The Cosmos Copa NYC 2011 officially kicked off this past Father's Day weekend as 22 Copa Teams battled to qualify for the final eight slots at the Parade Grounds, and at the College of Staten Island.
After two grueling and intensive days of combative, competitive soccer, Kosovo, Trinidad & Tobago, Ivory Coast, Croatia, Senegal, El Salvador, Colombia, and Italy emerged as your victors, who will continue with their quest of becoming your Cosmos Copa NYC 2011 champions.
They will now be competing against the eight 2011 NYC Elite Teams, who had already qualified due to last year's advancement to the Quarterfinal Round of NYC's World Cup.
Leading the way for the 2011 NYC Elite Teams is none other than defending champions, Poland.
Team Poland is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most dangerous team in the tournament. Masters of set plays, this is the team you don't want taking corner kicks, free kicks, and especially penalty kicks. They're also a good physical and transitional team that possesses deceptive speed, a la Jerry Rice.
Following Poland is last year's runner-up, Jamaica.
From the number of times I've seen them play, this is a team that is determined to win this year's tournament and hoist the Cosmos Copa trophy over their heads. They possess the tools to win it all this year.
Jamaica is a fantastic team. Their players are phenomenal and they know how to spread the ball throughout the pitch with their laser passes. Along with their excellent ball movement, Jamaica is going to be tough to contain in the penalty area. Whether they "shake & bake" their opponents or blast the ball from outside the penalty area, they will beat many teams if the defense isn't tight.
Are they the "Showtime Lakers" who won championships, or the "Running & Gunning" Phoenix Suns who entertained their fans? We'll find out in July.
The remaining elite teams consist of England, Ecuador, Mexico, Haiti, Greece, and Ireland. Later this week a draw will take place to determine the match ups.
Once the matches are finalized, the Cosmos Copa will begin on the weekend of July 9th & 10th, and conclude with the Championship Match on Sunday, July 24th. All the games will be played at the Corona Park, Fields 8 and 9 in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
With all the action that took place this weekend, the one match that stood out for me was El Salvador against the 2009 winners, Albania. In my opinion, this is the best game that I've ever had the privilege of covering.
Just to be clear, I've covered this year's Gold Cup, was in Toronto for last year's MLS Cup, and I've witnessed the United States battle Brazil, Argentina, and current World Cup Champions Spain. However, I've never been in the sidelines for any of those matches.
Even though I had a "Field Access" pass, it was El Salvador's coaching staff who extended an invitation to join them for their match against Albania. I found this to be a generous invitation, which I gladly accepted and promised that I would join them in the second half.
Back in April, I had met El Salvador's Team Captain Javier Martinez and Coaches Reyes Merlos, Sifredo Deras, and Hector Maltes at the Cosmos Copa launch party. Like many of the teams who are competing this year, I've followed the work that they've put forth towards their team.
For someone who's accustomed to covering the majority of matches from the Press Section or bleachers, being on the sidelines is a unique experience. Instead of questioning the coaching tactics, it was explained to me freely.
In addition, I experienced the joy and pain of the team as they tried to overcome a one-goal deficit in the second half. The coaches had made some smart substitutions in order to move the ball better. While El Salvador moved the ball well, they simply weren't able to close the deal by tying the game.
At times it appeared that the calls weren't going their way, but El Salvador continued to attack until they were awarded a penalty kick. Prior to the kick, some of the fans were praying and hoping for a successful attempt.
Their prayers were answered when El Salvador tied the game with little time remaining in the second half.
Despite both team's final opportunities to produce a game winning goal, the game resulted in a 2-2 tie in regulation. From there the match went into penalty kicks.
In all my years of covering this beautiful game, I've never covered a game from the sidelines during penalty kicks. What exciting and agonizing moments these were as Albania converted the first penalty kick off a fluke play. Despite El Salvador's GK making a well-timed save, the ball rolled in to the net to give Albania a 1-0 lead.
El Salvador leveled the PK score 1-1, and prior to both teams' fifth kicker, the score remained 4-4. Albania's blast sailed over the crossbar, and it came down to El Salvador's Nelson Romero.
Romero converted his penalty kick and El Salvador advanced to Sunday's games, where they will have a chance qualify for the Cosmos Copa. A miss would mean that penalty kicks will continue until a winner has been declared.
With both teams and their fans praying for a goal/miss, many witnessed Romero's goal which gave El Salvador a win 5-4 over Albania. After rallying furiously to tie the game 2-2 in regulation and then win it penalty kicks, the entire team rushed to Romero for a hug as their supporters strongly cheered them on.
Following Saturday's match, El Salvador carried their new found momentum and qualified on Sunday, when they took second place in their designated Group.
Along with Saturday's amazing sideline match, I enjoyed interacting with the fans who were rooting for El Salvador. I found it comical when one of the player's wives shouted "Boo Boo, what the heck are you doing?"
Would I ever hear Victoria Beckham utter those words? Probably not...
Cesar Diaz covers Soccer for LatinoSports.com. He also writes for 5 Points Press & USSoccerPlayers.com ; your source for American Soccer news brought to you by members of the U.S. National Team. Easily accessible, you may reach Cesar at email@example.com and at Twitter at @CoveringSoccer.