HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Last year, the New York Cosmos had to hang on down the stretch of the North American Soccer League Fall Season to secure a wild-card playoff berth.
This year, they’ll navigate through the entire Fall Season knowing they’ll already be a part of the playoffs as a season champion, after holding off the hard-charging Tampa Bay Rowdies, to clinch a Spring Season title and no worse than a two seed in the 2015 NASL playoffs.
Facing deficits of three points and six goals, Tampa Bay nearly did its part with a 3-0 home win over Atlanta.
But the Cosmos (5-0-5) made sure the Rowdies wouldn’t catch them, jumping out to a 2-0 halftime lead before settling for a 3-3 tie with the Jacksonville Armada (3-4-3) before 7,353 energized fans at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Saturday night.
New York (20 points), which held the second tiebreaker of scoring more goals (18-15) during the spring than Tampa Bay, and the next tiebreaker of beating the Rowdies (2-0, on April 18) in the teams’ lone head-to-head meeting during the season, finished the spring one point ahead of Tampa Bay anyway.
An own goal off the foot of star forward Raul and a score from midfielder Hagop Chrishian staked New York to a seemingly comfortable, early lead before midfielder Pascal Millien singlehandedly tied the match with a pair of second-half goals 14 minutes apart.
Forward Lucky Mkosana briefly put the Cosmos back on top 13 minutes later, but a game-tying score from defender Joseph Toby evened the game for a final time in the 89th minute.
Shortly thereafter, goalkeeper Jimmy Mauer (three saves) made a terrific stop in extra time to keep New York unbeaten.
Winning the Spring Season title added to the Cosmos’ growing legacy as the NASL’s best team ever. Following their dominant run that yielded five NASL championships during the 1970s and 1980s, they returned from a 29-year hiatus with a 2013 Fall Season title and a sixth league championship in 2013.
Reaching the playoffs, but failing to take home any hardware last year, New York is pleased to be back on top for now.
“It’s the first [main] accomplishment of the guys this year,” head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “I’m very proud of the work they put [into] every match, the mentality, the way they have gone about, just every match, giving their all.
“They had an unbelievable first half [tonight]. Unfortunately, the second half, we made a few mistakes, guys got a little bit tired and then the game became a little bit complicated for us. But I’m very proud of the work the guys have done and I’m very proud that we have accomplished [our] first [main] goal [for the year].”
Adding that this year’s Cosmos are “deeper in talent” than the past teams he coached since New York’s reboot in 2013, Savarese reflected on each season or league title he has guided.
“I think each one is special in a different way,” he said. “You want to continue achieving goals and winning things because that’s what shows that the team is doing well. And this one has a very good feeling because the guys have worked very hard from the preseason in order to get here. It [wasn’t] easy to win the championship… every game [was] a battle during the season, but I’m very proud for the guys to be able to accomplish the first task.”
Allowing half as many goals in the second half as they had all spring, the Cosmos needed to get their offense going, and they did at the outset, as midfielder Danny Szetela shook a defender with some nice footwork in the right corner, before sending a perfect crossing pass to fellow midfielder Sebastian Guenzatti, whose shot from eight yards away was right at goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo (three saves) in the fifth minute.
A minute later, Raul opened the scoring when he chested a Jacksonville header and immediately chipped a ball from 30 yards out that hit the crossbar, bounced downward, off Gallardo’s left leg, and into the net.
Continuing to apply pressure for New York in the 11th minute, Chirishian nicely snaked through a couple of defenders on the left wing and left the ball for midfielder Adam Moffat, who sent a crossing pass from the left side that barely eluded Guenzatti, who slid in front of the net in an effort to double Cosmos’ lead.
Mkosana nearly got his first goal of the night five minutes later, when he controlled the ball in the box off of a free kick, turned and fired a hard shot that sailed just over the crossbar.
Two minutes after that, defender Matt Bahner gave Mauer his first test, but Mauer deftly dove to his right to save a fast, rolling shot.
