There’s a tendency in modern life to reduce everything to its bare essentials, to deny all essences other than the material: New York Red Bulls will host a U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 match Wednesday evening at Red Bull Arena. New York Cosmos will be visiting. The winner will move on to the Quarterfinals; the loser will just move on.
WATCH: Wednesday at 7:30pm ET on ussoccer.com and MSG.
Humans, though, are as much metaphor as material, and so, too, our sporting preoccupations. This is a game of association football, yes - 22 men, a ball, all that - but so, so much more, always. “It’s hard ... there’s so many narratives,” Red Bull goalkeeper Luis Robles said. “It’s hard to keep them all straight; so many stories.” And it’s true, in this case; beyond the simple outlines of competition, there are enough “narratives,” to use Robles’ word, to fill a novella.
Here, then, is a handy guide to some of the prominent strands of narrative wound around this fascinating Open Cup matchup:
Giovanni Savarese: A legend and his vengeance
Giovanni Savarese was one of the truly inspiring stories of early MLS. Playing for largely execrable MetroStars sides, the former Long Island Rough Riders striker scored 41 goals in 85 appearances. Despite the numbers, the organization seemed not to respect Savarese, as a starting role remained elusive even before a trade to New England in 1999 that sparked minor fan unrest.
The club welcomed its career goals leader back in 2005, now as head of youth development. The takeover of the former MetroStars by energy drink multinational Red Bull interrupted that project, though; Savarese lasted only a few months into the Red Bull era before being once again cut adrift by the club. They had no replacement; their statement ran along the lines of “we’re still figuring it out.”
So Savarese could be forgiven a bit of tooth-grinding at the prospect of meeting his twice-former employers. If he feels it, he’s not confessing. “I have a lot of respect for New York Red Bulls,” the former Venezuelan international said. “They are a very good team, a very difficult team. They have quality all over the field. It will be difficult for us.”
Jesse Marsch and the Red Bull makeover
In the other coaching box will be Jesse Marsch, tasked with remaking Red Bull from an occasionally competitive sideshow into a thoroughly functional football club. Marsch’s offseason hiring - commencing, as it did, by stepping over the cooling corpse of the Mike Petke era - caused huge consternation among diehard supporters of the club.
Undeterred, Marsch has attacked the project at every level, rebalancing the roster in the absence of transcendent retiree Thierry Henry and several other veteran leaders from Petke’s time, now giving youthful exuberance more opportunity to express itself.
“Jesse really seems to have an understanding for bringing young players into the team. He trusts them and limits their chances to fail, but also kind of trusts them to get thrown into the fire and perform,” Robles said. “And they are, which is so important for being a winning team, having that depth you can turn to when there’s injuries or just game after game.”
Another area Marsch hopes to overhaul is the club’s attitude toward America’s original knockout competition, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. “I won four Open Cups, to be exact - four!” he stated. “We’re going into this tournament like it’s as big a tournament as we’ll play all year, and as big a game as we’ll play all year. We’ve got one down, four to go to win this tournament, and the next game is Cosmos; we’re going to give it our all.”
New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Louis Robles and a young defense will look to keep
Cosmos legendary Spanish striker Raul in check come Wednesday.
Red Bull v the Cosmos mystique
Memories are odd things, subtly malleable but impervious to direct assault. Red Bulls’ hopes for claiming the hearts and minds of the Five Boroughs hinged upon the city gradually losing its shared memories of the hallucinatory hothouse-flower Cosmos of Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto Pereira. Those hopes have been thwarted at least partially by the revival of the badge worn by such luminaries; the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Cosmos in this round of last year’s tournament was another impediment.
If time won’t wear the mystique away, perhaps humiliation will. A convincing win by the home side could go some way to fixing the idea of the Cosmos as a team, here, now, not metaphorical standard-bearers for a jogo bonito fever dream from the 1970s. That said, it could be hard for the hosts to divine myth from reality, especially when fatigued from a Sunday afternoon derby with NYCFC.
“First the mental part won’t be easy, that’s for sure,” Marsch said. “But this is the task at hand. We have to recharge ourselves mentally and physically, and then go at another big match.”
It should be said that these Cosmos haven’t quite shaken their love for huge names a bit past their sell-by dates. Spanish genius Raul continues to deposit the ball in the back of the net, seemingly entirely with powers of the mind. Marcos Senna can still spray a ball 60 yards, spinning it so the first touch comes easy to the teammate on the other end. But even a well-rested modern Cosmos side relies more on younger domestic talent than was imaginable in their heyday.
“I do think that some of these guys have shown themselves in a way that should get them some looks from the [U.S.] national team,” Savarese said. “I’m talking about [midfielder Danny] Szetela, [goalkeeper Jimmy] Maurer, maybe [midfielder Walter] Restrepo are guys who could get a look at some point with the national team. They’re growing, they’re important to us, and I think they have something to offer there.”
The Cosmos' latest big-name signing Raul will have to be on top of his game to breach a confident Red Bulls
defense that put the clamps on his countryman David Villa in a 3-1 derby win against NYC FC over the weekend.
MLS v NASL
If you’re feeling a bit naive, and would like a reminder of the kind of world we live in, just take a few minutes whipping around Google, peering into the relationship between the top two professional leagues in North America, Major League Soccer and the North American Soccer League.
The two have transitioned from a period of ‘we’re all in this together’ solidarity to something altogether different in the last year, as the topflight has walked into two of NASL’s markets and partnered with USL, NASL’s direct competition for status as USA’s second-division league. It’s cut-throat stuff, to be sure.
For the NASL, any victory against an MLS side can be used to bolster their argument that the idea of a ‘pyramid’ in soccer in the USA is more notional than factual. The Cosmos have already provided one emblematic win, defeating New York City FC in the Fourth Round on penalty kicks after a thrilling 2-2 draw. Their hope now, surely, must lie in authenticity, and it is that the passionate Savarese delivers in bulk.
“What we have is the group,” he said. “We talk about ‘the group.’ We have a very strong group that understands every moment in a game’s passages, the way it changes. It is a very diverse group, from youngsters to very experienced, but everyone pushes in same direction, and the communication right through our group is very good.”