Notebook: NASL Championship Final

April 29, 2017; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Deltas forward Tommy Heinemann (9) and New York Cosmos defender Dejan Jakovic (5) jump to head the ball during their match at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park.  Photo: Robert Edwards-KLC fotos.

champ-logo-no-yearThe 2017  North American Soccer League season will conclude this weekend at Kezar Stadium, as the San Francisco Deltas host the two-time defending champion New York Cosmos.

In their first season, the Deltas grew into themselves as the Fall Season wore on to finish second in the Combined Season standings. Coach Marc Dos Santos has established an identity on the field similar to the one his Ottawa Fury side displayed during their run to the Championship final against the Cosmos in 2015.

The Cosmos prevailed over Ottawa that night and are now seeking to capture their third straight Soccer Bowl trophy. Yet again, Giovanni Savarese has shown is value as a coach, this time reassembling his team on short notice after a tumultuous off-season that saw an ownership change. This season was by no means New York’s best as it needed until the final week to clinch its postseason berth. After knocking off Miami in the semifinal last week, though, the Cosmos have shown what they do best is win when it counts.

Match Info: Sunday, Nov. 12, coverage begins at 8 p.m. Eastern; Kezar Stadium; beIN Sports/beIN Sports Connect (online)

Regular Season Series: Cosmos W (1-0), D (0-0), Cosmos L (2-1), D (2-2)

Revenge Factor

Dos Santos isn’t dwelling on his past final loss to the Cosmos or his defeat in last year’s USL Cup to New York Red Bulls II. For him, it’s all about Sunday.

“Every final is special and every final is also very different, I’m not in this final for revenge or something like that,” Dos Santos said. “Every final is difficult. If it would’ve been against New York, Carolina, or Jacksonville; it doesn’t really matter. It’s tough to lose finals. I’m not looking at the past. I’m looking at this one that’s coming up and this opportunity we have as a team and hopefully we can take advantage of it.”

San Francisco’s Overlooked Attack

The Cosmos enter the final as the favored attack, though the Deltas’ offense should not be overlooked. San Francisco didn’t turn any heads with its productivity, but Tommy Heinemann finished the year with a team-leading nine goals and has a habit of torching New York’s defense.

“Tommy’s a guy who’s gonna fight the entire game. He’s gonna be in your ear, in the ref’s ear. He’s gonna be all over you throwing elbows. He’s a handful. Every defender in the league knows that,’ Cosmos defender Ryan Richter, a former teammate of Heinemann’s, said. “They have some really good offensive pieces. They can hurt you in a number of ways. They’re all committed to the style they’re gonna play. They’ve had success this year because of that.”

What San Francisco does best also happens to be what the Cosmos have struggled with all year defensively. Sunday will be about limiting mistakes for the Cosmos, who hope to limit San Francisco’s set pieces and counter attacks.

“They work and they’re good at what they do. They’re good at counter attacks. They’re good at set pieces. They know what they’re good at and they can hurt you that way,” Carlos Mendes said. “Any time you play them, you know you’re in for a battle. They won’t give up. Even if you take the lead on them, they’re gonna come back at you harder and fight more. It should make for a really fun final.”

Comparing Coaches

The playing styles of Savarese and Dos Santos could not be more different, yet both coaches have been consistently the most successful in the past three years. According to Richter, who played for Dos Santos in Ottawa and has been with Savarese for two years, their success could be tied to their similar approach in dealing with players.

“Their similarities are more how they are as people, both of them care about their players,” Richter said. “It’s not just about performing on the field. They want you to be O.K. off the field, too. They care about your family. That’s the first question they’ll ask you when they first try to sign you and throughout the season. They think that’s the most important thing; that you’re happy and that your family’s happy. They’re both incredible people. You don’t need me to tell you they’re good coaches. They’ve proven it. But, just as people, I think they’re incredible and I’ve learned so much from both of them.”

The Last One?

Things could come to an end in more ways than one for the NASL after Sunday’s final. With the league’s 2018 prospects still in doubt as it continues its legal battle with the U.S. Soccer Federation over being denied Division 2 sanctioning, the Cosmos and Deltas may be battling to be last team to hoist the Soccer Bowl trophy. Last week, the court denied the NASL’s request for an injunction to remain D2 while the lawsuit plays out. Now the league’s hopes rest squarely on its appeal of that injunction decision. Arguments for the appeal are set to be heard on Dec. 15.

NASL End of the Year Awards

To little surprise, Miami dominated this year’s NASL Best XI. Six of the 11 players named on the list represented the Spring and Fall Season champions. North Carolina ranked second with two inclusions on the list. Jacksonville Armada defender Mechack Jérôme was the only player from a non-postseason team to earn a spot.

NASL Best XI: GK – Daniel Vega (MIA); DEF – Reiner Ferreira (SF), Masson Trafford (MIA), Jérôme (JAX), Connor Tobin (NCFC); MID – Emmanuel Ledesma (NYC), Nazmi Albadawi (NCFC), Richie Ryan (MIA), Dylan Mares (MIA); FWD – Vincenzo Rennella (MIA), Stefano Pinho (MIA)

Golden Boot: Stefano Pinho nabbed his second NASL Golden Boot in three years with a league-best 17 goals. Pinho was the pacesetter of an incredible Miami attack that netted a record 61 goals.

Golden Glove: Daniel Vega captured the league’s top honor for a keeper by recording a goals against average of 0.88. As the only keeper to start every match this year, Vega flew under the radar with only 28 goals allowed in 32 matches as Miami’s attack took the spotlight.

Young Player of the Year: In his first season with the Jacksonville Armada, Jack Blake was a vital part of the team’s midfield. The 23-year-old earned the NASL’s Young Player of the Year award for his team-leading nine goals and four assists, which was almost good enough to clinch a postseason spot for the Armada.

Humanitarian of the Year: North Carolina FC midfielder Austin Da Luz was honored as the NASL’s Humanitarian of the Year for creating Playing For Pride, an online campaign for soccer players and fans to fundraise for the Human Rights Campaign. Playing for Pride raised $12,000 for HRC this year.