HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Down a man for the final 42 minutes (including stoppage time), the Jacksonville Armada was doing all it could to remain locked in a scoreless tie with the New York Cosmos.
But 22 minutes after last-place Jacksonville (3-7-2 Fall Season; 6-11-5 overall) was reduced to 10 men in the 52nd minute, Spanish legend Raul typified the Cosmos’ composure by patiently waiting for an opening before firing a close-range shot for the only goal in New York’s 1-0 victory before 5,089 fans on a rain-soaked field at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Saturday night.
Raul’s game-winner gave the Cosmos (6-2-4 Fall; 11-2-9 overall) their first win in three tries over the expansion Armada, which beat New York at home, 1-0, on July 18, after the Cosmos clinched the Spring Season title and no worse than the second seed in the 2015 NASL playoffs with a 3-3 home draw against Jacksonville in the Spring Season finale.
New York (22 points for the Fall; 42 points overall) moved into sole possession of second place in the Fall Season standings, just three points behind the first-place Ottawa Fury, while doubling its lead (to six points) in the overall 2015 standings over Ottawa.
Dating back to last year, the Cosmos extended their unbeaten streak to 17 straight games (11-0-6) on their home turf, where they are 8-0-2 in 2015.
That 8-0-2 mark matches New York’s record when tallying the first goal in 2015, as the Cosmos extended their undefeated streak to 33 consecutive matches (25-0-8) under head coach Giovanni Saverese when scoring first, since the club’s return to the North American Soccer League in 2013, following a 29-year, post-hey day hiatus.
“It’s always better when you score first because [then] you can work with what you have,” Savarese said.
The trick, he added, is “Not to think about it, just to make sure that we keep on working and working [after] we score… of course, that’s easier when we [score first].”
Jacksonville, meanwhile, stayed winless on the road (0-10-2, with losses in all seven of its Fall Season matches away from home) in its first year of existence.
Shut out for a fourth straight match, the Armada extended its NASL season-long scoreless drought to 409 minutes, a streak which began during a 1-0 home win over Atlanta on Aug. 15.
Although New York had a huge shot advantage (13-3), including all five attempts on goal, while taking all five corners in and possessing the ball 56 percent of the time, it took a good deal of composure to fight through a match-long, steady rain and find a win.
But things became a little easier after defender Lucas Trejo received a red card for kicking forward Lucky Mkosana in the face while challenge a ball up high.
[Tonight] was a very difficult game,” Raul said. “It was very difficult with the rain. The ball was so fast [tonight]. Sometimes, it was very difficult to control.
“We had patience… of course, the red card they had, helped us out a lot.”
Savarese later said, “When [Jacksonville] had 10 players, the game opened up even more. But even [before that], we kind of controlled the game. The beginning was difficult because they gave us a little bit more pressure higher, but I had a feeling that the team had what it needed to get a win.
“We are a team that likes to possess the ball, to keep the ball, to play the ball around… today, the game was different because the ball was very fast [and] bouncy but… the team was able to manage the conditions.”
Despite leading the NASL with 179 shots in 21 NASL matches in 2015 (8.5 per game), it took 22 minutes before midfielder Adam Moffat (who went out with an injury six minutes later) fired the game’s first shot for either side, when his deep shot from down the middle was played easily by Armada goalkeeper David Sierra (four saves).
Nine minutes later, a ball was cleared out to New York midfielder Andres Flores, who blasted the game’s first true attempt far too high.
Just three minutes after that, forward Tyler Williams had Jacksonville’s best chance, but from a only few yards away, he sent a crossing pass that slipped past two defenders over the crossbar.
Shortly thereafter, the Cosmos had a couple of good chances, a minute apart, but midfielder Walter Restrepo and Mkosana each narrowly missed on either side of the net.
Restrepo’s try from 30 yards out went just wide of the left post in the 41st minute before goalkeeper Jimmy Mauer (who didn’t need to make a save on the night) sent a long pass up the left side to Mkosana, who chipped a shot from the left side of the box just outside the far post.
Five minutes later, a leaping header by Mkosana off of a right-side cross bounced right to Sierra.
Midfielder Marcos Senna tried a hard, right-footed shot from above the arc in the 71st minute, but Sierra jumped to make a terrific one-handed deflection.
However, three minutes later, Restrepo lobbed a nice bicycle kick pass in the box from the right side, where Raul thought twice about one-timing an attempt and instead used each foot to wait for an opening before firing the winning shot.
“We saw how calm he was dribbling [around] people, how focused he was to be able to put the ball in the back of the net,” Savarese said of the 38-year-old Raul, who after starring for two decades overseas (starting with 16 years for Real Madrid) is New York’s second-leading goal scorer (with six tallies) in 2015.
Noting what the forward’s influence has meant to his team during Raul’s first year as a Cosmo, Savarese said, “I think he’s grown every game and [tonight] was a good match not only for him but for the entire team.
“Raul has brought a lot more than just what he showed [tonight] with the goal. He’s been a hundred percent into the club since he arrived. He’s been working very hard [at] motivating players like (fellow longtime veteran, Spanish star) Marcos [Senna] and they’re true professionals. They push everybody to be better.”
Although Raul has a well-renowned international reputation, his focus is team-first.
“It was a nice goal but the most important [thing] was the victory for the team,” Raul said. “The three points [were] very important.”
Crediting Restrepo, he added, “The assist was very amazing… I tried to find the space to shoot and to score the goal. I’m very happy for me but I’m more happy for the team.”
Seeking to add to their lead, the Cosmos nearly did on a few occasions down the stretch.
Restrepo made a nice move to lose a defender in the right side of the box but rolled a shot just wide of the near post three minutes after Raul’s goal.
Midfielder Ruben Bover squirted a dangerous ball through the box from the left side with a pair of teammates in the box, but neither could reach the pass in the 88th minute.
Forward Gaston Cellerino, who entered in the 72nd minute, had a great opportunity in the 91st minute, but he couldn’t beat Sierra, who came out to the top of the box to make a brilliant stop.
“When he came in, he gave us a lot,” Savarese said of the newcomer, Cellerino. “He was able to hold the ball and make good runs… and he created two chances. The last one was an unbelievable save by the goalkeeper. I think [Cellerino] made the right choice to try to scoop it but the goalkeeper was quick to react… he’s making progress and he showed some good qualities [tonight].”
Of course, Cellerino’s chances weren’t needed, with Jacksonville hardly mounting much of an offensive attack, along with the Cosmos’ offensive persistence leading to Raul coming through late.
“I felt that we were going to find a way to win the game,” Savarese said. “The important thing was for us to be calm, to be solid defensively, as we [were]… and the special moment was given by Raul.”
One that was big for New York, prior to an important upcoming stretch with a quick turnaround over the Cosmos’ next two games, as they go back on the road next Saturday, at third-place Minnesota before returning home to host Ottawa three nights later.