts.
Former Red Bulls standout midfielder Lloyd Sam has been a regular with the squad.
In its 4-1 semifinal victory over SC Cleveland last week, Callum Chapman-Page, Miguel Gonzalez, Harrison Heath and Martinez scored for Miami FC.
“They’re a dangerous team,” Cosmos head coach Carlos Mendes said. “They can hurt you a lot of ways. I expect a battle back and forth in terms of possession. Both teams can open a game up. It’ll be a good matchup. Tactically, it will be good. We have to be at our best. We have to be compact and defend as a unit if we’re going to be successful. They have a lot of ways to hurt you and if you give them space and you open up the game and you’re not hard on them, they can complicate it.
“We expect a very difficult match. We know what they’re capable of. They have a lot of experienced players who have played at a high level. These are the games you want to be in. These are the games the guys look forward to, I think the fans will enjoy.”
Unlike the Cosmos’ first three playoff foes who took more of a defensive approach to games, Miami FC is expected to continue to go on the offensive.
“Miami is a team that’s going to want to attack and score goals,” Szetela said. “They want to go forward, they want to score. The exciting thing about this game is that we do the same. We go forward, we want to score, we want to possess the ball. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The last time these two opponents met, the underdog Cosmos stunned host Miami FC in the 2017 North American Soccer League semifinals. The Cosmos, who struggled to reach the playoffs, recorded a 6-5 shootout win after playing to a scoreless draw. Goalkeeper Jimmy Mauer made two saves in the tie-breaker as Eugene Starikov converted the game-winning penalty kick.
Mendes, the team captain at the time, called it a “difficult game.”
“We gave everything we had,” he said. “It felt good as a group to come out on top and to be a very good in difficult conditions. You play for those moments and that was a good moment for us. I remember after that game feeling so positive. It was a big challenge and we were up for it.”
The Cosmos hope to be up for the challenge Saturday night.