It’s often said it’s better to be lucky than good. To remain the North American Soccer League champions and stamp the success of their franchise with a second dynasty, the New York Cosmos had to be a little of both.
Helped by a few fortunate bounces and a questionable late decision, the top-seeded Cosmos (22-7-5) survived a scoreless battle with the second-seeded Indy Eleven (16-8-10), winning a penalty kick round, 4-2, to capture the 2016 NASL Soccer Bowl title before 2,150 fans at Belson Stadium on Sunday night.
Finishing a nice give-and-go, Indy midfielder Don Smart missed on the game’s best scoring chance of regulation or overtime when he rocketed a hard left-footed shot from just outside the top of the box off of the crossbar in the 70th minute.
New York’s best opportunity prior to penalty kicks came when midfielder Andres Flores streaked into the box but sent a shot just high of the crossbar in the 25th minute.
Much later, after some other limited chances that weren’t quite as close for each side, midfielder Nicki Paterson scored on the first try of the penalty shootout before forward Jairo Arrieta answered with a goal of his own on New York’s first attempt.
That’s when things became unpredictable in the home team’s favor. Indy’s leading goal scorer, forward Eamon Zayed — who finished the regular season tied with Cosmos forward, 2016 league Most Valuable Player, midfielder Juan Arango, as the NASL’s second-leading scorer this year (with 15 goals) — banged his attempt off of the left post. The ball then caromed behind goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer, and one-hopped off of the opposite post, without going across the goal line.
Midfielder Adam Moffat then converted to put his team up one in the shootout before surprise shooter, goalkeeper Jon Busch (a Queens, N.Y. native playing near his hometown) sent a left-footed try outside of the upper left corner of the net.
“I was surprised to see him step up that early,” said Busch’s counterpart, Jimmy Maurer. “You see goalies take them, but he went third. We had our scouting, done our homework, for Indy, top to bottom, for PKs and we had never seen one from him.”
Defender Ayoze capitalized to give New York a two-goal cushion before defender Nemanja Vukovic — one of a couple of Indy players who refused to wear the second-place medal awarded postgame, at midfield — drew the Eleven back within a goal.
Vukovic’s shot was the final one taken by Indy, as defender Ryan Richter clinched the title after the fourth round with a goal in the lower left corner, to touch off a celebration on of the Cosmos’ alternate home turfs, after the game was moved from New York’s regular home at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium.
The deciding penalty kick culminated a wild ride for Richter, who along with Indy defender Colin Falvey, lost to New York, 3-2, in last year’s Soccer Bowl at Hofstra.
That instance was also somewhat fitting since Richter sent a couple of nice second-half crosses from the right wing, in front of the net, each of which came very close to being assists on Cosmos goals.
“It’s funny how life works, because I didn’t think I’d be here winning a championship with the New York Cosmos,” Richter said.
As for whether Maurer or Richter felt the gravity of the moment, each was able to remain calm and collected.
“For me, there’s no pressure,” Maurer said. “It’s finally you’re chance [as a goalkeeper] to step up and be a hero… for me, it’s one of the most fun things to be a part of. I [was] just excited.”
Richter added, “Three [of my teammates] made their penalties before me. Since [Indy] missed two of them, there’s not much pressure in that situation. But I had a dream it was going to end like that… and I’m so happy I could help this group achieve its goal for the season.”
While Richter was on the right side of history the second time, his former teammate, Falvey was forced to repeat his suffering.
“Obviously, a very tough pill to swallow, as you could imagine,” Falvey admitted. “I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy. I’m absolutely gutted right now. But I like to take the positives. I think [my team is] definitely ahead of schedule… and I won’t stop until I get my hands on that trophy.”
Almost, if not for that dreaded bad luck for Falvey and Indy, and good breaks for the Cosmos helped shaped history yet again for the league’s most storied franchise.
“Two or three inches the other way on Don Smart’s shot and I think you’re speaking to the NASL champions right now,” Falvey said, sitting alongside his head coach, Manhattan, N.Y. native Tim Hankinson. “I definitely think a couple of things went their way, but sometimes winners make their luck and they seem to be quite good at [that]… it wasn’t to be our night.”
