So, the NASL's a mess? Guess what: The Cosmos are still very, very good
Of all the senior teams in New York, the one with the most wins in 2016 also has the lowest attendance. Though the NASL’s flagship club continues to lead, the rest of the league’s fleet seems to be sinking or switching sides. Yet the New York Cosmos are two wins from a second straight league title and third in the modern NASL's sixth season. The Cosmos have never stronger on the field, in a league as uncertain as ever off of it.
The Cosmos will host the Championship semifinal on Saturday at Shuart Stadium, where they have not lost this season. Juan Arango, their star offseason signing, became the modern-day club’s leading scorer with 15 goals. The team scored 59 goals in league play, only trailing their New York’s two MLS teams for most in the top-two divisions for 2016. That total set the mark for the most any team has scored in modern NASL history.
The Cosmos made their deepest run in the U.S. Open Cup, reaching the quarterfinals. They defeated New York City FC for the second consecutive year and were 15 minutes away from defeating the runners-up New England Revolution. But their run was overshadowed by the news that Hofstra University barred the Cosmos from holding matches against MLS opponents due to crowd troubles last season.
Blocking out uncertainty
Belson Stadium, a sixth of Shuart’s size, preserved home-field in the Open Cup but the two games there -- a win over NYCFC, and a loss to the New England Revolution -- drew less than 2,300 people. The club announced Tuesday that Belson would host the final if the Cosmos win on Saturday and there are no plans to expand the stadium beyond the current 2,600-seat capacity, according to a club source. Negotiations with Hofstra to host a midweek final fell through and Saturday’s match will likely be the final one played at Hofstra for the Cosmos.
“Obviously we’ve had some great memories there,” Carlos Mendes said. “Two championships in three years, hopefully we can make it three. The fan support has been great. We’ve enjoyed it. We’ll see what happens in the future but I’ve been glad to be a part of it and I’ve enjoyed every moment.”
Shuart Stadium was the team’s home in the 1970s and the modern Cosmos came to understand how to play on the stadium’s turf, winning nearly 70 percent of their matches there. But the Cosmos have averaged under 50 percent capacity in each of their three full seasons on Long Island bottoming out at 3,775 fans per game this year. With the Cosmos unable to meet their target of 5,000 fans per game, they’ve been forced to limit their spending.
Despite the constraints, Mendes, Arango and head coach Giovanni Savarese agreed the team has depth all over the field. They allowed the second-fewest goals in the NASL this season and recorded 15 shutouts. In their 4–0 dismantling of Miami FC on Oct. 22, Arango scored his fifth free-kick goal of the season and recorded two assists. He said Savarese has fostered a positive atmosphere within the locker room and was “totally sure” that he could coach at a higher level.
“Not only in MLS but he can be a great coach in various countries,” Arango said. “He can also be a great coach for the selection. If he keeps doing what he’s been doing, he has a good future.”
Savarese joked that Arango only said that because the two are friends, but Savarese has been courted by MLS teams. Savarese’s contract with the Cosmos will reportedly expire after the 2017 season. This season, Savarese has had to process the uncertainty around him with three teams set to leave the league after this season. The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury are leaving for USL in 2017, and Minnesota United is moving up to MLS.
Also Rayo OKC, Cosmos’ opponent on Saturday may go on hiatus according to WRAL’s Neil Morris. Savarese said the Rowdies’ move to USL was “not ideal for the NASL,” but he’s kept a positive attitude no matter what news he reads in the morning.
“I enjoy every single day coming here, seeing the players and working with them to prepare for the matches,” Savarese said. “This is the important thing, the day-to-day that what we do here. What happens in the morning in the news, that’s not in our control. It doesn’t raise too much concern for us. Right now we have the main goal to reach the top and that’s what we’re working for.”
The immediate task at hand
The Cosmos have kept their core together throughout their modern history. Mendes, Jimmy Maurer, Ayoze and Danny Szetela remain in the Cosmos’ lineup after joining the club in 2013 and have become fixtures in New York. After the Miami FC match, some supporters stayed and helped Szetela purpose to his girlfriend unveiling and clutching onto the “Will You Marry Me?” tifo through wind and rain as he dropped to a knee at midfield.
That core of players, Mendes said, tries to set a steady, mature example for the team to handle whatever storm it faces.
“It is a business,” Mendes said. “Situations come up and those are things we can't control. Obviously as a player, you worry about yourself, staying healthy and helping the team and I think we've done an excellent job. Every offseason there's going to be things that change but the core has been here and that's helped us and that's been a reason why we've been successful.”
For Saturday, Arango said the Cosmos will need to play dynamically to win. They did not beat Rayo OKC in their two meetings during the fall season, only scoring once from the spot. Despite its own soap opera, Rayo enters Saturday’s match unbeaten in nine matches, having won the last five.
“We have to worry about what we can control and that's it,” Savarese said. “What is in our control is to be able to be 100 percent in matches, be a team that understands the style that we want to play, that does things the right way, that everybody thinks positive, that we are united—those are things we can control, you know.”
“What other teams are going to do, what the league is going to do, where the final is going to be, that's secondary for us because whatever is put in front of us, we're going to deal with it and do it in a way that's successful.”