Words by Chris Kivlehan & Steve Hamlin
Photos by Steve Hamlin & Eytan Calderon
While the New York Cosmos’ 2017 Spring Season might seem disappointing without the context of the turbulent offseason, many fans of New York’s most decorated soccer club are simply grateful to have a team to root for this year. The credit for that goes to new owner Rocco Commisso for coming in and saving the club, and to team executives Jack Gaeta and Joe Barone for connecting Rocco to the opportunity. Their collective efforts kept the Cosmos from being bought by suitors who intended to put the brand on the shelf indefinitely.
While the results so far might look less than stellar by their own standards, the Cosmos still find themselves in third place in the table. Only six points separate places two and six. The gap between first place and the pack may be better illustrated by the +22 goal differential owned by Miami FC than the ten points separating first and the second place San Francisco Deltas. New York and Jacksonville, both only a point off the Deltas, are the only clubs other than Miami with a positive goal differential, at just +1. Miami was the class of the Spring Season, by a country mile.
Making the playoffs should not be a question for the New York Cosmos, but if they are to challenge the Miami FC juggernaut and win their third consecutive Soccer Bowl, big improvements need to be made in the Fall Season and carry over into the playoffs.
Head Coach: Giovanni Savarese
While Commisso, Gaeta and Barone saved the club, Gio is the man whose character defines the modern Cosmos. When it looked like the team was going out of business, Savarese worked as tirelessly to help his players find new jobs as he had to win championships. When the news came down that the Cosmos were rescued from the brink of extinction and would play in 2017 – something that seemed impossible to the public for most of December – Gio did his best to assemble a competitive squad.
Fortunately many of the players from the 2016 team, which can be argued was the best all-around Cosmos squad since the reboot, were able to come back. Core pieces of the Cosmos like Jimmy Maurer, Ayoze and Ryan Richter were locked up quickly. Danny Szetela and David Diosa had signed for other clubs but were allowed to return to New York (others would follow for the Fall).
Unfortunately, key players like Juan Arango, Yohandry Orozco and Adam Moffat were gone for the Spring Season. Those three scored 29 of the club’s 59 league goals in 2016. Add in Jairo Arrieta’s 7 goals, and then 4 each from Ruben Bover and Lucky Mkosana to bringing the total to 44 goals that needed to be replaced among from 6 of the top 7 scorers, and it’s easy to see the monumental task that was before Gio with a shortened offseason to work with. That Savarese lost his right and left hands in Alecko Eskandarian and Carlos Llamosa only made the job that much more challenging.
Within this context, one has to be impressed with the squad Gio put together and the fact that they are firmly in the playoff hunt. Savarese seems to be using the current transfer window to make up for time lost in the winter, not only bringing back Lucky Mkosana, but adding holding midfielder Kobi Moyal to fill Moffat’s shoes and striker Pablo Vranjican in an effort to add a goal scoring menace up top. The ultimate move in Gio’s re-tooling of the Cosmos for the Fall Season is the just announced return of Juan Arango.
“In Gio We Trust” is a strongly held belief in Cosmos Country for a reason. Long may he reign.
When the Cosmos drafted in a new batch of attacking players in the preseason in an effort to replace the goals lost in the winter, Argentine winger Emmanuel Ledesma was about the most anonymous of the bunch to American soccer fans. In comparison to Serie A veteran Amauri, former Zenit striker Eugene Starikov, and USL standout Irvin Herrera, Ledesma seemed like a bit of a gamble. The 28 year old had featured for five clubs in the three years since his departure from a successful stint at Middleborough, finding the back of the net only once.
Amauri starred in Serie A and showed flashes of his star power with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Eugene Starikov had been a United States under 21 international and played in the Russian Premier League and Irvin Herrera led the United Soccer League’s Saint Louis FC in goals scored a season ago.
However, Ledesma proved to be the standout of the bunch in the Spring, striking several stunning goals that lifted the Cosmos in critical situations. The 2017 Cosmos are the first iteration of the club since the reboot without a true star player (Senna in 2013-5, Raul in 2015, Arango in 2016), but Ledesma is quickly emerging as an idol in Cosmos Country.
When Hunter Freeman took his talents to South Beach, it seemed unfathomable that the Cosmos would find a player that could legitimately be argued was a midseason upgrade. The Cosmos found that player on Bethlehem Steel, and Ryan Richter snapped right into the lineup and filled the void left by Freeman. The capstone moment where Richter earned his green shirt for life was the penalty kick he slotted home to win the Soccer Bowl last year. He has been solid as a rock for the Cosmos this Spring, playing solid defense and creating chances from the right back position (wait for a great example of that after the Maurer highlight reel in the video below).
