Cosmos clinch fifth consecutive playoff berth
Ledesma Scores Hat Trick in Season Finale
With Carlos Mendes making his final regular-season appearance for the Cosmos, the team put in an inspiring effort for its skipper, defeating Puerto Rico FC 5-2 on Saturday and securing a place in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.
The first player to sign with New York in the modern era, the New Jersey native has been a stalwart defender for the Cosmos, captaining the team for five seasons and winning three North American Soccer League (NASL) Championships with the club.
“It was absolutely perfect, honestly,” Mendes said of the emotional evening. “It was a very special night. It was something I’ll remember forever.”
Not only did the Cosmos win, but Mendes also supported the cause by scoring his first goal of the season in front of a near-capacity crowd of 5,929 fans at MCU Park in Coney Island.
“It was a great ball in and I beat [the defender] to the post,” Mendes said of his goal. “I was either going to meet it perfectly or miss it completely, and luckily I timed it well. It was a great ball in and a great effort.”
“I saw it in his face; he wanted a goal badly,” added Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese. “He attacked like a center forward, the cross from [Ledesma] was fantastic and at the end he scored a fantastic goal to close this night in a perfect way.”
In addition to scoring a goal, Mendes was vital in stymieing Puerto Rico’s chances and earned Man of the Match honors for his play. Commemorative captain’s armbands were given out to fans before the game as a tribute to their departing captain.
With the win, New York secured the fourth and final playoff spot and assured that Mendes would play at least one more game in green and blue. The team will travel to South Florida on Sunday to play Miami FC in the semifinals of the NASL Championship.
Although Miami has had a strong season, finishing with a league-high 69 points, the Cosmos have had some success against the South Florida team, beating them twice this year.
The San Francisco Deltas and North Carolina FC will play in the other semifinals matchup.
“The attitude today was fantastic. Our second half was one of the best we’ve had all season,” Savarese said after his team’s crucial win. “The spirit of the team was great, and we couldn’t have done better to help Carlos Mendes retire at home on this beautiful night.”
The first half was largely uneventful, as the two teams went into the break scoreless.
The second half was more exciting, as Emmanuel Ledesma led the team with three goals and an assist.
After Puerto Rico FC took the lead off a giveaway in the 48th minute, the Cosmos woke up and put their foot on the gas.
In the 51st minute, Ledesma hit a left-footed curling effort outside of the penalty area off the crossbar and into the upper corner of the net to tie the game.
Just five minutes later, Ledesma received a ball in the box, held off a defender on his back and coolly slotted the ball into the lower corner to give the Cosmos the lead.
In the 67th minute, Ledesma completed his hat trick after he ran onto a through ball, fought off a defender and cheekily chipped Puerto Rico’s goalie.
In the 75th minute, it was the captain’s turn to score. Mendes made a probing run into the box and got a foot on the end of a pinpoint cross from Ledesma. It was his first goal in NASL play since May 10, 2015.
Puerto Rico got a consolation goal in the 84th minute, and Lucky Mkosana scored a fifth for New York in stoppage time to put the icing on the cake.
Savarese was relieved to finish the campaign on a high after the team went into the season amidst uncertainty.
Prior to the season, Savarese was forced to scramble at the last minute to put together a team. He was tasked with preparing his players — many of them new — on short notice, while also trying to instill his system of play. His team also needed time to build chemistry.
“I’m very pleased that in a difficult year we were able to make the playoffs,” Savarese said.
In the closing moments of Saturday’s game, Savarese substituted Mendes so that he could receive a standing ovation from the crowd.
After the game, the team repeatedly hoisted Mendes into the air to celebrate the captain’s illustrious career.
It was a proper sendoff to a player who gave blood, sweat and tears for his team.
The only better farewell would be if New York could hoist its fourth Soccer Bowl trophy in five years.
New York travels to South Florida to take on Miami FC on Sunday at 5 p.m. The game will be broadcast exclusively on beIN SPORTS.
Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.