HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Not since the last time Pele was introduced to New York Cosmos fans for a home opener did a crowd like the one that showed up on Saturday night at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium flock to see the best soccer player of all-time while cheering on his former team.
Back then, Pele’s presence drew a sellout crowd of just under 12,000 fans to help kick off New York’s return to the North American Soccer League in 2013 following the club’s 29-year hiatus.
This time, Pele’s pre-game appearance, along with that of several of his ex-teammates, occurred in front of 12,550 fans, the most yet for a Cosmos home match in the franchise’s modern era.
New York (2-0-1) didn’t disappoint any of them in its 2015 home opener, as a trio of midfielders, along with a literal helping hand from a fourth, helped the Cosmos take sole possession of first place in the short, 10-game NASL Spring season with a 2-0 blanking of the Tampa Bay Rowdies (1-1-1), who suffered their first defeat of the year to fall into a three-way tie for fourth place.
“It was definitely one of the greatest days of the new era,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “We had a lot of energy. It wasn’t only about the amount of people but it was the energy inside the place. I think the team’s performance as well, helped to be able to have everybody… into the game. So definitely, it was a great night, to see so many fans… and it was a very good night for us.”
Walter Restrepo set up both goals, which were scored on an 11th-miunte penalty kick given to Marcos Senna (after an accidental hand ball in the box by Darnell King) and a deftly touched ball in the 48th minute from nine yards out by Leo Fernandes (on loan from the MLS’ Philadelphia Union), who leads New York with two goals this spring.
“He’s an excellent player,” Savarese said of Fernandes. “He’s a player that’s developing [and] has great qualities. We just have to continue helping him to reach even a bigger point because there’s room still, for improvement. I think he has so much talent and he’s showing it every single game. He plays with fun and he’s eager to learn and to become better. We’re glad that he’s with us and there’s no surprise that he’s doing very well.”
Savarese also praised Restrepo, who played very well in the NASL over the past four years for Fort Lauderdale and San Antonio before signing with New York in January.
“He had three great games [and] has been fundamental in the goals that’s we have scored,” Savarese said. “We knew what we were bringing in and he has been very good for us. He had a very good, strong performance tonight.”
Before that happened, midfielder Juan Guerra had an early chance to put Tampa Bay up, but his blast from just outside the top of the box was a bit too high in the fourth minute.
But seven minutes later, Restrepo played a beautifully arched pass from the right wing for forward Mads Stokkelien, who leaped in the air for a header attempt with King jumping with him, trying to break up the play. Some bad fortune for the Rowdies came into play as the ball found King’s raised arm at the six-yard box.
Going low and just slightly to the left, Senna (who had a game-high three shots) put the ball just past sliding goalkeeper Kamil Cantofalsky (three saves) for the game’s first goal.
Cantofalsky rebounded to make a nice stop on the Cosmos’ next attempt, a close-range shot from defenseman Ayoze, five minutes later.
Tampa Bay nearly gave New York a second huge gift when a 34th-minute chip by Senna from deep along the right wing was headed by defenseman and team captain Tamika Mkandawire toward his own goal. But Cantofalsky alertly leaped to deflect the ball just over the crossbar.
Cantofalsky came up big again, five minutes after that, when he stopped midfielder Danny Szetela’s dangerous try from inside the box.
The Rowdies’ best player of the evening, midfielder Robert Hernandez, nearly put his team on the board in a couple of instances within the next few minutes, but came up short each time.
Goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer (to saves) came out to deny Hernandez’s close shot from the left side of the box in the 39th minute before Hernandez came even closer to a goal four minutes later, when he skillfully stopped his dribble against defenseman and captain Carlos Mendes, only to rolled a shot from the right six-yard box past Maurer and barely wide of the far post.
Early in the second half, Senna passed ahead along the right wing to Restrepo, who immediately made a perfect centering pass for Fernandes. Screened by two of his own defenders, Cantofalsky couldn’t get to a right-footed shot that was bounced past him by Fernandes. Cantofalsky shook his fists and yelled at his defenseman in frustration as the Cosmos celebrated Fernandes’ goal.
Trying to extend the lead further, defensemen Hunter Gorskie missed low and just to the right in the 55th minute, and all alone in the box after some nice passing, Stokkelien rolled a weak attempt right at Cantofalsky six minutes later.
Failing to threaten much in the second half, the Rowdies were limited to only two good scoring chances after halftime, when forward Georgi Hristov’s shot off of a loose ball in the box was way too high in the 59th minute, and second-half entry, midfielder Martin Nunez, was turned aside by Maurer on a dangerous shot from nearby in the 82nd minute.
The match marked the Cosmos home debut for longtime, legendary Real Madrid goal scorer Raul, who overseas, was used to playing matches at a higher level of play, before much larger crowds.
However, that didn’t prevent Raul from keeping things in their proper perspective for his first NASL match in New York, after he played significant minutes and scored a goal to open the current season in two road games.
“Once the game begins, it doesn’t matter if it’s 10, 20 or 80 thousand [fans], the objective is still to win the match,” the 37-year-old Raul said, while adding that despite playing elsewhere for so long, where he had made a name for himself, it was “still wonderful” to experience first home game with Cosmos, even if he’s still getting used to playing on some of the NASL’s turf fields like that at Hofstra.
And despite the much smaller crowd than he’s been used to over his standout career, Raul added, “It’s amazing to see a lot of kids and families to come to see the game. I think… we have a good potential for young kids to improve and… develop soccer here in New York.”
Although the Cosmos reached the playoffs last season, they got off to slow starts in the Spring (2-2) and Fall campaigns (1-2-1). But over a much better beginning to the current season, New York has seemed to rectify what hampered them last year.
“Coming in third [place last fall] is not a bad thing,” Savarese said. “But for the New York Cosmos, it’s something that we wanted to improve. We learned from last year, many things, and we’re working even harder right now to make sure that we corrected some things. So far, it’s been working.”
The biggest difference? Better conditioning, compared to last year, Savarese said. “The team looks very fit and strong… [much better] in fitness and strength this year.”
Looking to stay unbeaten and on top of the Spring standings, New York will travel next week to face the Atlanta Silverbacks, who are tied with the Indy Eleven for second place, at Atlanta Silverbacks Park, where the Cosmos defeated the Silverbacks in the 2013 Soccer Bowl, to earn their only league title in their modern era thus far, and their sixth overall.
Photo at top: nycosmos.com
Photo of Pele and Shep Messing: Jon Wagner