How a derby gave me hope

Photo: Anthony Grupposo/USA Today Sports

Photo: Anthony Grupposo/USA Today Sports

Author’s note: This piece isn’t meant to be some cry for attention or self-centered use of an outlet to tell my story through. Truth be told, I had a lot of trouble writing this, finding strength to tell my story and how soccer imprinted it. This is a testimony. A testimony to the meaning of sport, the weight of a derby, and how 90 minutes can change everything both at club and personal level. Many times in this country, soccer gets painted as a foreign construct; a imported product that seems to find trouble grabbing the American public and inspiring things at individual levels like baseball, basketball, and football can. Hopefully my story convinces people otherwise. 

This story begins in my “lost” summer of 2015. My war on depression, which has been raging for at least half a decade now, was one that I began to lose, and lose handily. My grades had sunk further and further down the toilet, and that spring I had failed my first class ever. My relationship with my then-girlfriend had crumbled beyond recognition. To top it all off, an unknown illness had begun to ravage my body. Mind you, this was no flu or cold. My body was rendered weak beyond comprehension. The ability to process and hold down food had become an anomaly. My weight was dropping at a near exponential rate, and I could barely leave my couch. For all intents and purposes, I was dying, and I had not a clue in the world why.

Illness carries curious social effects with it. I hadn’t divulged the extent of my problems to many people, so the world continued to pass me by. Day after day I sat, giving no product to the world around me. I took in the news, my friends musings, and the world. My Netflix queue diminished, vanished, and reappeared in a cycle of boredom and chronic lack of productivity. For a person such as my self, who lives and dies by keeping himself busy and social, the mental effect of being chained to my living room was almost as disastrous as the physical. I had a severe problem in finding purpose in a life that seemed to be the same plain vanilla everyday. There was one, glaring exception for me: my New York Cosmos.

Although I was physically hampered from performing my usual youthful antics in the 5 Points, there was a period where I was still able to get out and attend matches in person. These matches, no matter how few they were, were an immense form of emotional and physical therapy. Pain was not present, only a tether between my heart and that of the team on the pitch. I was enthralled like never before, and found in these matches feelings of togetherness and community that had been so devoid during my illness thus far. These matches were battles, even wars, much like the ones I was fighting inside myself at the time. However, this would not prepare me for what derby would bring to me.

The US Open Cup has an undeniable magic to it. A microcosm of American society, it gives every team in the country a shot at winning the Cup and advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League. It’s a tournament of Davids v Goliaths, where a club that was merely bar team from the Midwest a few years prior can find itself playing the defending MLS Champions. It’s this competition that brought the New York Cosmos and NYCFC together on a fateful Wednesday night in the middle of June. A club that snubbed MLS facing the team that took their spot. A bigger match than any in the Cosmos modern era.

My story of derby begins with one of my biggest regrets: I wasn’t there. Derby was the beginning of a tough stretch of matches where I was physically unable to attend. So, there I sat, on the same couch that I had so many days beforehand. Truth be told, I have never been so emotionally invested in a match, and have never been since. I lived and died with every throw in, stressed every muscle in my body at shots on Jimmy Maurer’s goal. The act of supporting the Cosmos in a derby was physically exhausting, mentally draining, and emotionally dreadful. Just like it should be.

The 2-0 scoreline resonated me on a deep, personal level. The fight in the game became a mirror image of the fight in my personal life. For whatever reason, it was being lost. A combination of bad breaks and domination had left one side succumbed to the weight of the moment, and the other riding high like they expected to be. However, something on this day seemed different, both internally and on the TV in front of me. I told myself that this wouldn’t end this way. There’s more to this story that all of this.

Lucky Mkosana celebrates in last year's derby (Photo: Howard Simmons/New York Daily News)

Lucky Mkosana celebrates in last year’s derby (Photo: Howard Simmons/New York Daily News)

The rest of the game, as they say, is history. Back to back strikes from Leo Fernandes and Lucky Mkosana forced the game to extra time, and subsequently (with the help of a crossbar), penalties. Jimmy Maurer became a legend, and Hunter Gorksie gave Cosmos Country an image that they will never, ever forget. Truth be told, I wept like a child, but for more reasons than one.

For me, the triumph over NYCFC was a match that gave me so much more than pride in my club and confidence in the U.S. Open Cup. It gave me hope. Books are not defined by their covers, no matter what shape they’re in. The first goalscorer of the night was a local boy, one enjoying a renaissance in his career on loan to a club that played miles from the college that he called home for four years. The second, a kid from Zimbabwe, carries himself with a spirit that makes managers and fans alike proud. Hard work, perseverance, and the belief that anything is possible; these are the qualities that the Cup brings out in teams, and these are the qualities that the Cosmos showed on this fateful night. This victory was a symbolic one for me. It gave me strength, it gave me hope, and it told me loudly and clearly that there are lights at the ends of tunnels. Although I was not there, my father caught Jimmy Maurer’s glove from the match when it was gleefully launched into the stands by the keeper-turned-hero. That glove to this today stands proudly in my room today not only as a beautiful piece of club memorabilia, but a reminder. A reminder of where I’ve been, a reminder to always have fight left in your heart, and a reminder of what this club means to myself and the rest of Cosmos Country.

From that day, I fought on. I kept faith, and I kept hope. A month after derby, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Crohn’s disease. I began a list of medications so deep I can barely mention them. I went into therapy. I dropped out of Fredonia and began to take classes at NCC in order to focus on myself a bit more. At every step of the way, I carried the feelings that derby instilled in me as I fought on. I’m proud to say that I’m doing much better than I was a year ago.

And yet, here we are, one year after that fateful day. The stakes are the same, but the narratives are completely different. City has the likes of Pirlo, Iraola, and Lampard available at their disposal. Penalty hero Hunter Gorskie has left, and Vinotino stars Juan Arango and Yohandry Orozco are part of a retooled Cosmos side that (at least by bookmakers odds) are the underdog. What to expect is anyone’s guess, but I know that the club, much like myself, will have the memories of derbies past in mind. As the great author F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously wrote, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

One thought on “How a derby gave me hope

  1. Powerful and inspirational piece of sport literature, beautiful written, not by pen but by heart. Thank Steve for sharing your experience as a Five Pointer.

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