HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — It’s often said that to be the best, you have to beat the best. The previously undefeated Carolina Railhawks learned that the hard way on a rainy Sunday evening at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium against the defending North American Soccer League champion New York Cosmos.
Although the Cosmos (3-2-0) were reeling a bit after consecutive road losses, and the Railhawks (4-1-0) came to Long Island with nothing but wins and a league-leading nine goals this spring, New York is still the defending NASL champion. And until a team knocks the champs from their throne, the Cosmos are still the team to beat.
True to that notion, New York stifled Carolina with solid defense, primarily dominant play, sharp goalkeeping from Jimmy Maurer and the Cosmos’ latest newcomer showing yet another immediate, positive impact, as Venezuelan midfielder Yohandry Orozco accounted for the lone goal in his first start for New York with a brilliant score just before halftime, to lift the reigning champions to a 1-0 win over the visiting upstarts.
Losing for the only time in 39 matches when scoring first under head coach Giovanni Savarese two weeks ago in Indianapolis, the Cosmos remained unbeaten (22-0-4) in that scenario in the Savarese era at home, after letting a the game at Indy and another at Minnesota each turn into bitter defeats.
“Maybe losing those games gave us that extra edge, that extra concentration to finish this one out, said Maurer, who wasn’t seriously tested until late, but who made two huge saves to help preserve the victory.
Savarese added, “We have to be smart to close games and the only way to [do that] is by the entire team being together [and] ready… and we did a very good job. [Carolina] sent players forward the last few minutes to try and get the tie.
“We were not coming into this game thinking, ‘We lost two games; we need to win this game.’ We came to win a game like every single weekend… the mentality wasn’t any different. Of course, these types of wins give you more confidence and allows us to be able to continue to grow, and definitely, we’re looking forward to trying to win the Spring Season. I think it’s open… for us, tonight, it was a very important win.”
Reserve defender Jimmy Ockford, who overcame some back soreness earlier in the week to enter the game in the 78th minute, said, “It’s a difficult time to come in. We’re up 1-0 and we need to keep the lead, and they’re sending anything they can forward. I just stayed focused, right from the bat, and just played hard.
“I think we wanted it more. I think as a group, collectively, we were good, we were solid. We stayed organized throughout the match. Everyone worked for each other, everyone gave it their all, so it was good to see.”
Comparing the end for the Cosmos this time to the prior two weeks, Ockford added, “I think we stayed focused, and we knew it happened to us in the past, and we knew we weren’t going to let that happen again.”
Sticking to the game plan also helped.
“The players did what we told them to do [tonight],” Savarese said. “They concentrated, they worked very hard during the week, they applied exactly the things that we (as a coaching staff) asked for… Carolina’s a good team.”
However, Maurer thought it was simply a matter of things going his team’s way this time.
“I’ve said it before… details and the smallest things matter,” he said. “Sometimes just inches and making plays. I don’t think it was anything drastic that we did [differently], we just had that little bit more that allowed us to finish out the game and come home with the three points.”
Prior to the Railhawks’ late push and Maurer’s heroics, New York, which held the ball 51.7 percent of the time, and which outshot Carolina, 18-5, took 14 of the game’s initial 15 shots. At halftime, the Cosmos had an 8-1 shot advantage, while possessing the ball at a rate of 57.8 percent.
Unable to break through until Orozco’s goal, New York was still applying plenty of pressure much earlier.
Midfielder Juan Arango’s left-footed shot from the right side of the box barely missed to the right, off of a pass from
fellow midfielder Sebastián Guenzatti 15 minutes into the match.
Five minutes later, after Guenzatti was set up by a nice lead pass from midfielder Niko Kranjcar, he found himself alone in the box, needing only to softly chip the ball over goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre out, and into an empty net. But he shot directly at Sylvestre for one of the Carolina keeper’s four saves.
Kranjcar narrowly missed a right-footed shot in the 24th minute and in the 53rd, glanced a hard blast from 25 yards out off of the crossbar.
“He had a fantastic match,” Savarese said of Kranjcar. “He was very good on the ball. He created so many opportunities, he just gave us good fluidity of play, he was good defensively… he had a crossbar that would have been a fantastic goal.”
Earlier, Orozco set up Arango, who barely misfired on a shot from outside the box in the 32nd minute, five minutes before the Railhawks finally attempted their first shot, which came two minutes before Maurer made a nice play to come out of the net and stop a potentially dangerous pass before midfielder Austin Da Luz could get a shot away.
Six minutes after that, Orozco worked his magic, controlling an assist from midfielder Gabriel Farfan on the left wing, before snaking his way through the Carolina defense, first to his right, then left, to finish with a shot that glanced off of Sylvestre’s right hand and into the net.
“We know the quality Orozco has,” Savarese said. “We’ve some of his goals in his history. He’s scored those types of goals. He’s excellent on the 1 v. 1 and he was able to strike the ball perfectly to be able to connect and score the goal that was important for us to get the victory.
