For all NASL fans that have been following the league this season, its been a wild ride. The first incarnation of the new split-season format took place, with obvious controversy. Yet, this controversy was all pushed to the side when the spring season finally got underway, not without story lines of its own. The season was without the 2012 third place Puerto Rico Islanders, who took a leave of absence for reasons not entirely understood. It also featured for the first time Minnesota United FC, who saw a complete rebrand from the prior season where they were the Minnesota Stars. As the fall season went on, the only thing that was clear was that it was all unclear, the top four teams were all certainly in the running for the spring season title, with a slight favorite in the Carolina Railhawks, who looked to be playing the best soccer. However, the defending champion Tampa Bay Rowdies were in solid form, and considering how they had played the year prior late in the season, they were also a favorite. Then there were the Scorpions and the Silverbacks, both looking good and the latter looking like a potential dark horse- Atlanta had just come off a second to last place finish the year prior, and not many people looked at them as a contender for this year. But, as the season progressed, that dark horse was still around, although trailing the Railhawks by a few points. Then, the last two weeks happened. In their penultimate game, the Railhawks hosted the Silverbacks, and if they won, the spring season title was theirs. Atlanta had other ideas. After scoring first, the Silverbacks prevented another crazy Railhawks comeback and held on to a 1-1 tie. So it was all to be decided in the next week. If the Railhawks win versus San Antonio, they win the title. If Atlanta wins, they win the title. If both go “meh” and botch their games, then San Antonio could win the title. Safe to say, for fans of all three clubs, it was a heart pounding day. In the end, Silverbacks fans were the happiest, as they witnessed both their team winning and then the Railhawks losing, granting them the spring season title. Atlanta went from a bottom dweller to champion in three months, and Carolina went from clear favorite to second fiddle in two weeks.
Then, the “offseason”. Over the summer break, teams made a multitude of moves in signing players and coaches. The Strikers, who fired Daryl Shore mid-season, picked up renowned German coach Gunter Kronsteiner and proceeded to build around his style. Carolina traded away team captain Floyd Franks to Minnesota for creepy midfielder Bryan Arguez, San Antonio brought in Polish wunderkind Thomasz Zahorski, and FC Edmonton did FC Edmonton things, and by that I mean they didn’t do anything. But the team everyone was following over the summer was a team that hadn’t even played a game in the new NASL. The New York Cosmos owned the summer of 2013, as fans watched their every move- who they signed, how their scrimmages went, which former player they would give an honorary title to next, etc. It would be their first season since 1983, and they were entering it with guns loaded. The deep pockets of the operators allowed the team to sign many quality players, most notably Marcos Senna. Senna, a former Villareal and Spanish national team starter, was being billed as the next Pele due to his finesse and quality play. Many were skeptical, though, and wondered if the team would be able to gel well enough to compete for the fall season title. Offseason exhibition games didn’t do much to stem the tide of criticism, either a loss to English third-tier team Leyton Orient and a draw to formerly fourth-tier team Gillingham F.C. weren’t exceptionally inspiring results.
After all was said and done, we did in fact have a season to get to- the fall season, the winner of which would face Atlanta in the Soccer Bowl. In week one, the Cosmos sold out Shuart Stadium, and won their nationally broadcast game versus the Strikers 2-1. San Antonio and Tampa Bay combined for eleven goals. The Silverbacks picked up a road win vs Minnesota fresh off their spring title. Right from the start, it was obvious that this season was going to be fun to watch. Also from the onset, it was clear that the parity of this season would even outdo last season’s- at many times, up to six teams were competing for first place. The usual suspects were at the top, as Carolina and Tampa often competed for the top of the table. The new-look Strikers surged their way into the title race, as they continued to improve under the tutelage of coach Kronsteiner. Most importantly, the Cosmos were in the race, which spelled trouble for everyone- if a team this stacked was already playing well enough to compete or the title, and they’re only going to get better, then who’s going to stop them? Early in the year it seemed like it would be the Railhawks, who crushed the Cosmos at WakeMed Soccer Park 3-0 in a game where the Cosmos looked woefully out of sync. But, per usual, Carolina continued to drop points as the season went on against lesser opponents, causing them to fade away from the title picture barring a miracle. Then it looked like the Rowdies might be the ones to take the title, as they were winning and looking to be in good form. The turning point in the season, however, also happened to be the best game of the season, when the Rowdies traveled to New York to take on the Cosmos. In a back and forth battle that came down to the wire, Marcos Senna did it again for New York, and they prevailed 4-3. After that, much to the chagrin of many NASL fans, it was clear who was going to win the title. Any challenges to the Cosmos were easily brushed aside, as they won the fall season title with little resistance and an eight point lead over second place Carolina. Just as important was the team who finished in seventh place- the spring season champion Silverbacks looked like a dumpster fire being put out with oil for the second half of the fall season, as they tried multiple roster changes which all proved to accomplish little. Nevertheless, they would host the Cosmos in the first Soccer Bowl that featured the winners of the split seasons.
The game, unsurprisingly, was not an eagerly anticipated match up for most fans. The Silverbacks, though hosting the event, were considered massive underdogs to the powerhouse Cosmos. But it was clear that they were not buying into the labeling, as they had many chances on goal early in the game. In typical New York fashion, however, the visitors took control of the possession throughout the rest of the game and eventually reaped the rewards- a beautiful volley from (who else?) Marcos Senna put the Cosmos up 1-0, and 1-0 it stayed until the final whistle as New York were crowned the champions of the NASL. They celebrated with their traveling supporters, as Atlanta fans, and presumable fans of every other team in the NASL, ended their viewing with a bad taste in their mouth. This team, brought in half way through the year, stampeded through the league through simply being too talented for other NASL squads. It was the worst nightmare of everyone who foresaw the salaries of the Cosmos translating into a powerhouse. Take it or leave it, the season ended with the team that made the league so special so long ago- and optimists everywhere are hoping that similar cosmic magic will grace the league in 2014.