Trying to take advantage of Mauer coming out too far, midfielder Bochy Hoyos lobbed a ball over Maurer in the 24th minute, but it was just wide of the upper right corner of the goal.
Having survived those Armada chances, New York doubled its advantage when a lead pass from Szetela allowed Chirishian to get behind the Jacksonville defense, where Chirishian smartly passed the ball to himself, around Gallardo, with his left leg, before placing a right-footed shot into an empty net in the 26th minute for his first NASL goal.
“We [were] practicing that throughout the week,” Chirishian noted. “It was a great ball by Danny. I anticipated it, and I got a good touch in and I just ended up finishing it.”
Redeeming himself for drawing a yellow card during first-half stoppage time, former Cosmo forward Jemal Johnson set Millien up on a perfect give-and-go in the box that ended with Millien squirting the ball through Mauer’s legs to slice the Cosmos’ lead in half in the 59th minute.
Millien then took advantage of a sloppy New York turnover fourteen minutes later to notch his second goal, after Mauer hand-rolled a pass that Szetela couldn’t control outside the box. Millien quickly dribbled the loose ball into the box and beat Mauer with a left-footed shot inside the left post to tie the contest.
After defenseman Ayoze blasted an attempt from right side of the box, just over the crossbar, in the 77th minute, Mkosana regained the lead for the Cosmos nine minutes later, as he used the bottom of his right foot to deflect a pass from the left wing, by forward David Diosa, past Gallardo.
However, that lead only lasted for three minutes, before defenseman Joseph Toby redirected a corner kick from the right side into the upper right corner of the net, lodging the ball between the back of the net and back post, to make knot the score for a final time.
Midfielder and team captain Jaime Castrillon nearly won the game for Jacksonville, but his right-footed touch from seven yards away was denied on a brilliant, diving stop to Maurer’s right.
Mkosana, who ironically came to New York from Tampa Bay in the offseason, was overjoyed to win a season title with the Cosmos.
“It means everything,” he said. “[Being in] Tampa, was a tough season. I feel like [in New York], I fit so well with the team… and I’m really happy to be part of this organization.
“It’s not just individuals. It comes down to everybody, the coaching staff, the people behind the scenes, the fans; I feel like we owe [the season] to them, so thanks to them.”
Although he had helped lead the Cosmos to other titles, including their league championship in 2013, the evening was even more poignant for team captain and defender Carlos Mendes, who as the club’s first signee in 2013, took turns holding the 2015 Spring Season trophy and his newborn daughter on a field near his native town of Mineola, N.Y., six weeks after scoring two rare goals a few days after his daughter was born.
“To be the first player signed, I’m honored,” he said. “To watch everything grow, from being the first player, to see where we are now, and the players we brought in, it’s really special for me to be a part of it.”
Adding to that feeling was the pride in being able to win the season title at home, in front of boisterous supporters like The Five Points, Cross Island Crew and La Banda Del Cosmos, some of whom after the final whistle, stormed the field much like the more common groups of college basketball student sections that overtake a basketball floor to celebrate a championship or a big upset win.
“To win it in front of [our] fans, and it was a great crowd, it’s special,” said a smiling Mendes. “I think we have some of the best fans in the league. The support matters and obviously, we do well at home. So, for us, to win a championship here, it’s special. And we want to thank the fans, of course, because without them, this wouldn’t be possible. Hopefully, there’s more to come.”
On trying to take the next step in securing the top overall seed, and ultimately hosting the 2015 Soccer Bowl on the same field, Mendes added, “We want to play as many games as possible at home. That’s kind of what drives us… and we’ll be looking to do that in the fall.”
Echoing those sentiments, Chirishian added, “It’s huge. Our fans are like our 12th man on the field. They’ve been very supportive and that’s why we thanked them at the end of the game… and hopefully with them, [in the Fall Season], we’ll win everything.”
To do that will take further hard work, something that the Cosmos feel they’ve already demonstrated by the commitment it took to complete the Spring Season without a loss.
