On Thursday, UEFA held the draw for the group stages of the 2022-23 Champions League and we learned the fate of many of the top American players in the sport’s most prestigious club competition. Included in the list were Gio Reyna and Dortmund, Weston McKennie and Juventus, Christian Pulisic and Chelsea and Sergino Dest and Barcelona.
Josh Cohen, however, is a name not many of the casual fans ever expected to be included on such a list. But for those who have been paying attention, Cohen’s rise to the Champions League is far from a sudden fluke. It is part of a long process that has been building to this stage.
In 2019, Cohen, 30, felt his career was in a dead end. He had been bouncing around the lower tiers of American soccer. After graduating UC San Diego, he moved to the Burlingame Dragons of the USL PDL. Then on to the USL Championship’s Orange County Blues, Phoenix Rising and the Sacramento Republic. By 2019, he was the USL Championship Goalkeeper of the Year but he wasn't getting interest from MLS teams.
“I kind of expected my path to be something like —I'm playing in USL, if I do really well the MLS opportunity will come,” Cohen told Soccer America. “I'll get in contact with some teams and things will fall into place. That really just didn't happen.”
Cohen wasn't sure how serious to take rumblings of Israeli clubs being interested in him. But things moved very quickly in the summer of 2019. As he put it with Maccabi Haifa: “It just fell into my lap at the last hour out of the blue.” On a Tuesday, Cohen got word Maccabi Haifa was interested and by Friday, he was on a plane.
“I saw it really is just an opportunity that I couldn't pass up,” Cohen said. “It was very unknown. It was scary. But it was something where I thought in 10 or 20 years, if I looked back and I didn't do it, I would regret it. In hindsight, things worked out amazingly well.”
Maccabi Haifa is one of Israeli’s biggest clubs, having won 14 league titles, six State Cups, and holding the Israeli club record for the most Champions League group stage qualifications.
Cohen made the adjustment smoothly and in Israel his career hit a higher level.
“It's a combination of factors,” Cohen explained of what helped his career in Israel. “The biggest part was kind of the sink or swim mentality of being tossed into a much larger pond and then just having to deal with it ... When I first arrived in Israel in terms of kind of my shot stopping — I did pretty well. One thing I struggled with for the first month here was reading the game and the speed of play. In training, we were playing small-sided games and the players are making decisions much quicker than I was used to and were demanding of me to make my decisions much quicker than I was used to.”
He enjoyed the feeling of improving his game.
“That environment helped lift me up to a place where I never tried to push myself to read the game at that speed because it never really was asked for me,” he added. “Some of the coaches I've worked with here have been very demanding. They expect a lot. How you respond and those things together works to help you improve quickly.”
The silverware started to come. He immediately became Maccabi Haifa’s starter and helped the club win the Premier League in both 2020-21 and 2021-22, the Toto Cup in 2021-22, and the Super Cup in 2021
The most impressive trophy came when Cohen was named the Israeli Player of the Year for the 2020-21 season. Typically, it is not an award given to goalkeepers, but Cohen won it primarily thanks to an impressive run of saving four penalties that tipped the results in Maccabi Haifa’s favor to win the title that season.
But those competitions have been just within Israel. This past month has seen Cohen make important steps outside of Israel. The path to qualifying for the Champions League was extremely difficult.
Maccabi Haifa began its campaign in the second qualifying round against Greek champion Olympiakos. After a tough 1-1 draw in Israel, few expected Maccabi Haifa to survive the return leg in Greece. But Maccabi Haifa put in a stunning performance in a 4-0 away win. Then in the second round, Haifa got past Apollon of Cyprus 4-2 on aggregate after a comfortable 4-0 home win in the first leg.
The final playoff round over Red Star Belgrade was the most dramatic. It was a wide-open contest over both legs with both teams attacking non-stop. Maccabi Haifa won the first leg at home 3-2. In the second leg, it fell behind 2-0 but rallied for two goals for a 2-2 draw and a 5-4 aggregate win. The winner came in the 90th minute off an own goal. [game highlights]
“We knew after winning 3-2 a home that it would be a lot more difficult in Belgrade,” Cohen said. “Last year, the team we lost to in qualifying, Kairat Almaty, went on to play Red Star after us. They actually beat Red Star 2-1 at home and then the next week they went to Belgrade and lost 5-0. We knew there was kind of this balance for that game of knowing you have a one-goal advantage, but also not being complacent and not coming out flat or just trying to defend. Because you know that that won't work. And I think in the first half, we were a little bit torn between those two options. We took a couple of punches, but we scored right at the end of the half, gained some momentum back. It gave us the confidence we needed to just go out and go for it in the second half. It worked out quite well.”
The day following the win over Red Star, UEFA held its draw. Maccabi Haifa was given an incredibly difficult draw. In Group H, they'll face Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Benfica.
For Cohen, he understands the challenges of the draw but it's he and his team wanted.
“I'm extremely excited for the draw,” Cohen said. “I wanted to play against some of the best teams in the world, some of the best players in the world. And with this draw, we get that. We want the best. We want to see the highest level. We want to play against the highest level. Bring on all the top teams. We want the group of death.”
Not lost on Cohen is the hopes of raising his profile back in his home country. When lists were published of the Americans involved in the Champions League, it was different to see his name listed among many of the top players of the national team.
Cohen is not very connected to the highest levels of American soccer. Within the national team pool, the only player that he knows is Sebastian Lletget, who was his teammate at the U-12 level on San Francisco Bay Area club Santa Clara Sporting. Cohen also indicates that he was hoping to draw into a group with more American players but is looking forward to meeting Weston McKennie when Maccabi Haifa faces Juventus.
“First off, I'm just kind of honored at this point to be even on the list of Americans in the Champions League with these great names,” Cohen said with a slight laugh. “A lot of them represent the country and are some of the strongest players on the national team. That is just amazing.”
At age 30, Cohen believes he has a bright future. While he has a huge task at hand with Maccabi Haifa, he says he is still keeping the door to eventually playing in MLS.
There is also the issue of the national team. Right now, he is only eligible for the United States but in the years ahead, given his Jewish faith, he could become eligible for the Israeli national team. But for now, if Gregg Berhalter was to call him with a surprise invitation, he would not hesitate.
Cohen feels the chances of getting that call is a bit more realistic now than at any period before.
“I definitely would not have to think about it,” Cohen said about playing for the United States. “I do, a little bit, want to keep both paths open to see what opportunities may come up. But when I was growing up, I never thought that I would play in Israel, let alone be eligible to play for the national team. It was always the U.S. team that I was thinking about or watching or wearing the jersey. I did have an Israeli jersey from a vacation here, but it was mostly the U.S. team that I was watching on a regular basis.
“It definitely does feel like and I am closer now. I think it's just an inevitable feeling of being in Champions League or playing at a high-level club team. Even though our club team isn't a name brand club outside of Israel, it's definitely something where when you’re playing at this level, you get the sense that it's not that far away.”