HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Throughout the course of their storied history, the New York Cosmos have never been a team to lose in their current home at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium — that is, unless they host the San Antonio Scorpions.
The last time the Scorpions visited Hofstra, they scored an early goal and held on for a win despite getting badly outplayed by the Cosmos.
This time, they left no doubt, as diminutive Columbian midfielder Rafael Castillo came up huge with a first-half brace which staked San Antonio to a 2-0 halftime lead that the Scorpions wouldn’t relinquish.
Although defenseman Hunter Freeman cut that margin in half, forward Sainey Touray answered 12 minutes later to give San Antonio a 3-1 victory before a crowd of 3,806, who saw the Scorpions and Cosmos play their respective North American Soccer League Fall Season openers on Saturday night.
Undefeated (20-0-7) against everyone else at Hofstra, New York is winless in two tries there against San Antonio — even though the defending NASL-champion Cosmos clinched their fifth Soccer Bowl berth with a road win over the Scorpions last fall.
New York went 6-0-1 at Hofstra Stadium in 1972 (during the club’s second year of existence) and 6-0-3 on the same field the following year.
The Cosmos lost their only postseason game at Hofstra, to the Atlanta Chiefs, in 1971. But after a 29-year hiatus following the 1984 NASL season, New York rebooted by posting Hofstra home records of 5-0-2 last fall and 3-1-1 in the spring of this year.
While San Antonio seemed to simply have New York’s number again, the Cosmos felt it was more about what they failed to do.
“We just weren’t ready to play,” goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer (two saves) admitted. “It’s more about us, it’s not about them. They’re a very good team and credit to them. They played very well, but… the two losses we’ve had to them was about how we approached the games.”
Head coach Giovanni Savarese concurred.
“I think it was more us,” he said. “I found that our team tonight wasn’t aggressive enough. I think [the Scorpions] were definitely the team that wanted it a little bit more and our team was a little bit flat… I think that was the issue that led to the score that you saw.”
Maurer and Savarese differed on the possible effects of a long layoff, however.
Discussing whether the Cosmos’ first match in 18 days (since a loss in Philadelphia that eliminated New York from its first U.S. Open Cup appearance) and their first NASL game since 16 days prior to that was a factor,
Savarese said, “Probably, I hope so. Maybe the guys were going through the transition, still.”
Yet Maurer said, “I don’t think it was rust. It wasn’t that much time.”
Freeman agreed with Maurer and his coach that New York didn’t play as hard as San Antonio.
“They were the better team,” he said. “They wanted it more than us from an energy standpoint, from a fighting standpoint.”
So did the Cosmos, who finished their last campaign, with 19 points (just one shy of Minnesota for the Fall Season title), take the Scorpions (who were alone in third place, just two points behind New York) for granted?
Perhaps, according to Freeman.
“A lot of games where we struggled, is when we don’t match the other team’s intensity,” he said. “We’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror and realize that we’re not just going to step on the field and because we have a good team and we’ve had success, teams are going to bow down to us. It’s the opposite. Teams are going to get up for us and we’re going to get every team’s best shot. We saw that last year. This year is the same. So we have to be prepared for that. It’s a mentality.”
Having the wrong attitude certainly opened the door for a Scorpions team that was ready to once again seize the opportunity on the Cosmos’ home pitch.
“Every time a team comes in here, they want to beat us, Freeman added. “Obviously, they had some success here last time, so I’m sure they had a good feeling coming in… you could tell they wanted it more.”
Neither side had any serious chances through most of the opening half, until Castillo struck twice, just four
His first goal came on a penalty kick after two bad breaks in a row for Mauer.
Castillo, a foot shorter and 56 pounds lighter than the 6-foot-3, 189-pound Mauer, collided with New York’s keeper as the two battled for a chip to the left side of the box.
A somewhat questionable foul was called on Maurer, who had his body turned away from Castillo as contact was made. But it was enough to draw a penalty kick which Maurer nearly saved.