“He’s growing… we had the chance [tonight] to give him a chance to play from the beginning… and he responded very well… and not only his beautiful goal, but helped us defensively.”
Orozco added, “I’m very honored for the trust Gio Savarese has put in me.
“Since yesterday, I was thinking about scoring today, and I thought about it very, very hard. So apparently, it works out when you think about it a lot, because I ended up scoring tonight.
“I always thought that even if I’m on the bench, I’ll always be ready to contribute to the team whenever the coach decides to put me in the game.”
Taking the lead of some other newcomers, Orozco’s first start followed the lead of Arango, Arrieta and Kranjcar. All four were signed by the Cosmos in January.
Arango tallied two goals in his debut and an assist in his next game, while Arrieta assisted on one of Arango’s goals and scored on Arango’s assist. Kranjcar, meanwhile, scored two weeks ago and assisted the week before.
That trio accounted for two-thirds of New York’s shots against Carolina, with Arango trying five, Arrieta four and Kranjcar three.
Including Orozco in that group as already being ahead of the curve, Savarese said, “When you have intelligent players, they figure it out very quickly. I think the biggest part for them was to get fit, and the fitter they are getting, the better they’re going to become. I think finally [tonight], we looked more like the team that we want to be, with more mobility, with more possession, pressuring them a little bit higher. So now, I think we started to see the real New York Cosmos of 2016.”
As far as his own role in building that type of chemistry, Orozco said, “We have a great relationship, Jairo, Juan and myself. I know them very well, they know me very well, and they know where I’m going to go on the pitch. I know where they’re going to go, and sometimes, even before every match, we kind of decide what plays we’re going to run. So it’s a good relationship overall.”
Trying to pull off a similar feat as Orozco did for his goal, Arrieta made a couple of nice moves to shake defenders but shot just left in the 50th minute.
Arango had a shot blocked in the 54th minute and another saved eight minutes later before the Railhawks mounted a serious threat when forward Brian Shriver was set up well only to be denied from the center of the box on a great stop by Maurer.
That kind of effort was needed twice more from Maurer.
In the 85th minute, he managed to tip a header from midfielder James Marcelin just over the crossbar, shortly before a dangerous pass to speedy midfielder Tiyi Shipalane was likewise thwarted by Maurer, who came out of the box to beat Shipalane to the ball.
“It was a great pass to Shipalane.” Savarese said. “[Maurer] timed it perfectly, but Jimmy read the whole play. That was a key factor in the game…. and we were able to close in a good way.”
Maurer later admitted, “You’re a split-second off, and you look like an idiot and it’ a goal, but fortunately, I was able to read it early and get there in time. Shipalane’s so fast, I was worried for a second.”
Learning from its mistakes of the prior two weeks, New York ensured Carolina wouldn’t challenge again, as the teams reached the halfway point of the short 10-game Spring Season sprint. The Cosmos clinched a playoff berth last year by winning the Spring Season title, en route to the overall top seed, which allowed them to ultimately win the league championship on their home field.
“To be able to close the gap against Carolina was huge for the Spring Season.” Maurer said. “Obviously, if we would have lost the game or even just tied, the Spring Season would’ve been pretty far out of reach, I think.”
To remain in contention, New York, which is 3-0 at home but 0-2 on the road this spring, will have to even its success out with a trip to expansion Miami next week followed by a visit to Edmonton the following week.
But for now, “It was big,” Ockford said of ruining Carolina’s perfect spring. “It definitely boosts our confidence, especially against the No. 1 team in the league. So coming out on top against them, now we’ve got some momentum going forward against Miami.”
Kranjcar added, “Obviously, it’s important. I still believe we played well in all of our games. Obviously, we didn’t finish off teams [in our two losses] when we had the chance. I think [tonight], we were the much better team, there’s no question about it… it’s really important to get the three points and get back on track and prepare ourselves for another two away games and push the next five games, and hopefully get the Spring Season title.”
Although Kranjcar said the Cosmos need to figure out how to score on the road, New York thought that
the only time the Cosmos have been shut out this spring (1-0, at Minnesota last week) was actually seen as a positive in that regard.
“The Minnesota game was the best game we played all year and we ended up losing,” Maurer said. “Sometimes, it’s just the smallest of details, those inches, those milliseconds… tonight we were able to come out on top with the same thing.”
The key, Kranjcar said, is simply to “Score goals, it’s as easy as that. The Minnesota game, in the first 20 minutes, it could’ve been 3-nil for us. I think we’ve dominated possession in every game we’ve played… but I think we have to be happy… when you believe in the stuff you do, and you don’t sway away from the path that you set up in front of you, I think result will come down the line.”
For now, adding an additional threat to the mix in Orozco to what the Cosmos had already developed could as Savarese suggested, make New York look everywhere more like the defending champion that so far this spring it has shown itself to be only on its home turf.