Carlos Mendes: “I can’t get back to work soon enough. I know we’re all excited and grateful for the opportunity.” (Photo courtesy of the Cosmos)
By Michael Lewis
If he had his way, Carlos Mendes would start the National Independent Soccer Association fall season yesterday or two weeks ago, for that matter.
But the Cosmos head coach is a rationale man and that he might have to wait until later this month before the team heads to training.
Mendes realizes the proper steps must be taken to ensure the health and safety of the players in the wake of the NISA’s Thursday afternoon announcement that it’s fall season will kick off the weekend of Aug. 8. The schedule is expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks.
“I can’t get back to work soon enough,” Mendes said Thursday. “I know we’re all excited and grateful for the opportunity.”
The Cosmos will play an eight-game season through Oct. 11, although that could be extended if the team qualifies for the playoffs and if there is a preseason tourney.
But a partial loaf is much better than known in a sports calendar that has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Things have been so difficult,” Mendes said. “It hasn’t been easy. the league, a lot of people put a lot of time and work and figure out to make sure we have a season to play. We’re going to be playing. We’re going to be playing for games that mean something. You’re competing for something and I think everyone’s excited. I’m very, very happy. In terms of where we’re at and how things are done, this is a big step. I think all the players are looking forward to it. We’re going to be competing for something. That’s what you want.
If everything falls into place, the Cosmos will return to training, perhaps at the Mitchel Athletic Complex in Uniondale, N.Y., depending on the facility’s availability, later this month. June 15 has been discussed as a possible target date.
“The most important thing for us that we have to focus on is the protocols and how we’re going to start up and get back onto the field,” he said. “We have to get a bunch of those things in place. We feel like we’re close.”
Mendes said that Cosmos Chief Operating Officer Erik Stover has done a lot of the groundwork about the proper protocols, which will include screening and testing before any training begins.
“Once we have all that finalized, we obviously will do what is in place what is in whatever is in place so we can officially start to get moving,” he said. “We’re still hoping that sometime can be close to June 15. Those things have to be taken care if, to make sure everything is in place to make sure before we get going at all.”
Mendes’ top priority is finalizing a roster.
“We feel good with where we’re at, but we still have to build some of our roster,” he said. “That’s our priority right now. We feel very good, not only with the guys we signed, but the players that we’re speaking with and the players that we’re interested in.”
The Cosmos roster’ could be around 24-25 players, Mendes said.
“With all this happening and the way some things have gone, we’ll have to see in the next couple of weeks what we feel is best,” he said. “We may adjust that by one or two guys, whether it’s less or more.”
The Cosmos have signed eight players to contracts – defenders Emmanuele Sembroni, Matt Lewis and Konrad Plewa, midfielders Danny Szetela, Sal Barone and Vincenzo Candela and forwards Darwin Espinal and Isaac Acuna.
Five players also have signed five players term sheets – goalkeepers Santiago Castano and Jesse Corke, defender Pedro Galvao, defender-midfielder Ansi Agolli and midfielder-forward Shavon John-Brown.
The team could wind up following similar protocols as Major League Soccer, in which that league started with voluntary individual training sessions, followed by voluntary group practices and then full team training.
“We’re definitely going to have to do it in phases,” Mendes said. “We won’t be just dropping back into a full group. So, we expect it be working in smaller groups [early on]. Hopefully once things open up and everyone’s adjusted to the protocols in place, we can do full group training and prepare like we normally would for the first game of the season. We expect something like that, in terms of doing something smaller and building that up into a full group.”
Then comes preseason exhibition matches.
In past seasons, the Cosmos would prepare for a spring start by playing some friendlies against local college sides, but with everything askew due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team might have to find other sparring partners in July and early August.
The Cosmos could wind up playing against some local amateur and semi-pro teams, assuming they are allowed to train and compete.
“That’s a difficult one, obviously,” Mendes said. “A lot of things are still up in the air, in terms of not only professional, but the amateur ranks and the college games. There is no answer. We’re looking into everything. We’d love to get a couple of games locally, if we can. … With the league moving forward, then we’ll see what will be available to us, who will be able to have a team and put a team together. That’s something we have to feel out. We’re definitely considering it all and what our options are. The more games that we can get in, at least a few game-like situations, it would be good for everybody.”
One possibility could be a NISA preseason tournament in July, according to league sources.
“Obviously, that would be great,” Mendes said. “It would give not just us, but other teams and clubs an opportunity to really get back into it. It won’t be easy, of course, after so much time off, guys being away from each other. Even when you begin training it will take a little time to adjust. So, if we can finalize and things can happen for a little preseason tournament, it would be great for everybody. I know that we would really enjoy it. Hopefully, that will happen.”
Mendes tried to put the delay and the impending green light to train and play into perspective.
“You realize too, we’ve never had a thing like this, at least I’ve never had it in my life,” he said. “You step away from the game, you see what’s going on. You miss it tremendously. You take things for granted. You’re often so busy. It’s a long season and things like that. Now when you step away, you realize how lucky you are.”
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