Diving to his left, Maurer got his left hand on the ball, but it glanced off the right post and into the goal, causing a frustrated Maurer to subsequently kick the same post and knock the goal off of the goal line in the 41st minute.
“I should have done better before the penalty,” Maurer said. “I gave the ref a chance to make a call. Do I think it was a penalty? I don’t know. I’ve got to look at it on tape and see how it looks. How it felt, it didn’t feel like a penalty, but a lot of times you look at it [later] and you’re like, ‘I fouled him.’ But I got caught in a position I shouldn’t have been in… and that’s on me.”
Hoping to reach intermission down by just a goal, the Cosmos instead allowed Castillo to score off of a set piece again.
After he was fouled by defenseman Hunter Gorskie along the right side, Castillo scored in the 45th minute on a beautiful free kick from 30 yards away.
Once again, Maurer almost made a great save, but Castillo, who only had one scoreless appearance for San Antonio after joining the Scorpions late in the fall, bent a terrific left-footed shot in a perfect spot — barely over the left hand of a leaping, outstretched Maurer, and just under the crossbar. The ball again bounced off of the right post, then off of Mauer’s back and into the net to double San Antonio’s lead.
At that point, the main scoreboard mistakenly yet appropriately read: COSMOS 0, SCORPION 2, since it was Castillo who was the lone Scorpion accounting for all of the game’s scoring.
Castillo’s second goal was evened out in the 57th minute when Freeman curled a brilliant 26-yard, right-footed free kick from just outside the box narrowly inside the left post to get New York on the board.
Only six minutes later, Freeman came close to tying the match, but his 35-yard strike was a bit high.
Within the same minute at the other end, the Cosmos almost gave a huge gift away. Gorskie headed the ball in the box back to Maurer who couldn’t control it. A dangerous rebound attempt from close range rolled barely wide of the right post.
Another six minutes after that, Touray netted the backbreaker when Maurer got caught coming out too far for a ball that was fairly well checked by defenseman Carlos Mendes, New York’s captain.
Touray cleverly took advantage to lob the ball over Maurer and bounce it into the far (right) corner of an empty net.
By that time, the Cosmos had already allowed as many goals 69 minutes into their fall season as they did during their entire nine-game spring season, when New York led the league in fewest goals conceded.
“I talked to ‘Los about it and definitely, I should have stayed,” Maurer said. “The turf can be tricky sometimes… that one checked up on me. So I was out in a bad spot. I tried to jump, get a block, but he got it over me and had a good finish.”
Noting the feeling of his team at that moment, Freeman said, “It deflates us because we thought we were back in the game and then we’re chasing it again.”
Still, Maurer’s error in judgement didn’t give Savarese any cause to want to reign in his goalie going forward.
“We want him to be aggressive going out,” he said. “We love the way Jimmy plays. We want Jimmy to be out of the box. We are a team that is courageous to play from the goal, from the back, and we’re going to continue to do it. And sometimes if those situations lead to a goal for the other team, it’s going to happen. But we want him to also be a participant of the play from the back.”
Having missed their chance to avenge last fall’s home loss to the Scorpions, the Cosmos suddenly face some pressure to avoid returning home 0-3, with their next two games on the road — in Ottawa next Saturday night and at Fort Lauderdale the following Friday evening.
Looking back in order to set his sights forward, Savarese viewed the defeat as a way for his squad to refocus and grow in the same way it did after the last time San Antonio won in New York. Back then, the Cosmos lost their next game in Carolina before finishing the 2014 Spring Season 4-0-1.
“Maybe it was a necessity for us.” Savarese said. “Last season, after we lost against San Antonio as well, we were able to find ourselves. We learned from it. We became better and moved stronger through the entire season. Hopefully it’s the same case [now]. We learn from this and we are going to be a lot more competitive than we were tonight.”