JAMAICA, N.Y. — Key injures piling up? Other players leaving during the season to play with their international teams? A grueling schedule? Looking past a lower-lever, inferior opponent, toward yet another New York derby showdown with a team at a higher level? Or how about the huge league road game just three nights later, with the North American Soccer League Spring Season title a win away?
If you’re trying to find ways to distract head coach Giovanni Savarese’s NASL-leading New York Cosmos and throw them off course, you’ll have to try much harder than that.
Despite leading New York to the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, while winning two league titles, Savarese incredibly hasn’t won an NASL Coach of the Year Award yet, since taking the helm of the Cosmos in their modern era reboot in 2013. But he probably should have, and maybe this will finally be that year.
Of course, while such an honor would be greatly appreciated by Savarese, maintaining the Cosmos’ winning formula is far more important to him.
Seemingly whatever has been thrown at Savarese’s teams, they’ve been able to handle.
The latest example of that notion came during New York’s third-round, 2-0 win at St. John’s University’s Belson Stadium on Wednesday night, over the Premier Developmental League’s Jersey Express, in the 103rd year of the 2016 Lamar Hunt United States Open Cup, the nation’s longest ongoing soccer competition.
Although the Cosmos were heavily favored to advance (the way they did on the same field, against the same opponent, in a 3-0 win last year) after receiving automatic byes in each of the first two rounds, New York also had plenty of reasons to take its collective eye off the ball for a night.
New York already lost forward Yasmani Duk (who had been coming on offensively, recently) to his Bolivian national team, while waiting for the return of several other primary pieces due to a variety of injuries.
Meanwhile, in the heat of a playoff race, with the NASL Spring Season winding down, the Cosmos suddenly had to go from their normal one-game-per-week schedule to doubling that schedule by including a friendly match in Las Vegas last Wednesday and the win over Jersey this week, all ahead of a Spring Season finale in Fort Lauderdale which can end with the Cosmos’ second straight Spring Season title, should New York win.
“For me, right now, the tough part, is there’s too many matches,” Savarese admitted. “We played, Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday. It’s been two tough weeks and now we have this important match coming up on Saturday.”
(for some perspective, imagine an NFL team, in the final two weeks of the regular season, with a playoff spot at stake, adding games on consecutive Wednesdays during that stretch, all while dealing with fairly significant injuries).
The excuses were practically built in for New York to fall short of some or all of its goals.
However, the secret to the Cosmos’ success has been that Savarese — whose team secured the top overall seed, and as a result, won a close NASL championship game at home, rather than mailing in the Fall Season after securing no worse than a two seed in the four-team playoffs last year (thanks to their 2015 Spring Season title) — has never allowed such a mentality to seep in, while viewing every match as what Savarese calls “a final.”
New York could have thought about Fort Lauderdale on Saturday or its U.S. Open Cup fourth-round date with Major League Soccer’s New York City FC, at Fordham University in the Bronx, on June 15.
The Cosmos could have struggled against Jersey the way several other NASL teams did in their own U.S. Cup openers against United Soccer League teams on Wednesday (Fort Lauderdale needed penalty kicks to beat the Richmond Kickers; Jacksonville and Carolina went to overtime before winning; Indy had to rally from a goal down to win 2-1; and Miami lost by the same score to the Wilmington Hammerheads).
Instead, New York dominated from start to finish, outshooting Jersey, 22-5, while controlling the ball 74.4 percent of the match and having a slightly greater share (75 percent) of the games passes (683-227).
Surely, the Cosmos will face far more difficult tests as they go through later rounds in the U.S. Open Cup and as they return to NASL play. Yet for Savarese’s squads, it’s all about preparation and the right, consistent approach to each and every game, no matter the situation.
In fact, Savarese is always wary of his club’s initial U.S. Open Cup game for exactly the reason New York’s fellow NASL teams had difficulty on the same night
“For me, it’s always the toughest one because you get a lot of times, teams to be able to overlook it, to be able to become soft mentally, and sometimes to think that we’re better,” Savarese said. “So if we don’t have the mindset to be able to respect the opposition [and to] come here understanding that this is the most difficult [match of the Open Cup], then at the end, we wouldn’t do the job.”
Team captain, defender Carlos Mendes, added, “I think we stressed it from the start. We knew we’d have possession, but if you’re spread out [too much], if you’re not disciplined, they can hurt you. They had some speed. They looked for the counter [attack]. For the most part, I think we did well.”
Yet success doesn’t mean the learning or improving stops, something which had always kept Savarese’s Cosmos hungry and focused, even through a bunch of roster turnover over the past four seasons.
Mendes, one of just nine remaining holdovers from New York’s 2013 NASL championship team, continued, “We have to be a little smarter with the ball and a little bit more disciplined. Overall, a good performance, but [there were] things we can improve on, and [things] we’ll have to improve on the next game.”
It’s obvious with a statement like that from the team captain, and other similar ones that are often heard from Mendes teammates, that the Cosmos are never satisfied while taking their cues strongly from Savarese.
Results are obviously what matter the most, but every match is always a learning experience under New York’s head coach.
When Mendes became an ultra-rare goal scorer with a brace to open the 2014 season at home against the Atlanta Silverbacks, in an easy 4-0 win, Savarese wasn’t nearly as happy as expected, as he pointed out several areas his team needed to sure up.
Conversely, two weeks later, after the Cosmos’ first of two straight losses (a 1-0 home defeat to the Carolina Railhawks) Savarese was able to glean some positive signs which New York was able to build upon while making a run to the postseason later that year.
That type of thought process permeates throughout the entire roster, even for players like forward Lucky Mkosana, who had gone from being a starter last year to seeing limited time this season, before getting the start against Jersey, while Savarese effectively balanced the tough line between advancing in the U.S. Open Cup and keeping several of his primary players fresh enough to try to capture a Spring Season title.
“This game, we took it like a league game,” Mkosana said. “I feel like Gio does a good job to tell us to take every game just one game at a time, and I feel like tonight, all our energy was focused on this game, and tomorrow we’ll go back to training and focus on Saturday.”
There’s no denying that Savarese has been in the fortunate position of having a lot of raw talent with which to work. However, the Cosmos’ chemistry depth — especially last year and this season — have also been main catalysts for their success, and that comes from Savarese’s willingness to make frequent lineup changes based on what he’s seeing from players in practices as much as in games, rather than simply playing favorites as some coaches might.
Fostering a highly competitive environment in that way, in which a lot of players are competing for playing time, has created some good problems for Savarese to have.
“We have a lot of players that want to step in [and] do the job,” Savarese said. “Hopefully, we can have everybody available [as some injured players heal soon] and competing with each other, but I’m very content with the roster we have.”
One thing that group can count on is always being ready, with Savarese leading it.
Asked if he was disappointed to play NYCFC this year at Fordham University’s 7,000-seat Jack Coffey Field, instead of NYCFC’s regular home at Yankee Stadium, Savarese responded, “That is not in my control. My control is that we’re going to have a prepared team to be able to play against them. Anywhere, any stage, any situation for us is the same. We’re gonna play and we’re gonna try to go through.”
Far more often than not in the Cosmos’ Savarese era, they have.