By Andrew Haubner (Photo courtesy of Dino Avlonitis)

NYC France has been viewed largely as the top contender throughout the 2014 Cosmos Copa. For a second straight year, a West African nation will take aim at unseating the favorites.
Enter NYC Gambia, run by president and coach Ansumana Gaye. The Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa. It has a population of roughly 1.9 million people - about a fourth of the population of New York City. The Gambians have made a home in the Big Apple, and are now Cosmos Copa finalists.         
It was no dream run or underdog story - at least that’s not how they view it. Gaye’s team lost in the 2013 semifinals to NYC Senegal, who ended up losing to reigning champion France.  That semifinal loss provided the fire and motivation to right last year’s wrong.            
“Last year’s defeat woke us up,” said Gambian player Lamin Janneh. “We don’t like to lose to that team. They’re our neighbors and they know how badly we wanted it, so we’ve been putting in work since that day.”
To Gaye, NYC Gambia’s revenge semifinal victory over NYC Senegal this year was never in doubt. His team trains hard, and they train seriously.
The team trains four days a week at minimum, and the key to their success is the dedication put in by players and staff alike. Gambia is affiliated with the Gambia Youth Organization, a sports program that gives Bronx youths opportunities to succeed in athletic endeavors.
Playing in Copa is an opportunity for the players to continue to ply their trade and play matches at a high level, and even get the chance to hoist the cup when it’s all over. Gaye and his players are confident that the work they put in will elevate them to greatness, as shown in their win over Senegal.
“I wouldn’t say we had an underdog mentality (against Senegal), because we are all one people and we’ve been playing together,” said Gaye. “Last year, when they beat us in the semifinal, they deserved to go through. I told them at the beginning of this year, ‘(We’re) working them harder than you, so (we) deserve to go through.’”
Structure and organization is what took such a young team and propelled them into the finals. In their semifinal match, Gambia’s back line bent but never broke under the weight of Senegal’s repeated attacks into the box.
Like France, their strong team chemistry has made them so successful. Players live together and have known each other since high school, yet they don’t boast the type of star power or league players that other nations do.
“These kids were in high school when I picked them up,” explained Gaye. “I used to play with them. We all stuck together. That chemistry is what we have going for us.”
The Cosmos Copa, at its core, is a cup for people that have come to New York from all over the world. NYC France represents the French community in New York, and NYC Gambia does the same for the Gambian community.
For a nation that has never reached a FIFA World Cup, this tournament means so much to Gaye and his players. It is their World Cup.
“The World Cup just finished,” he said. “Gambia wasn’t there. Moving into this Copa, we were thinking, ‘We did not go to Brazil, but we will represent our country in New York City.’”
Janneh echoed Gaye’s sentiments.
“A lot of people around this area, when you tell them you’re from Gambia, they act as if you are a part of the country,” he said. “We’re not known for soccer, but this tournament makes us believe that we can play with the best. We will show the city and the world what we are capable of doing.”