The New York Cosmos defeated the Ottawa Fury two weeks ago by a score of 3-2 to take the North American Soccer League championship, winning the Soccer Bowl and earning the right to reign over the United States’ second-tier soccer league.
The Cosmos, who play their home matches at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium, were led in scoring this season by a pair of players with eight goals and three assists.
One of these players was Raúl González Blanco, known simply as Raúl. The Spaniard played 16 years in his career with Real Madrid, perhaps the best soccer team in the world, ranking second all-time scorer with 323 goals on the club, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest soccer players ever.
The other was former Stony Brook Men’s Soccer standout midfielder Leo Fernandes.
Fernandes, a three-time America East Midfielder of the Year, is the Seawolves’ all-time record-holder with 79 career points as a four-year starter from 2009 to 2012.
While under contract with the Philadelphia Union of the Major League Soccer, Fernandes signed a one-year loan with the Cosmos to give the young player some first-team experience. The Long Island native made the most of the homecoming opportunity, being honored at the end of the season as NASL Young Player of the Year, an award given to the league’s most outstanding player aged 23 or under.
“It’s been a great season for me,” Fernandes said. “You always set goals for yourself in the beginning of the year and I guess this award just shows that I had a great individual season and that was made even better because the team won the championship.”
With the Cosmos, Fernandes was looking to gain valuable experience that would be beneficial to him as he looks to make a return to MLS in more of a full-time role in the future. Some of what he learned came from playing alongside a living legend in Raúl, who played the final season of his career with the Cosmos this year, hoping to help invigorate interest in soccer in the United States.
“Raúl is one of the best ever,” Fernandes said. “Any time you get a chance to play with one of the best, you try to learn from them in any possible situation. Whether it’s practice, games, or how he carries himself off the field, I learn so much, and I think it’s partly because of him that I was able to have such a great season.”
Raúl retired in November after opting to finish his career with the Cosmos, something that the Brazilian legendary striker and all-time leading worldwide goal-scorer Pelé did in the mid-70s. Pelé, now an honorary president for the team, has met with many of the Cosmos players and continues to play an instrumental role in the organization.
Being around two all-time legends in the sport provided a unique opportunity for Fernandes to learn from the best.
“Whenever we were doing finishing drills his main lesson was to always, always hit the goal, because you never know what’s going to happen,” Fernandes said, describing advice given to him from Raúl.
“If the ball hits the goal, it always has a chance, but if you miss the goal there is a zero percent chance that you’ll score.”
After helping the Cosmos win a championship, as he was able to do with Stony Brook as the team won America East Conference titles in 2009 and 2011, Fernandes now strives for another chance in the top league. He scored two goals with Philadelphia in limited MLS action in 2014. After playing a vital role for a team in a lower division this season, Fernandes believes the leadership role has helped him for the future.
“I feel like I’ve grown so much as a player this year,” Fernandes said. “When you’re young, you need to get games in. That was the most important thing for me this year. I’ve played over 25 games this year and that’s going to help me so much in the future.”