The championship is New York’s eighth (six more than any other club in league history) and gives the Cosmos — the only NASL team to win back-to-back titles — consecutive championships for the second time in their history. After first capturing a league title in 1972, New York’s first dynasty came when the Cosmos won four championships in six years, between 1977 and 1982, winning successive titles in the first two years of that run.
New York went on a 29-year hiatus following the 1985 season, returning under head coach Giovanni Savarese, who has guided the Cosmos to the playoffs in each of the four years of his tenure.
“Two teams that deserved to be in the final, two teams that were very [consistent] during the year,” Savarese said of Indy (which beat New York out for the 2106 Spring Season title on a tiebreaker) and his club, which won the Fall Season championship over Indy by a comfortable 10 points.
“I think it was the proper final. We knew it was going to be difficult. We knew they were going to be tough to play against… but we believed through the entire match that we wanted to close the best possible way this year. I’m just very proud of the work of the players to be able to get another championship.
“For me, the biggest thing about this year is the fact that the guys always felt that they wanted to win a new championship. They didn’t want to defend last year’s, but they wanted to win a new one. I think that hungriness showed, especially in the Fall season, all the way until now.”
Having already got past several key injuries and some narrow, late road losses, getting through two overtimes and penalty kicks didn’t deter Savarese’s squad.
“I think the final was the example of the year we had,” Savarese said. “We never stopped to think about adversities… it was always about solutions. It was the same [tonight]… we had no more subs, guys were hurt… but you can make it work when you have a group that’s willing to work… there’s something inside that allows them to continue to go forward. A coach couldn’t be any more proud than what they did today… they gave everything. A big credit to them.”
Although the Cosmos, have are equally happy about each of their league titles, they couldn’t help but point to this year’s championship — during which they arguably did more with a little less overall talent than in their two prior title-winning seasons — as the most gratifying one during their current four-year run.
“Being able to lift the trophy means so much,” Maurer said. “To be able to be part of this group one more time… we’ve had great players, but it’s been so much more than that. The stuff that Gio’s done on and off the field with us… it’s just amazing, it shows the shows the strength, the [players] and the technical staff.”
Team captain, defender Carlos Mendes (the first player New York signed after rebooting in 2013), added, “Every year’s a new challenge. It’s just as sweet as the first one… [but] it was an unbelievable year. We overcame a lot. To come out on top against a very good team it proves the types of people, they types of players we have. I’m very, very proud to be a part of this group and to bring home a championship.
“The toughest thing, I think, in sports, is to win back-to-back championships. Everybody’s coming after you, obviously.”
Of course, success breeds change in sports, too. As such, other teams may soon be coming in a different way after Savarese, who is already rumored to be heading to the Minnesota United, which after competing in the NASL, will be moving up to Major League Soccer next year.
Hoping their coach will stick around, Savarese’s players also understand that volatility comes with the territory.
“Obviously, this is a business, and with any player or any coach, things happen” Mendes noted. “But that’s nothing we can control. It’s been an honor to play for [Gio] and this whole staff. They believe in us, give us the confidence to [play well] and that’s the reason we’ve been successful. We’re going to enjoy this [championship] and [in] the offseason, we’ll see what happens. But [Gio’s] a huge part of this club.
Much of what has played into New York’s success, has been an ability to block out any and all distractions, focusing only on the nest game.
So there wasn’t any talk among the players about sending Savarese out a winner, in the event it was his final game as the Cosmos’ coach.
“Nothing like that,” Mendes divulged. “We were focused on our task, and trying to win a championship, and that’s it.”
Of course, Savarese never would have allowed it anyway.
“There was [no way] that this group was going to be distracted.” he said. “These guys had their eyes on the prize from long ago.”
And because of that, and with a third NASL title in four years, they now have an answer to the Cosmos’ early reign, led by Pele and other legends, adding a modern era dynasty to the trophy case.