HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Fighting off feisty Rayo OKC, the New York Cosmos completed a perfect Spring Season home schedule with a 1-0 victory on a 54th-minute goal — the first of the season — by midfielder Danny Szetela at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Saturday night.
But if the Cosmos (6-3-0) are to fight off several other North American Soccer League teams and capture their second straight Spring Season title, they may have to do what they haven’t been able to do very well this Spring: win on the road.
Helping New York (5-0 at home, but 1-3 away from Hofstra) position itself well — with a league-leading 18 points (four ahead of Indy and Edmonton, and five ahead of Minnesota and Carolina) — the Cosmos got some help on the same night, as Indy settled for a disappointing home draw against last-place Jacksonville, Edmonton was shocked at home by 10th-place Miami and sixth-place Tampa Bay surprised Minnesota, all while Carolina was idle.
While the Cosmos and Indy have only one game left before the 2016 campaign resumes with the Fall season in July, Indy, Minnesota and Carolina each have two Spring Season games to go.
However, thanks to a win in New York’s first-ever meeting with expansion, eighth-place Oklahoma City (2-4-2), the Cosmos (who were clad in their road green kits) control their own destiny, and can wrap up no worse than a two seed in the NASL playoffs in November, as Spring Season champions, with a win in at Fort Lauderdale next week.
To set that scenario up, New York first had to hold off a determined OKC club, that despite playing its inaugural season, wasn’t the least bit intimidated playing on the home field of the defending league champions and the NASL’s premier flagship franchise.
With the Cosmos controlling the ball a season-high 74.9 percent of the time, while holding a considerable 22-7 edge in shots (including the first seven of the match and 14-4 in the second half), Oklahoma City became frustrated and often went over the line, in match the featured eight cards, five for OKC, which had three players sent off, including two in the final six minutes.
Of course, to the Cosmos, OKC is no typical expansion team, with several players from the now defunct San Antonio Scorpions, the team that beat New York in NASL semi-finals, en route to its own league championship, in between the Cosmos’ NASL titles in 2013 and last year.
“This is the first time playing them, but there’s a lot of similar crossover from San Antonio,” goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer said. “The head coach, he brought a few of their key players with him. We have kind of a history with them and we’ve had a lot of really heated games [in the past against those players]. So we knew it was going to be physical, we knew it was going to be chippy. Credit to our guy that we were able to play intense but keep our heads at the same time.”
Head coach Giovanni Savarese added, “They kept on battling. They were tough, they physical, but we did a lot of very good things.”
Szetela said, “We were possessing the ball more than I think we’ve done against any other team this season, so it can be frustrating for the other team… you try and go after a player here or there to try and get the ball back. It’s part of the game.”
The game’s first red card nearly took Maurer out of the game, after defender Michel Pereira challenged Maurer for a loose ball in the box and injured the eft ankle of the Cosmos’ keeper, who was quickly rolling on the turf, writhing in pain in the 36th minute.
“I’m alright. [My ankle is] pretty swollen,” said Maurer, who four minutes earlier, came out of the net to make a nice sliding stop on forward Billy Forbes (the second OKC player to later be sent off). “I’m just going to have to keep ice on it and see how it reacts.
“I was worried I maybe broke it… but it’s fine, it’s just going to be bad bruise. At the time, it was really painful… it was something I hadn’t felt before and it just kind of worried me initially.
“If it’s limiting me, which I don’t think it will, we have really capable goalkeepers… but with a couple days, it should be fine.”
After being unable to break through in the opening half, a different approach thereafter helped New York gain further control of the match and find the game’s only goal, even with OKC trying to get under the Cosmos’ skin.
“I’m just happy the team kept [its] head in the game,” said midfielder Sebastian Guenzatti, who assisted on Szetela’s goal with a nice header flick in the box, off of a cross from defender Hunter Freeman, from the right wing.
“I think the second half, we dominated,” Guenzatti continued. “I think, the first half, we got a little desperate because we couldn’t get in their box and we started making runs that didn’t really make sense. So when we came in [at] halftime, Gio talked to us to keep our heads, to calm down, and the balls were going to come to us, and they did at the end.”
Finding the net for the first time this season after making his way back from injury only last week, Szetela said, “It feels great, especially being the winning goal.
“We were getting a lot of crosses in, but we weren’t getting our heads on some of them. What I like to do is just run down the middle and hope the ball gets flicked or no one touches it and I can get my opportunity. I think that’s how I score most of my goals in my career.”
Getting in position was the first step. But with goalkeeper Daniel Fernandes moving to his right, Szetela thought quickly to extend his leg and redirect the ball to Fernandes’ left, just inside the right post.
“I saw [the ball] bouncing and the goalie was moving [to his right], so I just [hit] it with the bottom of my cleats, just to the corner, and I knew he wasn’t going to be able to reach it, going the other direction,” Szetela recalled.
Savarese said proudly of Szetela, “He’s been working very hard to be able to come back. He played last week, and he did a great job… and today, he just gave us a very important goal that gave us the three points that were very necessary for us. I’m very happy for Szetela because he’s been working very hard to be able to get back.”
Szetela’s score nearly didn’t stand up, however.
Just like last week, New York barely held on for a home win when a potential tying goal in the final moments was waived off by an offsides call, this time, in the 93rd minute.
While the Cosmos could’ve scored more, Savarese was pleased, saying, “It was definitely a very important win for us. I think, a deserved win for what we put into the game.”
Focusing on what his goal meant to his team, Szetela said, “Scoring a goal is great, but we got those three points that we needed. Now it’s on our hands. We got to Fort Lauderdale and we get the three points [there], we win the Spring Season. So it’s exciting.”
Maurer insisted that the Cosmos’ road struggles this spring won’t be much of an issue in trying to keep everyone else behind them as the Spring Season winds down over the next two weeks.
“For us, we don’t get into our records, home and away, or what’s happened in the past,” he said. “We just look at basically building off this game, what we did right and wrong [in] this game tonight… and to clinch, that would be great.”
Savarese concurred, adding, “Regardless [of] anything, I would say the same thing — for us, every game is a final… and then once we finish the [Spring] season, then we count the points and see who’s on top, which we hope that we are. We’re going to prepare the same way as we always do, every game.”
But first thing’s, first, which means for the second straight week, and extra game on Wednesday, in New York’s U.S. Open Cup opener, against the Jersey Express, which will provide an extra challenge for Savarese, as he works through more roster injuries coupled with the balance of trying to win both that game and the one that could clinch the NASL Spring Season title.
Wary of his team overlooking the lower-level Express (which New York beat, 3-0 in last year’s U.S. Open Cup), Savarese said, “That’s the most difficult match [in that tournament], as I always say, for us to go through.
“Right now, we’ll have to see how the guys are feeling. We have a lot of injuries. We don’t have that many players available. You saw, we were 16 players [tonight] in total. So we’ll have to see who available, who’s ready, and then we’ll prepare.”
Saying that, Savarese also hinted that he might rest some regulars in anticipation of next Saturday’s game, as he did in the Cosmos’ friendly match, a 2-2 draw with SD Eibar, in Las Vegas, last Wednesday.
“Obviously, we have an Open Cup game mid-week, and we’ll see how that works out with the lineup,” Szetela said. “Gio’s probably going to rest some guys to make sure we win on Saturday.”
Wanting to always win every match and respect each opponent, New York won’t admit it, but at least right now, that’s the priority over the U.S. Open Cup opener, with another Spring Season title just a win away.