When the bumper sixteen-game Spring Season schedule was announced at the beginning of the year, Cosmos and Indy Eleven fans will likely have circled the Fourth of July on their calendars and marked it ‘Fireworks’. Not just for your usual Independence day celebration, but for the first matchup of the year between 2016’s NASL Championship finalists. With thirteen games already having been played, this first of a home-away double-header would have stood out as a potential spring season decider. For me this was a must-see not for the obvious reasons, but because my girlfriend is a proud Hoosier from Indianapolis’ East Side. Her brother is not just an Indy Eleven fan, but a student at the same college campus on which “Indiana’s Team” play their home games. And we all know that familial bragging rights can often feel more valuable than any championship.
Of course, we know now that this game will not quite have the gravitas we’d hoped for. While Cosmos fans may be glad a reasonably competitive team still exists, Hoosiers will likely feel disappointed to have only racked up two wins all spring - both of those coming in the last two weeks in consecutive games against North Carolina FC. Both teams crashed out of the US Open cup at the first hurdle (Indy to PDL team Michigan Bucks) and both occupy spots in the middle of the NASL standings. While the Cosmos can still theoretically snatch 2nd spot and make a solid contribution to the combined season standings, Indy are practically consigned to a bottom-half finish and have a lot of work to do to remain relevant in the fall, especially as their MLS bid hangs in the balance.
Don’t let Indy’s record fool you entirely though - they were unbeaten for the first six games of the season. Sure, they were all draws, but it’s a sign that their poor season has been a result of misfortune as much as anything else.
Indy will present the Cosmos with threats at both ends of the field. Goalkeeper Jon Busch (who missed a crucial penalty in the Soccer Bowl last year) was named NASL Player of the Week after preserving the team’s lead with six crucial saves in North Carolina. Meanwhile, like New York’s Ayoze, Montenegrin wing back Nemanja Vukovic has proved key in providing fodder for the front two of Eamon Zayed and Justin Braun. But for me it is Zayed who, as well as being a proven goalscorer, has the most fascinating story. Born and raised in Dublin to a Tunisian father, Zayed is a Libyan international who has plied his trade largely in his native Ireland, but also in Norway, Iran and Malaysia before landing with Indy last year. It’s a story much like the Cosmos’ recent recruit Pablo Vranjicán and it would be fascinating to see these two globetrotting goal scorers line up against each other.
But Vranjicán, despite making substitute appearances in the last two games and netting against PRFC, faces much stiffer competition for game time after the Cosmos recently welcomed back fan-favourite Lucky Mkosana.
Add to that the perennial wildcard Eugene Starikov and the fact that Irvin Herrera has been getting on the scoresheet and suddenly the Cosmos have an abundance of offensive options. it remains to be seen if Lucky is yet match fit, but the Cosmos look like much more of a consistent goalscoring threat than they did only a few weeks ago.
While this matchup has ended up being largely irrelevant in the spring season race, the Cosmos are clearly making preparations for a Fall Season push. As well as bringing in Vranjican, Mkosana and Isreali holding midfielder Kobi Mayal, the team has also renewed the contracts of key contributors Javi Marquez, Emanuel Ledesma and Dejan Jakovic.
So although tomorrow’s game and Saturday’s trip to Indianapolis don’t the carry the importance we’d anticipated, there may be more than just familial bragging rights on the line when the Cosmos next visit Indianapolis in October.