Ayoze has been one of the integral pieces of the Cosmos success since the 2013 season, giving the Cosmos an advantage at left back over other teams. This year he has been called to not only play in his familiar position, but for the first time since 2013 he’s been pressed into duty regularly in midfield to help the offense create more chances. As a result, Jimmy Mulligan has had the opportunity to show what he can do at left back. The Long Island native has not disappointed, showing the growth that was apparent after he returned from a loan with the Marc Dos Santos-managed Swope Park Rangers last season.
(We’ve Got) Jimmy Maurer
Everything you need to know about Jimmy Maurer’s bond with the Cosmos fan base could be seen after the disappointing loss in the Open Cup away to Reading United AC. The Cosmos lost 3-2, and none of the goals were Maurer’s fault. However, that did not keep Maurer from holding himself accountable to the traveling support of about 25 people. Jimmy personally apologized to the fans and exchanged handshakes and hugs with a few 5 Points members that had made noise for the duration of the match. Several other players came over to thank the fans after Jimmy set the precedent.
Jimmy earned this status on the pitch, through his tremendous performances for the club since taking over the starting role in 2014. This season has been no different. He has bordered on human highlight reel on at times, covering up mistakes by the defense on more than one occasion. In a season where the Cosmos defense has not exactly shone, Maurer has been the Cosmos saving grace.
For years the Cosmos back four was a fixture: Hunter Freeman, Roversio, Carlos Mendes, Ayoze. (Okay, Roversio was hurt a lot, but when the Brazilian was healthy, he was among the best players in the league). Carlos Mendes was an iron man who never seemed to miss a match. Further, the Captain seemed to pair well with any replacement for Roversio, be it Hunter Gorskie, Jimmy Ockford, Samuel Caceres or even Hunter Freeman. However, despite a stellar opening performance against Puerto Rico FC, injuries have prevented the Cosmos captain from making much of an impact in 2017.
The results from the central defense in Mendes’ absence have been less than ideal. Dejan Jakovic has been a solid addition, but he has missed significant time with the Canadian national team. David Ochieng is a promising young player, but he has made several mistakes that have cost the Cosmos. Darrius Barnes has been shaking the rust off after missing extended time due to injury prior to joining the Cosmos.
The defense has conceded 21 goals so far through the halfway mark, whereas it let in just 29 across the entire 2016 NASL season.
Another factor in the defensive issues may be that there is no true successor to Adam Moffat on the roster. Moffat was a huge part of the Cosmos success last season, not only protecting the defense but adding eight goals including several of his trademark “Moffat rockets.” Moffat’s prowess at making sure the Cosmos controlled possession carried on a tradition started by Marcos Senna. This is not a knock on Danny Szetela and Juan Guerra, it is simply that neither of them has played the true defensive midfield role. Kobi Moyal appears to have been signed to play the part of the destroyer, which should help fill the void left by Moffat.
The state of the forward situation with the Cosmos this Spring Season could best be described by pointing out that Walter Restrepo played as a striker on several occasions. While the decorated NASL veteran is a speedy winger who notched two goals for the club this season, he is not anybody’s idea of a clinical finisher up top.
Amauri was supposed to be the starting striker, but the hulking Italian only lodged a goalless 101 minutes for the club due to personal issues. While bringing a lot of energy to the pitch, Irvin Herrera has tallied just two goals in 505 minutes. The crafty Eugene Starikov has come close to scoring beautiful goals on several occasions, but he’s failed to hit the back of the net in 457 minutes. While new arrival Pablo Vranjican muscled his way to a goal in his first three minutes as a Cosmo, a few matches in and he has just the one goal in 248 minutes.
Emmanuel Ledesma has been the top scorer for the club with five goals, and Ayoze is second with three. With only 22 goals scored in the Spring Season, the Cosmos are far off the full season pace from 2016, when they scored 59 goals.
While Emmanuel Ledesma’s performances have been stellar, some of the biggest Cosmos surprises have come in the form of players who have returned from other clubs. Not only did Danny Szetela and David Diosa return during preseason, but both Lucky Mkosana and Juan Arango returned to the club after featuring for other outfits abroad. Despite not receiving adequate playing time, Lucky departed a club that had recently featured in Champions League qualifiers. Further, a 37-year old, recently married Juan Arango decided against retirement in favor of returning to New York. Both Lucky and Arango’s decisions seemingly came out of nowhere, much to the delight of Cosmos Country.
