HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The Minnesota United already clinched the Spring North American Soccer League title with a draw the night before. And the New York Cosmos could have looked ahead to their highly anticipated United States Open Cup match with Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls next week.
But there was still a lot to play for on Giorgio Chinaglia Day at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Sunday.
Quite appropriately, after the Cosmos retired Chinaglia’s number nine jersey before kickoff, fellow Italian striker Alessandro Noselli scored his only goal of the spring in the sixth minute. And then the toughest team to score against in the NASL this spring, made that stand up, in a 1-0 victory before 6.495 fans, over the expansion Ottawa Fury (3-5-1), which finished its inaugural season with 10 points, and in a tie for sixth place in the 10-team league.
New York (6-2-1) — which clinched the NASL fall season title in October and won its sixth Soccer Bowl championship two weeks later, in its first season in 29 years — completed the spring with 19 points, and in sole possession of second place, just one point behind Minnesota (6-1-2).
The Cosmos had a league-best goal differential of plus-11 for the spring, thanks to allowing just three goals all season — the same number that the United yielded during its title-clinching 3-3 tie in Tampa Bay on Saturday night.
However, the three points that New York earned for the win, were still significant, since although Minnesota clinched the first spot in the four-team playoffs to follow the 18-week Fall season, the Fall champion plus the next two best teams over the Spring and Fall seasons combined, will qualify for the postseason.
“Of course, we’re disappointed [not to win the Spring title],” team captain, defenseman Carlos Mendes said. “For us, the mentality was [to] get as many points as possible. This add up to the end of the year also. So it’s not just the spring, we’re playing for a championship at the end of the year.”
Besides wanting to secure points that could help them in the fall, the Cosmos also wanted to sufficiently honor Chinaglia — the greatest goal scorer in their history, who died at age 65, in 2012 — not only with the pregame ceremony, but with their play, as well.
Head coach Giovani Savarese thought they did.
“It’s beautiful how things works sometimes,” he said. “An Italian scored on Giorgio Chinaglia’s day. One thing that we [as a coaching staff said] to the players is, ‘We need to honor Giorgio, first of all, because he was a winner and was an important part of this organization.’ And the least thing we could do to honor him is give one hundred percent. And I think the guys did today. ”
Adding yet another Soccer Bowl title last fall, to the four that Chinaglia played a huge role in producing along with fellow stars such as Pele, Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer also went a long way to honoring Chinaglia’s memory.
“It’s a great day for me because Giorgio Chinaglia was one of the best players in Cosmos history,” Noselli said. “For me, scoring on the same day of retiring his jersey is a great thing and I’m very happy to score also, the only goal today, for the win.”
Just as when Chinaglia often scored in a Cosmos uniform, it was a great setup from a teammate that created Noselli’s scoring chance.
In Noselli’s case, a beautiful crossing pass from the right wing by Norwegian forward Mads Stokkelien took a couple of small skips in the middle of the box. And before goalkeeper Devala Gorrick (six saves) could reach the ball first, Noselli was able to poke it past him and into any empty net.
“A perfect ball,” Noselli said. “That’s a great, great pass. I don’t say nothing, because it’s perfect, and I’m happy, because it’s my first goal this year.”
Three minutes later, Noselli tried to return the favor from the left side, but his pass in the box was broken up just before Stokkelien could attempt a header.
Forward Carl Haworth nearly had Ottawa’s furst good chance in the 21st minute, but keeper Jimmy Maurer (two saves) came near the edge of the box to pounce on the ball first.
Nine minutes later, defenseman Jummy Ockford sent a hard blast on goal from the edge of the box that a leaping Gorrick deflected over the crossbar with his left hand.
Seconds later, Mendes tried the second of a two Cosmos headers on one sequence in the box, but the ball went softly into Gorrick’s arms.
After being outshot 7-1 in the opening half, the Fury was outshot 7-5 in the second half and applied some pressure down the stretch after Stokkelien had two more good scoring opportunities.
In the 64th minute, Noselli made a nice slide to track down a pass up the right side. After he gathered, he crossed to midfielder Danny Szetela in the box, who sent the ball back to Stokkelien, who fired from around the penalty spot, but right at Gorrick.
Later, defenseman Hunter Freeman passed up the left side to Stokkelien, who made a nice move to get around a challenging Gorrick. But with the net wide open, Stokkelien missed high on a running shot from the left side, in the 80th minute.
Noselli found the net from close range a minute later, after a chip in the box. But the goal was waived off because he was offside.
In the 86th minute, forward Pierre Rudolph-Mayard tried a hard shot in the box but it was blocked.
Three minutes after that, defenseman Drew Beckie tried to direct a pass home home from close range, but Mauer came out to stop him and eventually gather a loose ball that remained dangerously loose in the box for a few seconds.
In stoppage time, the Cosmos blocked another close shot before Maurer punched away the ensuing corner kick in a crowd.
It took seven minutes of stoppage time and some tense late moments before New York was able to hold on for the victory.
Finally, at that point, the Cosmos, who beat the amateur Brooklyn Italians in a third-round United States Open Cup match last week, allowed themselves to look toward Saturday night and their historic fourth-round matchup with the Red Bulls before what figures to be an electric crowd at Shuart Stadium.
In fact it was the crowd that witnessed Sunday’s win that was already geared up for what’s to come next weekend.
Seconds after the final whistle against Ottawa, fans began chanting “Beat the Red Bulls!”
“It will be very difficult, but we are ready and we can’t wait to play this game,” Noselli said.
“I think it’s going to be a great atmosphere,” said Mendes, a native of nearby Mineola, New York, who played for the Red Bulls from 2005-11.
“I think the fans will enjoy it… it’s good for soccer, for the New York area, New Jersey area. We have confidence that we can beat anyone in the country if we’re on our game. So we’re going to come out to win, and we’ll see.”
Savarese noted what the match could mean for New York soccer, while providing reasons that the game could be tougher mentally on the Red Bulls than on the Cosmos.
“These games are special games,” he said. “These games are the ones that allow soccer to grow in New York and they’re very important. It’s the first time that two professional organizations [from New York], going to play [against each other]. I feel that there’s more pressure on the Red Bulls. I don’t think we have anything to lose. That makes it a lot better for us.”
Whether Savarese is right, remains to be seen. But at least with the Spring Season title chase behind them, the Cosmos can focus on the Red Bulls, and what may lie ahead for them in the U.S Open Cup should they win that match; as well as resuming their quest to defend their NASL title once the Fall Season kicks off on July 12, at home, against San Antonio.