HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Hunter Freeman doesn’t expect to make scoring a habit, but the defender’s second unexpected game-winner in as many games was even more impressive and timely than his previous one.
One game after accidentally notching his first goal of the year (on an admitted pass attempt) in a 2-0 home win on Sunday, Freeman left no doubt of his intentions when he blasted a brilliant 76th-minute, 25-yard strike into the upper right corner of the net to move his New York Cosmos back atop the 2015 overall North American Soccer League standings, after a 2-1 victory over the Minnesota United before 3,607 fans at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Wednesday night.
“As soon as I scored [tonight], I saw all the questions coming already,” Freeman quipped. “As a defender, you take a goal however you can get it. To score two goals in two games, you’ll take that… as a defender, one [goal] is a streak.”
What made the tally even sweeter for Freeman was that it provided redemption for an earlier mistake, when he was involved in the Loons’ only goal.
A dangerous pass by midfielder Ibson for fellow midfielder Daniel Mendes was cleared by defender Samuel Caceres in the 7th minute. But when Freeman lost sight of forward Christian Ramirez on the ensuing corner kick a minute later, Mendes headed the set piece in the middle of the box to allow Ramirez to score in a fifth straight game, with his left foot, by the far post.
However, in an eventful first half that could have easily ended with New York (2-1-2 Fall Season, 7-1-7 overall) ahead by a very high-scoring lead of about 4-3 or 5-3, the Cosmos needed only five minutes to provide a quick answer during their first of several good scoring chances to come.
A defensive breakdown by Minnesota (2-2-2 Fall, 5-4-7 overall) allowed midfielder Andres Flores to ground a nice feed from the left side to midfielder Walter Restrepo, who from the middle of the box, rolled an equalizer past goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt (eight saves) in the 13th minute.
While Hildebrandt couldn’t stop that shot, he came up huge three minutes later, when he leaped and barely tipped a hard drive by Flores from inside top of the box, over the crossbar.
In the 25th minute, Hildebrandt made a near-identical save on a header by defender Carlos Mendes off of one the Cosmos’ 10 corner kicks.
Shortly after those close calls, Daniel Mendes bounced his own try off of the post at the other end, following a nicely designed play that started with a United free kick.
Following Hildebrandt’s lead, counterpart Jimmy Mauer (two saves) came out aggressively to slide and deflect a close shot by Ramirez with both legs in the 36th minute.
Restrepo gave Flores another good opportunity three minutes later, when he curved a nice crossing pass to Flores, who snapped a quick header past Hildebrandt, but barely wide.
In one final close call just before halftime, Hildebrandt got a hand on forward Lucky Mkosana’s first shot of the game, from the right side of the box.
Signaling New York’s second-half dominance (during which the Cosmos held a shot advantage of 8-2, including 6-1 on net) Mkosana came even closer to scoring in the 50th minute, when he extended his right foot to try to redirect a cross from Flores. But once again, Hildebrandt denied him.
Flores blasted another hard shot from inside the top of the box a dozen minutes later, but it was right at Hildebrandt.
Peppering Hildebrandt with further pressure, a Carlos Mendes header (from star forward Raul) was stopped right in front, before Mendes’ immediate rebound with his right foot missed just wide of the right post in the 64th minute.
Forward Leo Fernandes ran down a lead pass and beat Hildebrandt for an apparent go-ahead goal in the 74th minute, but he was whistled for one of New York’s half-dozen offside violations.
Even after Freeman’s score, the Cosmos didn’t let up, as midfielder Danny Szetela, who subbed in for Restrepo in the 81st minute, only a minute later, almost redirected a nice crossing pass from Fernandes for a goal, but his attempt was right at Hildebrandt.
Just three minutes after that, Szetela seriously tested Hildebrandt again, off of another setup by Raul.
Later, with time stoppage winding down in the 95th minute, Raul chased down a pass behind the Minnesota defense. As Hildebrandt came out to challenge him, Raul hipped the ball slightly over an empty net.
Of course, none of those missed chances mattered, thanks to a repeat of Freeman’s unlikely heroics, after the United was unable to clear a ball out of its own end.
“You can stand there a thousand times and the ball doesn’t come,” said Freeman, who was waiting well outside the box. “When the ball came to me, I was thinking of hitting it the first time because I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough time to take a touch… but [then] I was afraid if I hit it the first time, it’d probably end up going over the building (used for post-game interviews), behind the South goal) that we’re standing in.
“So I took a touch and then it kind of bounced up for me, and I just tried to wait as long as I could to let it come down a bit. As soon as I hit it, there was no question that it was a goal… when you hit them like that, you know it’s a goal from the [moment] you hit it.”
New York’s fourth oldest player, at the age of 30, Freeman said, “I guess my years of experience and old age is paying off. I made the right decision.”
Describing Freeman’s goal, head coach Giovanni Savarese said, “[It was] an amazing shot; excellent, a beautiful goal.”
Freeman, though, was satisfied just to get back a score that he blamed himself for allowing.
“It’s a super feeling [because] the first goal was my fault,” Freeman said. “But to win the game and to correct the wrong from earlier in the game makes you feel a lot better.”
While Freeman jested, “I should shoot more often,” he was happy to stand out for doing something he doesn’t often get to do on the opposite side of the field where he established his reputation as a player.
“This is the life of a defender,” he said. “Most of the time, you’re talked about because of the mistake you made. Fortunately for myself tonight, I get a headline, probably, for the other thing.”
On Freeman’s score, Flores said, “We deserved the goal [because] we had a few chances, really clear chances [earlier].”
Bouncing back with two straight home wins in a span of four days, after a disappointing 0-1-2 start to the Fall Season, the Cosmos — who are seeking the No. 1 spot for the 2015 playoffs after clinching a top-two seed with a Spring Season title — leapfrogged Ottawa (27 points) for first place overall, by one point, despite being tied with Minnesota for fourth place in the Fall Season table.
“It was a difficult moment but a moment that we expected could happen,” Savarese said of his team’s slow start to the Fall Season.
Yet he added, “I think the guys had a very good reaction last game and even more so, this game. I thought that [tonight], especially in the second half, we showed a lot of character… I was very content with what we produced in the second half.
“We felt very confident… that we were going to get back into [the match]… I think we completely dominated the second half.”
Echoing those sentiments, Restrepo said, “We feel really confident in establishing opportunities to score, and even though they scored a goal early, we felt very confident that we’d have our chances, and we were able to [take advantage of them].”
Freeman added, “We kind of turned the knob up a little bit in the second half, and that’s what got us the victory.”
Already off to a perfect start two-thirds of the way into a grueling three-game, eight-day stretch, the Cosmos will hit the road on Saturday, trying to end a tough span the same way they started it — by beating the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
Blaming a far more inconsistent earlier schedule for New York’s previous woes in the early fall campaign, Flores said, “For us, it’s good to have three games in [roughly] a week because then we get the rhythm that we [didn’t] have [before].”
Looking down at the rest of the league in the overall standings, the Cosmos seem to once again have hit their stride as well as Freeman hit his game winner.