HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Head coach Giovanni Savarese stood in the middle of the New York Cosmos’ locker room and shouted a dual message after its 1-0 home win over the Minnesota United (2-3-2) at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Saturday night.
Savarese made his players aware they that they took over first place in the North American Soccer League as the Cosmos (3-1-3) remained unbeaten (3-0-1) at home while getting to 12 points, one more than Tampa Bay and Carolina (who played to a 2-2 tie on the same evening), and Fort Lauderdale, which tied Edmonton, 1-1, the next day.
But while Savarese then rewarded his players with the next two days off, he also gave a reminder that their work is far from done, with exactly half of the regular season remaining.
“See you on Tuesday,” Savarese told them, while quickly adding, “But do some work yourselves, on your own [before then].”
It’s that level of focus which has the second incarnation of the Cosmos (the first in 29 years) acting less like the pseudo expansion team that they are, and more like a veteran club that’s unsatisfied with being the league’s best at the Fall 2013 regular season midpoint.
Last week, the mood in the same locker room was just the opposite of the celebratory one that resulted from beating Minnesota, after New York similarly netted just one goal, in a 1-1 draw against Atlanta. Following that match, Savarese and some Cosmos players were frustrated with missing on several scoring chances and not coming away with a victory.
This time, the lone goal — on a header, in the 77th minute, by midfielder Sebastian Guenzatti, off a perfect crossing pass from the right wing by defender Hunter Freeman — held up.
Breaking a tie in the waning minutes at home was nothing new for New York.
Aside from last week’s draw, each of the other three Cosmos home matches have resulted in one-goal victories with New York scoring late in the second half (the other two were in stoppage time).
“We enjoy it more. A late goal, we got used to it,” said the New York City native Guenzatti, whose game-winner was his first goal in a Cosmos uniform.
The type of score was also somewhat expected, once Guenzatti saw the pass coming toward him.
“We practice every day, the same play,” said Guenzatti. “I gave it to Hunter and he played a beautiful ball, and it landed right on my head, and I had nothing to do but put it away… give and go in the box, and it was like slow motion. I saw [the ball] spinning in the air, I jumped, and perfect cross, good header, and it went in.”
What was atypical though, was that three minutes later, New York was suddenly down a man, and had to hold off the United over the final 15 minutes (including five minutes of stoppage time) after Freeman was issued a red card for a questionable call on a tackle he made.
“Was it the cleanest of tackles? No, but I got all ball and I didn’t even touch him,” said Freeman. “But I don’t think that’s a red card… I didn’t touch the guy. That’s my argument with that call. But it’s a credit to the teams for digging out those last 10 or 12 minutes and we got the victory we needed, and now we’re in first place… we’ve got to have a mindset that now, if we get a goal, we need to treat it as precious cargo. I thought we did a good job of that [tonight].”
Guenzatti admitted that Savarese’s news about the Cosmos being in first place came as a surprise to the team.
“We didn’t know until now,” Guenzatti said, standing in front of his locker, moments after Savarese’s speech to his players.
“We’re a hardworking group, and we deserved the win,” he continued. “We’ve been outplaying [almost] every team so far. It feels good. Our hard work pays off… it feels really good.”
To remain in first place over the second half of the season, however, Guenzatti said New York will have to “score quicker,” especially while trying to defend its home turf. “I think we need to put the balls away earlier in the game to get the win, a comfortable win at home.”
That very nearly happened a couple of times in the first half, when defender Hunter Gorskie put a ball into the side of the net, just to the left of the left post, from about 25 yards out, in the 8th minute, and 18 minutes later, when a header in the box by defender Carlos Mendes (off of a free kick) was kept just in front of the goal line as it was caught by goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel, while most of his body was just inside the goal.
Minnesota almost tied the match when a centering pass got beyond goalkeeper Kyle Reynish, but Gorskie was there to play the ball off his midsection just in front of the goal line, before he was able to clear it.
While posting his second shutout of the season, Reynish stopped both of the shots on goal for the United, which sent 11 other shots off target.
Midfielder Ayoze sent a powerful shot from inside the box glancing off the crossbar in the final minute, but unlike when they exasperatingly settled for a few draws this season, the Cosmos already had all of the offense they needed.
Going forward, New York continues to carry the pressure of carrying the Cosmos name made famous in the 1970s and 1980s, while dealing with the extra burden of leading the pack in the NASL.
“We’ve had a target on our backs from every team, for every game, whether we’re in first [place], third, fourth, whatever it is,” said Freeman. “So that target will only get bigger now.”
Freeman and Savarese noted the importance of the games ahead while remaining neutral on whether having already played against every team in the league one time each, would help or hurt their own club.
“These games now, in the second half, really aren’t three-point games, they’re six-point games, because you’re hoping you’re getting three points and you’re also taking three points from somebody else, so that’s huge,” said Freeman. “There’s really no positive or negative [about seeing those teams already]. “They kind of cancel each other out.”
“It’s always better to play them [again], but also, they know us better too,” added Savarese, while saying, “We find ourselves in a great position, but we still need to work very hard.”
The Cosmos’ second half of the season begins on Saturday night, September 22, at Fort Lauderdale (3-2-2), which lost in New York, 2-1, in the season opener for each team.