Josh Cohen went from USL to become Israel's top player. He'll now face Juventus, PSG in Champions League

These days, the U.S. player development system appears to be a veritable assembly line of talent. U.S.-based academies are cranking out players at an impressive rate. Some of those players, such as Brenden Aaronson, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie have made considerable headway in Europe. And for the third year in a row, the number of players who have represented or are eligible for the United States men's side and are on teams in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League has reached double digits. The idea that talents are missed seems to be receding into the mists.

But closer inspection of that group reveals that there are still some soft spots in the U.S. pipeline where a player can slip through the cracks. That is evident when one considers Maccabi Haifa goalkeeper Josh Cohen, the ultimate late bloomer.

For much of his career, Cohen has flown under the radar. He played four years at the University of California-San Diego, a Division II school where he studied bioengineering. After a season in the USL Premier Development League (now League Two) with the now-defunct Burlingame Dragons, he spent parts of five campaigns in the USL Championship with three different clubs, and despite winning plaudits with the Sacramento Republic he received nary an offer from Major League Soccer.

But then in 2019, Maccabi Haifa of the Israeli Premier League came calling, and he quickly won the starting goalkeeper job. The Greens won a 2021-22 title, and Cohen claimed the league's Player of the Year award. This season, Maccabi Haifa reached the group stage of the UCL for the first time in over a decade.

Placed in a daunting group with Benfica, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, Cohen says he and his teammates are relishing the opportunity on a stage he could have scarcely believed four years ago. Not even a 2-0 defeat to Benfica in the group stage opener could dampen his enthusiasm for the challenge ahead.

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"It's something I've dreamed about, but never in a tangible way, more like superpowers than dreaming of a new car," Cohen said about playing in the Champions League. "I think this made it take a little longer to actually process when we first qualified. I was disappointed in the result, but I thought that we played with confidence and rose to the occasion rather that running from it."

As for why Cohen went unnoticed for so long, he said, "I kind of was a little bit of an outsider."

Despite playing for Santa Clara Sporting -- one of the better-known clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the same one that produced current FC Dallas and U.S. international midfielder Sebastian Lletget -- Cohen was never part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. In college he remained an unknown to all except for the most devoted followers of the collegiate game.

"I was always good, but not the best in the area until later on," he said.

The advent of MLS and USL academies didn't do Cohen many favors, as teams preferred to go with known quantities rather than take a chance on a relative unknown.

"Realistically, at that point I would have been a number three goalkeeper, that was just where they would have slotted me into any roster," he said. "And I don't think teams spend a lot of resources on that position either financially or timewise. And so, I think that position is one where it's really just take the easiest, simplest solution and maybe I wasn't that."

But at every stop Cohen seized opportunities to sharpen different parts of his game. In college he realized the importance of being able to compete physically and put on 30 pounds of muscle over the course of his collegiate career. With Burlingame, he learned how important it was to quickly establish chemistry with teammates, especially in a season that lasted just three months. His spell with the Orange County Blues (now Orange County SC) and later with the Phoenix Rising (both USL teams), exposed him to playing alongside more professional players and the challenge of reaching that level.

This exposure included practicing alongside Chelsea legend Didier Drogba, even if it meant being humbled on occasion. One of Cohen's first training sessions in Phoenix saw him playing a small-sided game against Drogba on a field that was 35-40 yards long. With Drogba in the opposite corner, Cohen took a more aggressive position, maybe 12-15 yards off his line. Drogba was in the far corner, his back to goal, with an opponent putting pressure on him.

"He somehow, without even looking at the goal, gets a shot and chips me from 35 yards with his back to goal," Cohen said. "Yeah, that was where I was like, 'OK, he didn't even have to look, he knew exactly where he was, he knew exactly what he was doing.' He would just do little things like that. That was always impressive."

It was in 2019 that Cohen caught the eye of Sacramento Republic GM Todd Dunivant, who in watching Cohen on video thought, "Man, this guy has got something." But beyond Cohen's ability to fly around the goal, it was the player's ability to think and improve his game -- even while working on his master's degree in mechanical engineering at Sacramento State -- that caught the eye.

"I think Josh is a guy that is a very cerebral guy, no question about it," Dunivant said. "His capacity to take in information, his capacity to expand his game, expand his mind, it's all somewhat related with him. He's got a big ceiling."

"A lot of players can't handle that, or can't adapt, can't evolve, can't kind of grow their game. Josh has the complete opposite. It's exactly what he does and what he's always done. And it gets better and better. He learns and he adapts and grows. And that's what his career has done. And now he's playing in the Champions League group stage."

Connections help too, and it was with the Republic that the man with few international contacts was able to use his network to take a leap forward. Thanks to his Jewish heritage, Cohen was already on Haifa's radar since he wouldn't count as a foreign player. But on the Republic roster that season was former Haifa captain Dekel Keinan, and his recommendation helped seal the deal.

"I could see from day one in Sacramento that he has great potential," Keinan, now with USL Championship side Las Vegas Lights, said of Cohen. "The moment that Maccabi Haifa [called], they asked me about him and I didn't hesitate. I knew he will be a great addition for the team, even if you will be a backup keeper for a while. That didn't happen, but I knew he will have the patience and he would be respectful even if he will not play much. Very easy for me to give my recommendation."

"He's a great shot-stopper and I saw a lot of qualities that I was sure Maccabi Haifa would have a lot of benefit from. He's very calm, never panics, and it's very important on the back line that you have a calm keeper behind you."

The jump from USL to the Israeli league required another period of adaptation. It helped that his fiancée Jamie was there to provide support, the better to adjust to a different alphabet as well as the driving habits of the local populace that Cohen describes as "a little bit stressful and chaotic."

At age 27, there's a tendency to think that a player's technical skill is fully formed, but Cohen realized quickly upon his arrival that this was an area that needed improving, especially his distribution. So every day, Cohen would head out to the field 15 minutes early and hit "a couple of hundred" one-touch and two-touch passes. The daily work soon paid off.

"I immediately started to see improvements in terms of my touch. And then as my touch was improving, that allowed me to start keeping my head upwards and not looking at the ball, looking at the players around which then allowed for faster play," he said.

Cohen's international prospects find him in limbo. Israel isn't an option now given that since Cohen wasn't born there and didn't become a citizen until later in life, FIFA rules require a five-year residency, and he has only been there for three. He reached out to U.S. men's national team goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde some time ago but realistically remains far down the U.S. depth chart.

Yet Cohen's eye is never far from the country of his birth, and MLS may yet be a destination. A move to Atlanta United earlier this year was close to being finalized, but an untimely shoulder injury, combined with Atlanta's needs being immediate, scuttled that deal.

The injury turned out to be a blessing, however, given that Cohen is now playing in the Champions League. Maccabi Haifa and Cohen acquitted themselves well in their UCL opener and were on the receiving end of a world-class strike from Alex Grimaldo. But as he has so often in his career, Cohen will only improve from the experience.

"I hope my peak is ahead of me," he said. "That's the funny thing about peaks is I guess you never know that you're on one until you look backwards. So, I'm hoping that the road in front of me is still a steep incline."

Given the stage he currently occupies, more people are bound to notice.