HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — New York Cosmos captain Carlos Mendes, who was born and raised within minutes of his team’s Long Island home by Portuguese parents, was honored with his own bobblehead while a strong contingent of Croatian fans came to see their countryman, Niko Kranjcar, continue to play well for the home squad.
Yes, everything was all set for a season-high 6,243 fans to enjoy Portuguese and Croatian night at James M. Shuart Stadium on Sunday evening.
However, things turned unexpectedly sour Kranjcar left with a groin injury in the fifth minute, and a dozen minutes later, a breakdown by the defense led by Mendes, allowed the visiting, seventh-place Tampa Bay Rowdies (2-2-3) to take a 1-0 lead.
To make matters worse, New York (5-0-3), which has been almost unbeatable (32-1-8) when scoring first in its modern era under head coach Giovanni Savarese (including 3-0 this season), entered the night just 7-14-9 (including 0-2-0 in 2016) when conceding a goal first over that span.
But the Cosmos are the defending North American Soccer League champions for a reason, and are used to finding alternative ways of wining when they have to.
Thus, true to form, New York’s leading goal scorer (with three goal this spring) — midfielder Juan Arango — turned facilitator with a couple of nice first-half assists, first to Kranjcar’s replacement, fellow midfielder Ruben Bover (who was playing in his first match in six weeks), and later, to forward Yasmani Duk, to lift the Cosmos from fifth place to the top of a muddled Spring Season NASL table, with just three weeks left to decide the first playoff spot of the year.
Arango’s two assists doubled the output he had in that category over his seven prior games this season while Bover and Duk each scored for the first time in 2016.
After getting outshot, 6-3, in the opening half, Tampa Bay had the better of the play after halftime while talking two of the game’s three second-half shots. The Rowdies were perhaps inches away from tying the game late, when former Cosmo Danny Mwanga (who entered for an injured Heinemann) appeared to have tied the match with a header in the 83rd minute, but was questionably flagged for being offside.
Unable to break though despite some early pressure of its own, New York allowed a flurry of six corner kicks between the fifth and eighth minutes go to waste just after Duk’s hard shot from the right side of the box was deflected just outside the near post in the fifth minute.
That proved costly when the Rowdies countered a Cosmos attack with a long pass ahead, before midfielder Kalif Alhassan eventually placed a nice lead pass in the box to forward Tom Heinemann, who took advantage of a goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer (as he’s often prone to do) coming out too far from the net, for an easy goal in the 17th minute.
“It was a tough one,” Maurer said. “We got caught very flat at midfield and it was just one where I tried to do too much. I was trying to help the team and I was trying to play very high. I was trying to cheat and pick “Alhassan’s] pass off but he played it right to [Heinemann’s] feet… I just couldn’t get fully set… and I made it an easy finish for Heinneman.”
Only 15 minutes later, though, New York connected on three straight crisp passes, ending with Arango setting up Duk for his first NASL goal, to even the score.
“I found myself right in front of the goalkeeper and Yasmani did not have the goalkeeper in front of him,” Arango explained. “I figured the best thing for the team is to score goals, and [Duk’s] in a better position to score, so I’m going to pass the ball, and that’s exactly what I did.”
Duk added of the play, “It was definitely a team effort. It all started on the right-hand side of the field. I gave Juan a little credit because he was going towards the goal and he saw me, and he knew that I was going to wait… and I found myself in a very good position to score. These are things that [we] practice throughout the week and [we] hope that at some point, [we’re] going to be able to use them in the game.”
A mere eight minutes after Duk’s goal, Arango played a nice ball into the left side of the box, where a sliding Bover, in stride, kicked the ball in mid-air, and passed goalkeeper Matt Pickens, for the game-winner.
“I had it in my head [that Arango would] put it on goal, and it happened that it was a great finish,” Bover said proudly. “I made the move and he saw me and he gave me the perfect ball… it was a beautiful goal.
“I was [out for] a month and a half, and this was my first game back. I’ve only been one week training [and] fully fit. Gio gave me the opportunity and it ended up to be a great game for me, personally.”
Complementing Arango on his unselfish play in putting his teammates in position to score, Savarese said. “Two fantastic goals. The important thing is… those goals gave us the three points.”
