QUALIFYING TOURNAMENT: GROUP 2 PREVIEW
Group 2 is a finely balanced group featuring five teams that will all fancy their chances to proceed. All the five nations participated in last year's tournament and all have made great efforts to improve for 2012.
The tastiest matchup in Group 2 is between NYC Croatia and NYC Ivory Coast. These two teams have a lot in common and should know each other very well. Last year, "The Vatreni", as the Croatians are affectionately called, made their first appearance in Cosmos Copa and performed admirably, making it all the way to the group stages. Led by the Bistre brothers, Tommy and Kristopher, NYC Croatia were a well-drilled outfit with a powerful midfield. In last year's qualifying, Croatia lost to the Ivory Coast on penalties. They were able to exact their revenge in the group stages though after being drawn with the Ivory Coast again. In one of the most hard fought matches of last year's tournament, NYC Croatia edged out Ivory Coast in a match that ended with both teams down to ten men. Despite beating their rivals, they couldn't quite advance out of the group stage. Now they are back with the same core of players that all play regularly together for NY Croatia SC. Can they pull some more surprised this year?
Standing in Croatia's way is their unlikely rival, NYC Ivory Coast. The Ivory Coast is an exciting but unpredictable team with a ton of skill and personality. They are led by their captain and team president, Amos Zeroue. After playing in the NFL as a running back for the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Zeruoe has a serious will to win and this translates to his players. This year, the Ivory Coast is a much more organized team that has been able to play together far more regularly. They also have a lot of talent in the likes of midfielders Donald Fossie and Henri Joel to go alongside the strength of players like Zeroue. The team's quality was on display in a recent 2-0 friendly victory over NYC Japan. Will this increased focus lead to Ivory Coast making a deep run in this year's tournament?
As a team that has participated in every edition of Cosmos Copa, it is easy to assume that we know what we are going to get with NYC France. Yes, they are still a well-organized and talented team. Yes, they still rely on the silky mercurial playmaking of their captain Zohair Gehanania. However, on closer inspection this is a team that has carefully improved in order to keep up with the other team's in the tournament. Since their quarterfinal appearance in 2009 (where they lost to eventual champions Albania in one of the all-time great Copa matches), France has been on a downward trend. They failed to make it out of the group stage in 2010 and then in 2011 they couldn't even qualify. Team president Frederick Lesort addressed this by recruiting some young college talents and if the rumors are to believed, they may have also pulled off a major coup and convinced a Ligue 1 player to suit up for NYC France. Have they retooled enough to overcome the likes of Croatia and Ivory Coast?
Like NYC France, NYC Liberia will have to improve in 2012 if they are going to qualify for Cosmos Copa. Additionally, like France, Liberia has participated in every year of Cosmos Copa but results have gradually gotten worse. After making it to the group stage in 2009, the team has failed to qualify the last two years. Their captain, the former Liberian national team midfielder Eddie Kingston is the undisputed leader of the team. Kingston won eight caps for his national team and also played professionally in Jamaica. NYC Liberia is a side that should be very familiar with one another as the team all plays together regularly for Raza FC in the Liberian Soccer League in Staten Island. Have they improved enough this year to qualify out of a competitive Group 2?
Rounding out Group 2 is NYC Paraguay. This team is under new management for 2012, as Dario Cabañas, a player last year, has now taken over administrative duties as team president. He will be relying on the talent of New York's Paraguayan Soccer League to fill his roster. Regardless of talent, this year, Paraguay will definitely be one of the youngest teams in the tournament. Will the other more experienced teams in Group 2 boss them around or can they pull a surprise and qualify for Cosmos Copa?