HEMPSTEAD, N.Y — Through 72 minutes, it looked as though the North American Soccer League’s hottest team would stun the NASL’s best club and steal its chance at competing for a league title.
But as they’ve often done at home this season, the New York Cosmos remained resolute in the face of adversity, and with a pair of late goals, the defending champion, top seed survived upset-minded, fourth-seeded Rayo OKC, 2-1, to extend its league-record home unbeaten streak to 20 straight games while more importantly advancing to a second straight NASL title game before 5,023 fans at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Saturday night.
In addition to bringing the Cosmos (20-7-5) to the brink of a second consecutive league championship, the win also continued one era — for now — while finishing the likely end of another on a good note.
As rumors swirl about head coach Giovanni Savarese possibly leaving New York for the Minnesota United (which will defect from the NASL for Major League Soccer next year), there’s a strong possibility that the Cosmos have also played their final match at the place they’ve called home since their reboot (following a 29-year hiatus) in 2013.
That’s not the club’s doing, but rather Hofstra souring on the relationship with the team after reports of security issues, altercations and poor fan behavior surfaced last season.
If it was indeed New York’s final game at Shuart Stadium, it was an exciting and happy way for the Cosmos to go out, with work still left to do at one of their alternative homes.
Despite controlling much of the play (keeping the ball 58.4 percent of the time and holding a sizable 16-5 shot advantage), New York was unable to break through for most of the match, while narrowly missing on a few close calls — the most aggravating of which came when forward Jairo Arrieta’s header from the center of the box (off of a crossing pass) glanced off of goalkeeper Daniel Fernandes’ left hand, then off of the bottom of the crossbar and off of the inside of the right post, in the 33rd minute.
As the Cosmos were still reeling from that, Oklahoma City — which rebounded from a season-worst four-game losing streak by finishing the regular season 6-0-4, to grab the final playoff spot at 12-9-11 — moved ahead just four minutes later, when forward Futty Danso headed a free kick from defender Michel Pereira past goalkeeper Jimmy Mauer, who blamed himself for New York’s deficit.
“[Danso] got a decent, little flick on it… just a complete blunder by me,” Maurer admitted. “The ball went right through my hands. [That] can’t happen in a big game like this, but you make mistakes, you move on. You shake your head, you curse a bit and you go to the next play.”
Midfielder Yohandry Orozco, who provided the game-winning goal, just 13 seconds before regular time expired (before four final minutes of stoppage time), said the Cosmos wouldn’t allow Maurer to get down on himself for long.
“At halftime, Jimmy Maurer thought it was his fault,” Orozco divulged. “We told him it wasn’t him. It was a team effort and we had to bounce back as a team.”
That’s exactly what New York did, helped by an overwhelming internal confidence that the Cardiac Cosmos would be able fight back yet again this year, with its season on the line.
Under Savarese, New York (since 2013) is an overwhelmingly dominant 44-2-9 when scoring first, having never lost (30-0-4) at home in that situation, including 16-1-2 overall and a perfect 11-0-0 at home in 2016.
When the Cosmos concede the first goal, they had been a vastly different 11-11-11 since 2013, including just 4-5-2 at home. However, this year, New York is now 4-0-1 at home when allowing the first goal.
“I think the key factor is that the guys believe,” Savarese said. “We’re very content to be able to come back [in] a very difficult match. We were expecting [Rayo OKC] to be very tough, and I’m just proud of the guys how we came back to win this game, and to be able to go to the final now.
“All along, I always believed that our guys were going to pull it [out] and be able to get the victory, but it wasn’t easy. We needed to do a couple of things better. Our mobility had to be better. We were playing too many long balls, in the first half. We had to find the middle. In the second half, we did a much better job [of that]… but there was never a doubt that the guys were going to pull [out the win].”
Maurer added, “As a team, I think we really believed that if we kept pushing, we kept playing the way we were, we were going to get a goal.
“It was fitting to win the semifinal this way… to go down and to be able to fight back, and to get those two goals the way we did, it’s great and kind of a symbol of what we’ve been doing all year.”
Team captain, defender Carlos Mendes said, “We said at halftime, we had opportunities. We had to keep playing our game, stay composed, stay relaxed, and the chances would come. We made sure we stuck to the game plan and played with confidence, and I think that showed. We created opportunities in the second half… and it worked out for us.”
