HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The New York Cosmos already had enough of a challenge looking for their first home win of the 2014 North American Soccer League Fall Season while trying to stop the red-hot Minnesota United.
Trying to do so down a man for most of its match on Saturday night made that task even harder. And according to head coach Giovanni Savarase, it was as if his team had to accomplish that feat down two men.
“Playing against 11, we could do. Playing against 12 is tough, very difficult,” was Savarese’s assessment of some questionable officiating that marred a 1-1 draw between what had been the league-leading United (5-0-2) and the defending 2013 NASL champion Cosmos (2-3-3) at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium.
Yet it wasn’t even the biggest call — a sixth-minute red card to goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer that had New York down to 10 men from that point on, and which gave Minnesota its lone goal — that irked Savarese the most. Rather, it was many of the whistles and non-whistles thereafter that led to Savarese having some words with the referees at midfield right after the game ended.
“[During the] first half, [there were] two yellow cards that could have been red for them,” Savarese noted. “[If those are called], the game changes completely. There were too many plays that could have been better from the referee.”
Still, the Cosmos showed a lot of grit in taking control of the match for most of the second half despite being down a player over the final 82 minutes, plus stoppage time.
They also trailed, 1-0, over much of that time after Maurer tried to stop midfielder Daniel Mendes following defensive breakdown by New York.
While Maurer admitted that his ensuing foul deserved a penalty kick, he disagreed with being tossed from the match.
“It was real quick,” Maurer said in describing the play. “We turned the ball over in a bad spot, they slipped a ball in, so just real bang-bang, and I thought I could get there. I came out, slid for it. [Mendes] beat me there, obviously. He kind of dragged his legs into mine as I had slid… he kind of ran himself into my legs as I was sliding. He was smart and left his legs in to connect with mine, and got the penalty. I think it was a fair call for the penalty, I just think it shouldn’t have been a red [card]. Maybe yellow, maybe not even that.”
Regardless of Maurer’s thoughts on the foul, he was sent off early, leaving backup keeper Kyle Zobeck (two saves) to guess left as the NASL’s top scorer of 2014, forward Christian Ramirez, easily rolled a shot to Zobeck’ right, for his 13 goal of the year, to put the United up, 1-0, in the eighth minute.
A dozen minutes later, forward Andres Flores (two shots) has a good chance to tie the game, but his shot from about 15 yards, at the right side of the box, was stopped by goalkeeper Matt VanOekel (three saves).
Midfielder Miguel Ibarra had a pair of opportunities to extend the lead for Minnesota, but he sent a 25-yard strike too high in the 34th minute, and then trying to chip a ball into an empty net — as Zobeck came out to make a play near the top of the box — Ibarra put the ball a bit too high in the 46th minute.
At that point, play began to shift toward the other end of the pitch, as defender Hunter Freeman was denied on a close shot in the box during the 50th minute.
Six minutes after that, Freeman set up midfielder Hagop Chirishian, who took the ball into the box, but waited too long before his right-footed attempt from close range was stopped on a diving right-handed save by VanOekel.
Just two minutes later, VanOekel made a nearly identical save on forward Stefan Dimitrov.
Taking a gamble, Savarese pulled Dimitrov less than a minute later, and did the same with Chirishian nine minutes after that.
Their replacements — forwards Jemal Johnson (one shot, one assist) and Mads Stokkelien (one goal, three shots) — would later made Savarese look prophetic.
“Sometimes it looks like you have all the answers in the world because you made the right substitutions, and sometimes it doesn’t happen that way,” Savarese said. “At that moment, I felt we needed to… bring something different.”
Emphasizing that it was more than just adding Johnson and Stokkelien which made a difference for the Cosmos in the second half, Savarese said, “We changed some minor things that we felt we needed to improve, and it showed in the game… things that allowed us to get [to the ball] quicker, to expose the flats better and make some good combinations in the middle.”
Seconds after entering, Stokkelien set Freeman up with a dangerous crossing pass in the box, but the ball glanced harmlessly off of the top of Hunter’s head.
Looking for his second goal of the night, Ramirez rolled just wide of the left post in the 70th minute, after Ibarra sent a short pass ahead in the box to defender Justin Davis, who then dropped a one-touch pass back to Ramirez.