Discussing Arango’s play further, Savarese added, “It was fantastic. I think he’s a smart player. He’s a player that knows that the game is more important than anything else, and to get a win at a key moment is crucial. He played excellent ball… Arango showed today that his quality has evolved. That second goal that he put in for Bover was fantastic — right timing, perfect execution and great finish.”
Of course, that goal very nearly didn’t hold up when midfielder Joe Cole sent a perfect crossing pass deep into the box, where Mwanga headed past Maurer for an apparent tie game. Television replays showed Mwanga to either be onside or if offside at all, by the slimmest of margins.
“From what I saw, I wouldn’t be able to tell you if he was offside or if he wasn’t,” Savarese said. “I only saw our line pushing up right away, which was very good at the moment, but I’ll have to review it [to see what happened].”
Maurer added, “I haven’t seen the video or anything. I heard it was pretty close. It could have gone either way, I guess… you try to get the line up just for that purpose, to catch them offsides… if nothing else, we made it close enough where the referee had to make a decision and luckily, it went our way.
“Stuff like that evens out over the course of a season. We’ve had games where we felt like we didn’t get any calls. Big calls go against us. Over a season, that stuff typically goes both ways.”
There was one other close call in the final minute, during stoppage time, as Maurer was out of position on a ball that appeared to be going right across the front of the net, before defender Hunter Freeman safely headed it away at the goal line.
”I’m pretty sure it was going wide, but again, one I’d like to do much better on,” Maurer said.
There was a good reason Maurer wasn’t in the spot he needed to be, however.
“I got held as I tried to backpedal to that back post,” he said. “But that stuff happens… that’s why we’ve got defenders in there too. It was going wide, but Freeman was there [anyway].”
Had the match ended in a draw, the Cosmos would have found themselves in a four-way tie for second-place, one point out of first-place. With the win, New York (15 points) sits one point ahead of FC Edmonton. Those two teams, and Carolina, each have two games to play as the Cosmos seek to repeat as both Spring Season and eventual overall champions in November, after the Fall Season and playoffs. Minnesota and Indy (each tied with Carolina, one point behind Edmonton) each have three games remaining this spring.
Arango said, “This is a very important victory for us, getting those three points, but it’ll be even more important for us to get six more points in the next couple of games because some teams… have an extra game.”
Bover added, “We are [at] the top of the table… and we’ll see what happens… we just have to win these [next] two games that are left and put the pressure on the other teams.
“So what we can do on our part is try to win those games, and try to add as many points as we can, so when we get to our bye week, which is going to be the last one, we’ll have enough of an advantage to make it to the [playoffs].”
Reflecting on standings, Savarese said, “I always say that the NASL is a very competitive league, but I think… in 2016… it’s more so than it has ever been. The Spring Season has so many teams fighting for the first position, that it’s very interesting.”
Midfielder Danny Szetela, a previous regular for New York, who played a full 90 minutes for the first time this season, added, “That’s the crazy thing about this league, is in one weekend, things can shift very quickly.”
Looking forward, Savarese is concerned about Kranjcar’s status, but was proud of the way his club pulled together in his absence.
“It looks like it’s a little bit more serious than we expected,” Savarese said. “But we have to see. It has to do with the groin. We just have to see how severe [it is], if it’s a pull, if it’s a tear, [or] exactly what happened with the groin.
“We’re going to have to keep on winning, game by game, and when we finish the Spring Season, add up all the points, and hopefully we are on top. But at the moment, we are very content about this victory because I think it was a sacrifice, well-battled win… and it was important to get a win like this today.”
Maurer concurred, “It’s huge. I didn’t do well on their goal… but the response from the guys [was great]. Obviously, the points are what matters, but it’s also big for us to be able to respond and have a game in a game where we come back from being down and share that desire that Gio always talks about wanting to see.”
Now that New York is back on top, staying there for the stretch run will be a challenge, as not only do the Cosmos have several teams right on their heels and their usual weekly NASL matches the next two Saturdays, but a friendly with SD Eibar in Nevada this coming Wednesday, and their first U.S. Open Cup match the following Wednesday.
Yet ever the optimist, Savarese said, “We cannot change it. It is what it is, we have to manage it and hopefully it’s going to give us dividends.”