“Not to lose one game this season is huge for the whole team,” he said. “That just shows how much we work.”
Savarese added, “When you’re able to win a championship, it’s great. But when you do it in a fashion that you are undefeated, it has special meaning. It’s all because of the effort of the players…. but we’ve got to just keep on working.”
It’s that type of sound work ethic, even as champions, which Savarese has instilled in his team, that makes New York a good bet to not only capture another NASL crown in the fall, but to win its next derby against a local Major League Soccer club, in a U.S. Open Cup showdown against NYCFC, on Wednesday night, at Hofstra, one year after the Cosmos defeated the New York Red Bulls in the same tournament last June.
“Every game matters for us,” Savarese said. “Even if it’s a friendly match, a championship, a U.S. Open Cup, every match is important for us and we have to respect every game that we [play]… we’re going to enter the Fall Season very hungry, with the desire to try to win it, and try to make sure that we do the best that we can… of course, it gives you the chance to maybe allow some [other] players to get some minutes, and that’s a good thing. We saw, for example, [tonight], we had a few (minor) injuries, and guys like Hagop [started or] entered the game, and they did very well.”
That approach of taking every match — like New York’s easy 4-1 friendly match road victory over the Cuban national team on June 2, in the midst of the Cosmos’ Spring Season title chase — seriously is certainly not lost on Savarese’s players, even if some of the pressure is taken off of them for the Fall Season, knowing that no matter what happens then, New York will be hosting at least one playoff game in early November.
“We’re not going to let go of the gas,” Chirishian said. “We’re still going to go out [to keep] winning, but as long as we know we made the playoffs… we’re going to try to win every game we can.”
What keeps New York continually competing for NASL titles was embodied in the reaction that even while celebrating, the Cosmos were already recognizing that their title-clinching night against Jacksonville wasn’t perfect, and they could play even better.
“Even though we have the great satisfaction of winning the championship, we’re still looking at [the win over the Armada] as a game that we have to improve in some areas,” Savarese said.
As Savarese has taught, Mendes only briefly allowed himself to look at the larger picture in an historical sense before going right back to focusing on the more immediate task at hand.
“Obviously, tomorrow, we’ll start thinking about [NYCFC], but we’re definitely enjoying this now,” he said.
“It puts us in a good position for the Fall and even for the Open Cup. I think anytime you win a championship, it’s confidence for the team. They fans enjoy it, they deserve it and that’s a big part of it. So, obviously, any time you can bring some championships to the club that’ll stay in history, that’s big.
“We’re in good position now for the Fall Season, but we [still] have work to do. The team wants to keep improving. We were disappointed with the second half a little bit [tonight], but it was good enough for us to win the championship. We’ll enjoy it [tonight] and tomorrow, we’ll get back to work.”
Although NYCFC is struggling with the second-fewest wins while being tied for the fewest points in its inaugural MLS campaign, Savarese ensures that the Cosmos maintain the same healthy respect for all of their opponents in any type of match.
“They’re not doing very well in the MLS right now,” Mendes said of NYCFC. “But they have great players and they can hurt us in a lot of different ways. So for us, it’s [important] to be focused for 90 minutes and to be consistent. Tonight we weren’t consistent enough… and we’ll look to improve that. We’re looking forward to [playing NYCFC] and the atmosphere should be great.”
Missing out on the win against the Red Bulls while he was still with the Rowdies last year, Mkosana said “I wasn’t part of that, but I want to make it special on Wednesday.”
So does Chrishian, who joked about NYCFC star David Villa.
“I’ve always been a fan of David Villa,” he said. “But not on Wednesday.”
Consistent with what he has said about all U.S. Open Cup games the Cosmos have participated in, since they joined the tournament for the first time last year, Savarese said, “They are what you need… in order to be able to allow the sport to grow… for us, this game is going to be huge.”
And so will another Soccer Bowl, especially if New York can lift another trophy at Hofstra in November.
Photo at top courtesy of nycosmos.com
All other photos by Jon Wagner, New York Sports Day