John Denis made his professional debut for the Cosmos and came close to scoring. (Photo courtesy of the Cosmos)

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. – As he walked off the field after being subbed out in the second half of the Cosmos’ 2-0 defeat to the Cal United Strikers Tuesday night, team captain Danny Szetela was given a water bottle by someone.

Szetela took a few steps and threw the bottle. Whether it was in frustration, anger or another emotion, you know the Cosmos underachieved in their opening Group B game of the National Independent Soccer Association Fall Tournament.

While they dominated the match for long stretches and enjoyed an 18-11 shot advantage, many of their attempts on goal were rather meek attempts as goalkeeper Steven Barrera wasn’t tested severely as he recorded the clean sheet.

Entering the tournament on an optimistic and hopeful note and wanting to put a rather mediocre regular season (a shortened four-game schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic) behind them, the Cosmos hardly played up to their potential and reputation.

On the other side of the ball, you have to give the Strikers a lot of credit. They were patient and took their chances well, however few they were.

There was little doubt that Christian Thierjung was the man of the match, scoring one goal and helping set up another. He also rammed a six-yard shot off the left post 44 seconds into stoppage time. If he had scored on that play, that would have put the Cosmos in a three-goal hole entering Friday’s must, must, must win encounter against Chattanooga FC. They dropped a 2-1 decision at Chattanooga in their regular season finale last week.

In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Cosmos face another must-win match against the Los Angeles Force in their third and final group stage game.

When they go over the video from Tuesday’s contest, the Cosmos won’t necessarily like what they will see.

They dominated the first half but had nothing to show as the Strikers grabbed a 1-0 advantage against the run of play.

In the 39th minute Thierjung latched onto a through ball and forced a diving Cosmos goalkeeper Jesse Corke to knock the ball away with his right hand. Sixteen-year-old Shane Kaemerle, signed by the Strikers when he was 15 in February, slotted the rebound home from 10 yards with Corke on the ground.

With former Albanian international Ansi Agolli whipping in crosses from the left wing, the Cosmos had several close encounters in front of the Cal United goal.

Their best chances came from Charlie Ledula. In the fifth minute, Ledula headed a six-yard attempt over the crossbar before he forced goalkeeper Steven Barrera to make a save from his shot from outside the box in the 16th minute.

Thierjung made it even more difficult for New York as he doubled the Strikers’ lead in the 61st minute. He ran onto another through ball, this time he converted from 16 yards for a 2-0 bulge.

The Cosmos struggled to score during the four-game regular season, finishing with but five goals. That included three with a win over expansion New Amsterdam FC.

They continued to knock the ball around and attack, but some zest was missing from their shots.

Forward Shavon John-Brown stripped a Striker of the ball and but wound up sending his attempt wide left in the 69th minute. Second-half substitute John Denis, who made his professional debut, blooped a try over the crossbar in the 71st minute. Another sub, Giuseppe Barone, took a shot that went through a defender’s legs to Barrera in the 83rd minute before Barrera saved Darwin Espinal’s 20-yard attempt four minutes later.

Incidentally, Cal United has a couple of local connections.

The Strikers are coached by Don Ebert, who was selected by the Cosmos as the first pick of the 1979 North American Soccer League draft. He never played for the team but forged a nice indoor career with the St. Louis Steamers and Los Angeles Lazers.

The team president is former Michael Collins, the son of the late Long Island Junior Soccer League president Peter Collins who enjoyed a indoor and outdoor career over 18 years. Collins performed for New York United (American Soccer League), New York Arrows (two-time Major Indoor Soccer League champions) and with the San Diego Sockers (another MISL title).