HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The New York Cosmos wouldn’t let a 2-0 halftime lead get away this time.
One week after being in that situation — only to finish with a tie in Indianapolis — the Cosmos’ improved focus yielded a 2-0 victory over the visiting Fort Lauderdale Strikers (3-4-3, Fall Season) at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Saturday night.
Spanning a stretch of five matches at Hofstra, New York (3-3-4) secured its first home victory in 90 days, dating back to a 1-0 win over Ottawa in the Cosmos’ Spring Season finale on June 8.
Some new blood and a better attempt from one of their best players also helped the Cosmos do something else they hadn’t accomplished at home during the Fall Season — score in the first half.
Forward Danny Mwanga, playing in his second North American Soccer League game and making his Cosmos home debut while on loan from the Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids, earned the Man of the Match and got New York on the scoreboard with a goal in the 17th minute.
Thirteen minutes later, veteran midfielder Marcos Senna, who shockingly missed a penalty kick at the opposite end of the same field exactly one month earlier, in a 0-0 home draw with Edmonton, easily curled a shot from the penalty spot into lower left corner of the net to provide the game’s other goal.
Having a rough night, Fort Lauderdale defender Rafael Alves factored heavily in each score. His hand ball in the box provided Senna’s opportunity after Mwanga’s goal deflected off of Alves before crossing the goal line.
Captain Carlos Mendes headed a crossing pass from fellow defender Hunter Freeman, to Mwanga, who from eight yards away, one-timed a left-footed shot which glanced off of Alves and just over the goal line, before goalkeeper Kamil Contofalsky batted the ball out of the cage. After some conferring from the referees, Mwanga was awarded with his first NASL goal.
“It was a great team effort,” Mwanga said of the score. “I think the goalie kind of struggle to see it. [He saw it] late. I was very fortunate that he didn’t touch it, so it went in.”
On playing at Hofstra for the first time, Mwanga added, “It’s my second [NASL] game, my first at home in front of [our] fans. It’s always good to get the first one out of the way. Now I’ve got to build on that.”
Mwanga also noted that he doesn’t see much of a drop-off in the perceived lower-level of play in the NASL compared to that in the MLS. “It’s not that different,” he said. “You have a lot of players that played [in both leagues]. It’s very physical [in the NASL], it’s a very fast-paced league. [There’s] not that much of a difference between this league and MLS.”
Unlike several other instances in which the Cosmos dominated play but ended with a draw or defeat, New York was rewarded for controlling a first half in which it had the ball 53 percent of the time and held shot advantages of 6-1 on net and 10-2 overall.
Some of those chances nearly gave New York an even bigger lead by halftime.
Mendes had a great opportunity in the 11th minute off of a Freeman free kick, but he rolled a weak shot right at Contofalsky from six yards out.
In the 24th minute, a close-range shot from forward Mads Stokkelien (game-high five shots) was denied on a falling, left-handed save by Contofalsky.
Mwanga also nearly beat the whistle to end the first half, when his header in stoppage time off of a crossing pass in the box was stopped as Contofalsky dove to his left.
Things evened out during the second half, when each team took six shots and the Strikers had a 3-1 edge in shots on goal.
Two of those Fort Lauderdale tries came late, when a hard shot following a nice run up the right side by forward Darnell King was turned aside by goalkeeper Jimmy Mauer (four saves) in the 71st minute, before a leaping Maurer tipped a header by defender Stefan Antonijevic, off of a free kick, nineteen minutes later.
Other than that, Mauer wasn’t really tested, even though New York wasn’t able to attack after intermission as much as in the first half.
“I asked the players to manage the game, to understand that we needed to be smart and make sure that we [didn’t] leave spaces open,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said, while reminding his team at halftime what happened a week earlier. “[We started] the second half like it was 0-0, so we knew we had to put in the same effort that we had in the first half, and we got rewarded… we were able to manage the game much better this time than last game.”
Mwanga added, “We learned from [the Indy] game. We got two goals in the first half and we were able to manage the… rest of the game.”
Freeman said that the result in Indy helped New York against Fort Lauderdale.
“That [Indy] game stuck with us all week, so it was good to get that taste out of our mouths,” he said. “It was, I guess you could say a little bit of a fragile time depending on how we were gonna react. And tonight, we wanted to get back to our old ways, especially at home.”
That’s a place where the Cosmos were 8-1-3 over the previous two seasons before starting 0-2-2 at Hofstra this Fall.
“It’s important for us to finally get over that hump a little bit,” Freeman added. “It started with the good fight when we played Minnesota here (during a 1-1 draw on August 23) and then in Indy, we did well, but we let our foot off the gas at the end and got punished for it.”
But finally getting early goals on its home pitch clearly changed everything for New York.
“When you score [early], it makes the game so much easier. You can kind of maintain the game, and be smart and not take as many risks,” Freeman said. “We didn’t play that great in the second half but we had a good effort, were smart and limited them to not very many chances.”
That said, Freeman also kept things in perspective before thinking that the Cosmos have reestablished their home dominance.
“It’s one game, so we can’t get carried away,” he said. “It’s not like we won 7-0… we still have to stay grounded and know that we have to be better.”
While Savarese agreed, he acknowledged what the victory meant as his team began the second half of the Fall Season, remaining in good playoff position, while pushing the Strikers barely outside the ranks of teams that would qualify for the postseason.
“We knew the importance of this game,” Savarese said. “The Strikers are a direct competitor [of ours] to qualify for the playoffs.”
With 32 points, the Cosmos (9-5-5) sit in third place in the combined 2014 Spring and Fall table, while Fort Lauderdale (7-8-4, 25 points) dropped to fifth place, one point behind Tampa Bay, for fourth place. The top four teams over the spring and fall will meet in The Championship following the Fall Season.
Looking to continue their home success, and their mastery over the Atlanta Silverbacks, the Cosmos who won last year’s Soccer Bowl in Atlanta, will try to beat the Silverbacks for third straight time since that match, when they host Atlanta next Saturday, September 13.