Playoffs are a funny thing. In American sports, playoffs separate the weak from the strong. The contenders from the pretenders. Yet somehow, they also have a way of allowing the underdog to rise to the occasion and steal the spotlight time and time again. Miami FC could have played their very last game and the North American Soccer League modern record for goals, wins, points, and differential could not have saved them.
The crowd arrived late but those who that arrived early were treated to the buildup in excitement that is meaningful soccer. As the game began it was a heavy dose of Miami early on. In the 9th minute, Freeman found Rennella on a cross, but the header was off target. Five minutes later, the ball landed at the feet of Stefano Pinho who had Jimmy Maurer on an island but sailed his attempt high above the crossbar.
The teams would trade a few chances in the first half with most of the efforts off target from both clubs. Despite entering the half at zero a piece, the crowd was building and they could sense there was yet another level of soccer to be reached. The Miami faithful were loud and respondent as the second half kicked off.
New York would get the first crack at a goal in the second half as a shot from distance goes way of target. In the 53rd minute, Jaime Chavez played a Rabona to a streaking Renella whose shot just skirted outside the far post. After some sloppy play, Miami would call upon their knight in shining armor, Kwadwo Poku entered the match for Rennella in the 71st minute.
Poku would force the Cosmos to change their tactics immediately as he began causing problems moving about the field with fresh legs. As if his legs weren’t difficult enough to defend, Miami brought on Ariel Martinez in the 81st minute for a depleted Dylan Mares. The super sub and work-horse would pair up for a few chances through-out the half but could not convert to send Miami into the final.
After 90 minutes of play on a beautiful night in Miami, the Cosmos would kick off the first of two periods in extra time. The next fifteen minutes were marred with cramps and injury breaks as players felt the effects of going past full time. In the 97th minute, Eugene Starikov got himself free thanks to Lucky Mkosana but a shot that seemed destined for the back of the net clanged off the back post. The best chance of the night for Miami fell on Blake Smith’s foot as he got alone with Maurer. Maurer managed to make an incredible save by, well, sitting on the ball with his backside.
The second half of extra time was all New York as the Blues defended with their lives for the majority of the half. The Cosmos earned numerous corners each defended with ferocity not allowing the Cosmos to steal the game in the dying moments. It wouldn’t be long for the referee to blow extra time over and on we went to penalties.
For what it’s worth, Miami had never been in a penalty shootout in the young history of the club. Most of the penalty attempts in the first year of the club were handled by now-Banfield striker Dario Cvitanich. In the offseason, Miami went out of their way to sign Rayo OKC goal scorer and penalty specialist Michel.
Naturally Michel would be the first to take a penalty. After converting 7 from the spot last year, Michel was stuffed by Maurer. The next 8 penalties would go on to convert as Miami had Poku, Martinez, Chavez, and Pinho convert. The Cosmos had it all there for the taking as they were perfect going into the final attempt. After a questionably short run up Juan Guerra attempted a Panenka, however, Daniel Vega had it tracked the whole way. Freeman would convert in sudden death followed by Mkosana. Miami had run through its favorable penalty takers as Mason Trafford would come to the spot. Maurer would come up huge again and make the save on Trafford. Daniel Vega would not be so lucky as Starikov found the back of the net and sent the Cosmos to the NASL Finals.
Miami has had two monumental defeats this season and both have a similar feeling to them. Many Miami fans still have a bad taste in their mouth from the FC Cincinnati loss in the Open Cup. The loss to the Cosmos tonight feels just about the same if not worse, knowing that the future is unclear. With the NASL’s lawsuit falling short of reaching the mandatory injunction, there is a possibility that this penalty shootout will be the final memory of a very memorable season. That’s a shame.
Images courtesy The Miami FC