Family should always come first and one must respect Amauri’s need to be with his family in Miami. Purely in terms of hype and impact, you have to consider the Italian striker’s abbreviated stint with the Cosmos to be a major disappointment. We were happy to see the Cosmos handle what could have been a controversial issue with the type of dignity we have come to expect from Giovanni Savarese. Gio’s player-first approach is part of why the modern Cosmos appeal to potential signings.
Who Could Emerge In Fall
As the Cosmos prepared for the Fall, the club has seen Walter Restrepo and Kalif Alhassan depart. It’s possible some familiar faces could replace their minutes. David Diosa was hurt all Spring, but if he can return to the pitch and recapture the form that saw him emerging into the Cosmos first homegrown star last year, it would make a big impact. Gio could also bring back Sebastian Guenzatti, who can serve as an impact sub and inspirational figure. Original 2013 players like Guenzatti, Szetela, Ayoze, Maurer, Mendes and Diosa are key parts of heart and soul of a team that has won three titles in its four years of existence.
As for other candidates to step up in the second half of the year, Eugene Starikov has shown flashes but hasn’t put it together. We believe Ukrainian-American has the potential to impact the Brooklyn-based club more on and off the field than he has to date. Irvin Herrera has looked dangerous, but has yet to truly breakthrough. Eric Calvillo began to get regular minutes toward the end of the Spring, and the US youth international could grow into a starter.
The Cosmos will be counting on new Israeli signing Kobi Moyal to protect the centerbacks like Adam Moffat did in past years. Speaking of “new” signings, Juan Arango’s dead ball marksmanship and knack for showing up in the right space at the right time should help turn around the goal scoring situation.
The decrease in goal scoring rate, when coupled with the increase in goals allowed, explains the Cosmos current position. That may seem simple enough, but we have reason to believe the Cosmos can get both of those numbers headed in the right direction in the Fall Season based on the moves Giovanni Savarese is making.
We believe in the Fall Season, the New York Cosmos will emerge as the clear number two team in NASL, separating themselves from the pack as the squad gels further and new signings fill in the holes that couldn’t be patched in the winter. It is likely Miami FC will win the Fall title as well as the Spring, but the Cosmos should be the best chance for an upset.
Come playoff time, New York will very likely have to outmatch Marc Dos Santos’s San Francisco Deltas, who we expect will land the third playoff seed. San Francisco should also improve in the Fall. If the Cosmos get past the Deltas, they will have a puncher’s chance to take Miami out in the Soccer Bowl. Ledesma and Arango give the Cosmos two players who can create moments of magic. Perhaps Starikov will join them in that regard in the Fall.
While it may seem odd to call the Cosmos underdogs, fans of the club would have snapped your hand off if you had offered that bargain in the dark days of December.
Off The Field
The Cosmos finally moved to Brooklyn, after watching attendance dwindle at Shuart Stadium over the past few seasons. The vibrant backdrop of Coney Island’s attractions and the Nexxfield turf make for a far better visual experience at the match. While attendance is improved over 2016, it has yet to return to the heights of 2013, 2014 and the Raul-driven gates of Spring 2015. The Cosmos seem to be making better inroads in the community in Brooklyn than they did on Long Island, thanks in part due to the deep ties to held there by Cosmos executive and longtime Brooklyn Italians leader, Joe Barone. The Cyclones get about 1000 per game more than the Cosmos are currently drawing, so there should be more upside as the club becomes better known among the roughly three million residents in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Add a star player into the mix and the stands should fill up more quickly.
In terms of bigger picture issues, Cosmos fans remain on edge and uncertain of the future because of the past offseason when their beloved club almost went dormant again. While it is usually a great policy to underpromise and overdeliver, the front office would do well to demonstrate transparency about its long term plans. While MCU is a much nicer home than Shuart, it is clear that the process to convert the stadium for soccer from baseball and back again is labor intensive and costly. The Jacksonville Armada spent a shocking amount of money to do this type of conversion in past years when they played at the Baseball Grounds in Jacksonville.
Fans would welcome a clear vision of the future, and reassurance of Rocco’s long term commitment to the club. Part of that equation would be his thoughts on a long-term home, whether that is a modular stadium, a permanent facility or a long-term deal at MCU Park under terms that the club can thrive with.
One of the biggest assets the New York Cosmos have going for them is a devoted, hardcore fan base. The front office should look at ways to engage that fan base in order to help the club achieve its long term goals. The last thing the fans would want is to be surprised again that things are not going well, when it looks good from the outside. Better to have openness, and to engage the hardcore support more closely on how they can help.
That being said, despite the room for improvement in many aspects, it has just been great to watch the New York Cosmos take the field again.