Josh Cohen when he was a student at UC San Diego. (Photo/Courtesy UCSD Athletics)
Josh Cohen when he was a student at UC San Diego. (Photo/Courtesy UCSD Athletics)

How local soccer phenom Josh Cohen went from underdog to Israeli Footballer of the Year

All eyes may be on the World Cup underway in Qatar, but a Jewish soccer goalie from Mountain View representing Israel recently competed in one of the world’s greatest professional soccer tournaments, the UEFA Champions League. His name is Josh Cohen, and he comes from humble beginnings on the pitch.

Cohen, 30, competes for Maccabi Haifa Football Club, one of Israel’s best teams and the nation’s first to qualify for the UEFA Champions League (UCL) in seven years. From September to November, Haifa’s schedule took the team to Paris, Italy and Portugal, where Cohen defended his team’s goal against players including all-time Argentine legend Lionel Messi.

Josh Cohen playing for Maccabi Haifa. (Photo/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)
Josh Cohen playing for Maccabi Haifa. (Photo/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

“I couldn’t be prouder for the guy,” said Jon Pascale, Cohen’s college head coach at UC San Diego. “To watch him climb his way up the ranks and to see some of his highlights and the things that he’s been doing and the crowds that he’s been playing in front of, and then to save a shot on Messi, is unbelievable.”

Maccabi Haifa failed to advance past the first post-qualifying round, losing five out of six games. But Cohen, who stands 6-foot-1 and played high school soccer at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, helped produce a 2-0 shutout victory against Juventus Football Club, one of Europe’s most renowned teams.

To reach his current position, Cohen voyaged on an unassuming career path and overcame an underdog status. He played college soccer at the Division II level for a program that initially lacked interest in him.

“We watched him and he had just a horrible game,” UC San Diego’s Pascale said of the first time he and his assistants saw Cohen at a recruiting tournament. “Gave up a couple goals, shanked a goal kick, and I think every single one of us walked out of there and said ‘no.’”

Cohen still wanted to attend UCSD anyway because of its engineering department, and that persistence paid off while he was still in high school and Pascale invited him to train with the team. It gave Cohen another opportunity to impress the coaches — and be offered a spot on the roster.

“He was definitely good from day one, but he was in a battle with our other goalie,” Pascale said.

It wasn’t until Cohen was an upperclassman that he established himself as elite. He finished his junior season with one of the best single-season save percentages in D-II history. As a senior, Cohen allowed 0.52 goals per game, good for fourth among all Division II teams that season.

Despite his success in college, offers didn’t come from major professional teams, so Cohen bounced around the minor leagues on the West Coast, playing for teams including the now defunct Burlingame Dragons FC and Phoenix Rising FC. Cohen’s final minor league stint, with Sacramento Republic FC, is where his career “took off,” according to Pascale. “He became a fan favorite there on a really good team.”

He finished his first season with Sacramento as a finalist for the United Soccer League’s Goalkeeper of the Year award. (While in Sacramento, he simultaneously pursued a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Sac State; he earned the degree this year.)

Then, in 2019, Cohen caught his big break when he was transferred to Maccabi Haifa, where the fact that he is Jewish meant he did not have to compete for one of the limited number of team slots allocated to foreign players. One of Cohen’s teammates in Sacramento who previously served as a captain for Haifa, Dekel Keinan, recommended the young goalie, helping to seal the deal, according to ESPN.

Cohen has since become an Israeli citizen.

“From the time the first phone call came in, I think it was 48 hours before Josh was on a plane flying … to meet the team,” Pascale said.

In the 2020-21 season, for the first time in a decade, Haifa won the league championship, and Cohen won the prestigious Israeli Footballer of the Year award, the first goalkeeper to claim it since 2009.

Where Cohen will go from here is uncertain. Pascale said he might not be ready to join a major European club, and a move to Major League Soccer in the United States would inhibit him from competing against the world’s best players who play for European teams. Regardless, Pascale is optimistic about Cohen’s future, considering his intelligence and advanced degree.

“He’s going to do amazing things after his career, too,” he said.

Gabe Fisher
Gabe Fisher

Gabe Fisher is a freelance journalist who served as interim editorial assistant at J. in 2022. Follow him on Twitter @ItsGabeFisher.