Three minutes later, Stokkelien barely missed from left side of box, he tied the game in the next minute when Johnson set him up with a pass from the left side that he was able to direct under the right arm of a diving VanOekel.
Stokkelien’s goal simultaneously ended two long scoreless streaks — a personal one covering eight games, going back to his score during a win over Fort Lauderdale, on May 31, and New York’s 287-minute span of going without a goal at home, dating back to Fall Season-opening loss to San Antonio, on July 12.
“When a striker doesn’t score in a while, you start to doubt yourself, but now I finally got a goal and it gives [me] confidence,” said Stokkelien, whom Savarese has placed in and out of the starting lineup this season.
“I know that Gio believes in me even though I didn’t start [tonight],” Stokkelien added. “I was ready on the bench and I knew where the space was. I was studying the game and I was prepared when I came in. That’s what you’ve got to do when you don’t start. You have to use those minutes you have to show the best side of you, and I felt I did that [tonight].”
Hoping the goal will ignite a good scoring run for Stokkelien in weeks to come, Savarese, a former area goal scorer himself (with the Long Island Rough Riders and New York/New Jersey MetroStars) said, “When you’re a striker and you don’t score, it’s like you don’t have water.”
Praising the preparedness of Stokkelien and others to be called upon when needed, Savarese said, “We have a great locker room. Every player knows that they are important, that they can make a difference… this is what you want as a coach, to have to make difficult decisions every week because you have a lot of guys that deserve to [get playing time].”
Only five minutes after Stokkelien’s goal, Flores had a golden chance to break the deadlock on a breakaway, but just as he would up to shoot, Davis appeared to make contact with his right foot on Flores’ right foot while trying to make a play on the ball.
Nearly everyone in the building thought Flores would be awarded a penalty kick, but no call was made at all.
Recalling Ramirez’s penalty kick, Savarese said, “From where I was, I think that possibly that looked like a PK,” although as Mauer believed, Savarese wasn’t convinced his goalie should have been carded.
But Savarese added, “I’m not fighting for that decision. I’m fighting for every other decision that was after that. The ref wasn’t at the level of the match. Tonight was a big game for both teams and I think we should have had a better referee.”
The officials’ debatable decisions continued a perplexing trend at Shuart Stadium of late.
Asked why that has been the case, Savarese responded, “That’s a good question. I wish I had the answer for that.”
One minute after the non-call on Davis’ takedown of Flores, VanOekel came out and left the night wide open. Freeman tried to take advantage, but he rocketed a hard shot from 30 yards off of the right post.
Five minutes later, Stokkelien almost scored again, from the right side of box, but his shot landed just above the crossbar, on top of the netting.
Minnesota played a dangerous ball in box a minute after that, but New York played it away.
Johnson had a decent chance in the 93rd minute, but he rolled a shot through traffic just outside the left post.
The tie kept the Cosmos winless (0-2-2) in four home games this fall after they went 8-1-3 over the previous two seasons (during the Fall of 2013 and Spring of 2014) at Hofstra.
It also pushed the United’s unbeaten streak to 11 straight NASL games (7-0-4), but continued Minnesota’s winless (0-3-1) against New York, which won the teams’ previous three meetings, each by 1-0 scores. The third of those games marked the United’s last league loss, in New York, on May 12.
While Minnesota fell into second place in the Fall standings, two points behind San Antonio, the 2014 Spring champion United remained a point ahead of San Antonio over the Spring and Fall Seasons for the top playoff seed in the four-team Championship to be played in November.
Although New York stands in fifth place this fall, the Cosmos are sit in third place in the overall 2014 standings.
Unhappy with failing to get the win, New York took some positives from earning a tie while playing short-handed against what is still considered NASL’s best team for the time being.
“I think everybody’s disappointed with a tie,” Stokkelien said. “It says a lot about the game. I think if we have this [kind of] effort with 11 men, the next matches, I think nobody can beat us. Playing  minutes with one man down is tough, but we controlled the game and created a lot of chances, so we showed character.”
His coach agreed.
“We played a great match, we created a lot of chances,” Savarese said. “We were unlucky on some of them. On others, we could have been a little more clinical. But I think the effort… was outstanding tonight. The only thing that I’m disappointed [with] is that it doesn’t show [in a win], because I think they deserve it tonight, the three points.”
The next chance for the Cosmos to earn that will be next Saturday, at the first-year Indy Eleven.