HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — When you’re clicking, you’re clicking.
The first-place New York Cosmos — the North American Soccer League’s highest-scoring team, both this fall and overall in 2016 — have often set the pace offensively while rising to the top of the Fall Season and Combined standings.
Yet even on a rare night when their scoring output was held in check, the Cosmos (9-2-3 Fall; 15-6-3 Overall) still found another way to keep rolling behind a savvy, lone goal from forward David Diosa, along with some solid defense and dazzling goalkeeping from Jimmy Maurer, as New York (15-0-1 at home since last September, including a 2015 Soccer Bowl win) extended its unbeaten streak to eight straight games (during which the Cosmos are 6-0-2) with a 1-0 victory over the Minnesota United (5-4-5 Fall; 10-8-6 Overall) on Military Appreciation Night at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Saturday night.
Diosa, who cleverly one-timed a crisp, 35-yard crossing pass from midfielder Ruben Bover for his third goal of the year, in the 32nd minute, was on track to be named the Man of the Match until Maurer’s continued brilliance took that award from him.
Not that Diosa minded.
“For me, he was the player of the match,” Diosa said of Maurer. “He saved us a lot. He’s always big when we need him. He’s a great goalkeeper and he’s always helped us out a lot.”
Two of Maurer’s season-high six saves came late in the second half and in impressive fashion against the NASL’s leading scorer, Minnesota forward Christian Ramirez.
The first of those two stops left Ramirez in shock after his hard blast in the 75th minute. The other aggravated Ramirez six minutes later.
Seeking to add to his league-leading marks of nine goals this fall and 14 in 2016, Ramirez rocketed a shot from near the top of the right box that Maurer barely tipped over the crossbar with the fingertips of his outstretched right hand.
“I was able to just close down and take a big, aggressive step towards [Ramirez] to try and close [the angle] down,” Maurer said. “I felt like I cut the angle down well. Christian strikes the ball really well. He crushed the ball but luckily, I was set in good position to get my hand up quick and tip [the ball] over the bar.”
With an even closer chance in the 81st minute, Ramirez’s right-footed shot from the left side of the box, off of a crossing pass in the box, was batted down with both hands by Maurer.
With some help, Maurer also came up big in the 55th minute as well, to deny midfielder Lance Laing, who attempted of Minnesota’s 14 shots, including three of the United’s four shots from inside the box, before subbing out in the 61st minute, two minutes before Diosa went to the bench himself.
Taking a nice through ball from Ramirez, Laing closed in on Maurer, who thwarted the dangerous run with the backing of midfielder Jimmy Mulligan.
“I came out really high and tried cut him off,” Maurer recalled. ‘I know he’s left-footed so I thought he was going to take a big touch. I was able to read it. He smashed it and I was able to get a really strong hand to it. As we came together, it slid out wide, and then… it was a great play from Mulligan to get back in and recover.”
For his part, Mulligan caught up to Laing and knocked the ball away with a good slide tackle just before Laing could put the rebound off of Maurer into an empty net.
“Lance Laing made a good run behind the defense,” Mulligan explained. “They slipped him a pretty good ball. He took a touch to his left and Jimmy Maurer made a huge first save and unfortunately it bounced right back to Laing. I was following the play and slide-tackled him, and luckily it wasn’t a foul. I guess the goal was wide open because Maurer was out of the play, and I guess I made a good block.”
Maurer’s play drew high praise from his head coach, Giovanni Savarese, who said of his goalkeeper, “It was one of his top performances because I think he made two or three saves that I think were quality, quality saves.”
Acknowledging his own great performance, Maurer said, I think it was one of my better ones. I don’t really like to keep track too much. I try to take it game by game as much as I can, but it was definitely one of my better ones. Any time you keep the zero and be able to step up and make some key plays, it’s always welcome.”
However, both Maurer and Savarese also recognized New York’s good team effort, defensively.
“He made incredible saves [tonight] that were crucial for us,” Savarese said of Maurer. “But also, I have to give credit for the back team because they forced [Minnesota] always into a difficult situation and that helped Jimmy to be able to make the saves that he needed to make. So it was a collective effort, but Jimmy definitely had a tremendous match.”
Maurer added, “It’s about everyone putting the work in, top to bottom. In the modern game, the forwards have to defend. They start it, they make everything predictable for midfielders and midfielders close down the gaps and keep the spacing tight, which allows the job of the defenders to be easier, and then I can play higher and try to help the defenders so they’re not covering 30, 40 yards up and down [the field].
“When those dominoes are all falling into place the right way, the game simplifies. When even one person takes a break, everything goes the other way and breaks down… so it’s everyone together, [including everyone off the bench since we’ve been rotating a lot.”
The best example of that cohesiveness, Maurer said, was Mulligan’s game-saving play seconds after Maurer’s initial stop on Laing.
“It just kind of sums up the game,” Maurer said. “No matter what happened, if we made mistakes and someone got through… we were always backing each other up.”
Even with all of that coordination, the Cosmos still needed some luck to maintain their third clean sheet of the season.
A Laing free kick from deep outside the box glanced off the crossbar in the 36th minute before a header off of a throw-in set Ramirez up for a close-range bicycle kick that barely sailed over the top of the bar 17 minutes later.
That wasn’t a problem for Diosa and Bover, who teamed up perfectly for the only score.
“Fantastic pass,” Savarese said of Bover’s setup, for his second assist of the season. “We said it from the beginning of the match, the wide areas would be open. We had to attack the space. And Diosa, his timing was perfect to arrive into the space where he found a tremendous ball from Bover, and with great technique, he aimed to put the ball [inside] the second post, and he scored a fantastic goal.”
To protect the lead, New York also had to overcome a fairly powerful wind which was in its favor before halftime but against the Cosmos thereafter.
“The first half, in which I think we controlled more, we had the ball and created chances,” Savarese said. “The second half was a little more difficult. They came at us stronger. I think… it was a little more difficult to play against the wind [in the second half], but at the end, our guys did a fantastic job to make sure that we [shut them out].”
Diosa said, “I opened wide and… saw the ball coming, and what was in my head was to hit the ball between their goalie and their center backs, and hit it hard, and I was lucky that the ball went in… and it was a great ball by Bover, so that helped me a lot.”
Although New York’s hot stretch has come after an early low point during which the Cosmos went winless, while losing a pair of matches, over a three-game stretch, it’s not something that’s top of mind for Savarese as he looks ahead to his club’s next game, on Saturday night at home against Edmonton, which sits behind New York in second place in both the Fall (by three points) and Combined (by four points) standings.
“I don’t think about the streaks,” he said. “I just think about [the next] match. We won [tonight] and we have to prepare ourselves for a very difficult match against a team that we have to beat… and it’s a good opportunity for us to be solid at the top of the table. It’s going to require a lot from us and the guys are going to work very hard to make sure they are ready for the next match.”
Maurer added that the difference between the winless streak and the Cosmos’ current unbeaten stretch is “not much.”
He said, “The game is very small details and there’s not a big difference… sometimes you get unlucky, sometimes they make an amazing play. It can be the smallest of margins to change games.
“That’s why you’ve got to stay calm and stay motivated, whether you’ve lost, you’ve won [or tied]. During this [unbeaten] streak, we’ve been very good about getting back to work and… thinking [only] about the next [match].”
That’s mindset has worked out very well for New York since late July, so there’s no point in changing now while the Cosmos remain on a roll.