No two chances were bigger than on New York’s two scores, with the Cosmos’ leading scorer, forward Juan Arango, and defender Ayoze Perez (better known as Ayoze), in the middle of each.
Netting a long-awaited equalizer, Arango headed in a corner kick from the left side by Ayoze in the 73rd minute, just inside the left post before assisting on Orozco’s score 17 minutes later.
During an impressive sequence, Ayoze passed ahead on the left wing to Arango, who ran the ball down for a perfect crossing pass to the left-footed Orozco, who deftly used his right foot to knock the deciding goal in off of the inside of the right post from the center of the box.
“I asked Arango to give me the ball,” Orozco described. “I yelled at him, and he heard me, and gave the ball back to me. Fortunately, I was able to score with my right foot. I try not to rely too much on my left foot because you never know when you need to score with the other one, and tonight, that was the case.
“As soon as I hit the ball, it was getting wide, and of course, I got a little concerned. But as soon as it got next to the post, I knew it was going in… when the ball is bouncing, it’s very hard to know where the ball is going to end up, especially on the artificial grass, but I was able to kick it the way I wanted.”
Orozco’s goal was his seventh of the season, tying him with Arrieta for third-most on the Cosmos this year, well behind the team-leading 16th score of the season tallied by Arango, who also added to his team-best eight assists.
“He’s somebody that knows how to make a difference in the game,” Savarese said of Arango.
Those contributions were big, as New York while winning the match on paper, needed to ultimately do the same on the scoreboard.
As Maurer put it, “Stats are false things. We lost, 3-0, to [OKC] Rayo at their place (on July 16, matching New York’s worst loss of the season, by the same score, at Indy, on September 24). We outshot them and out-possessed them, and we lost 3-nil. It’s about making your opportunities count.”
Of course, Orozco’s goal made that happen the most. It was something that given the Cosmos’ history at Hofstra, and the expected end of their association with the school, meant a little extra.
“It was meaningful,” Orozco said. “There was a lot of adrenaline.”
Although its sights are currently set on winning a third NASL title in the past four years, New York will miss making Hofstra its home.
“We’ve really liked playing here,” Maurer said.
Savarese noted that his team used its expected final game at Hofstra as motivation.
He said, “It’s something special, when you stay so long in the same place, and now you have to depart and go somewhere else, there’s feelings. That’s one of the things I [told] the players, to make sure we close it in the best possible way, because we have so much great history in this stadium, in the four years we have been here.”
A reminiscing Mendes added, “So many great memories here… things that we’ll cherish. To end it with a win to continue on to the championship game is special for the club, for guys (like myself) that have been since the reboot. So a good way to go out.”
Savarese wouldn’t agree that the Cosmos, after winning the Fall Season and securing the top seed in the playoffs, would need to beat the second-seeded Indy Eleven (15-7-10) — which edged New York for the Spring Season title on a tiebreaker — in the title game at St. John’s University’s Belson Stadium, in Queens, N.Y. on Sunday night, November 13, to declare the season as a success.
“We’ll think about it after,” he said. “We go into every single match thinking we have to win, that we have to prepare, that we have to be at our best, and then we look after we finish, what happened in the season.”
Even if the Cosmos will host the championship match at their home away from home (rather than at Hofstra), Mendes believes there are still some built-in advantages for his team, while being happy that the final involves the NASL’s two best teams during the season.
“It is nice to see the top two teams that were the most consistent throughout the year playing in the championship,” he said. “With the playoff system, it’s not always like that… it’s a big challenge. We’re excited.
“We’re obviously familiar with St. John’s. We’ve played some games there [before]. It’ll be their first game there and I think it’ll be a great atmosphere. [The crowd] is tight, on top of the field, so I think we’ll feed off of that… but we need to be ready.
“For us, the focus is to raise that trophy. That’s what you play for. We’re still going to be in front of our fans, out family, our friends, the people that have supported us all year.”
Regardless of the venue, Mendes said New York can’t let its hard work all season go to waste.
“We have to take advantage of being at home,” he said. “We worked all year to have the semis and now the finals at home.”
Whereas Savarese is willing to evaluate the season after seeing how next week’s title game shakes out, Maurer left less room for the acceptance of a disappointing result, given his franchise’s history as seven-time league champions (which is far more frequent than any other team in NASL history).
“We’re the Cosmos, we’ve got to lift trophies.” he said. “Regular season ones are great, but [next week] is the big one for us. We want [that] one, and every year, [that’s] what it’s all about.”