HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The defending NASL champion Tampa Bay Rowdies hadn’t lost since the spring season. The first-place New York Cosmos were unbeaten at home and hadn’t dropped a match in six weeks. It seemed that something had to give at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Sunday evening.
Something did, indeed. But on a night when legendary Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing was being honored, the second meeting of the fall season between Tampa Bay (3-1-5, 14 points) and New York (5-1-3, 18 points) was nothing like the defensive, scoreless draw that the old rivals played to seven weeks earlier.
This time, it was a shootout, as the Rowdies jumped out to a 3-1 halftime lead only to see the Cosmos storm back to win, 4-3, on a pair of late second-half goals, just two minutes apart.
New York’s third straight victory expanded its lead atop the fall table to four points. It also kept Tampa Bay in a three-way tie for second place (along with Carolina and Minnesota) while ending a Rowdies’ 10-game unbeaten streak that dated back to the spring season.
Midfielder Luke Mulholland staked the Rowdies to a 1-0 edge in the 20th minute, when the Cosmos failed to clear a Tampa Bay pass into the box after a throw in. Mullholand took advantage of the gift and blasted a shot low and to the right of goalkeeper Kyle Reynish.
The score was the first allowed by New York in three matches, and it marked the first time the Cosmos trailed in their five matches at home, where they are 4-0-1 this season.
They answered right away though, as a long free kick from veteran midfielder Marcos Senna was headed consecutively by two different New York players before forward Stefan Dimitrov glanced a point blank shot off of the right shin of goalkeeper Diego Restrepo. The ball then caromed to forward Peri Marosevic, who poked home an equalizing goal with his left foot, in the 23rd minute.
Later in the half, the Rowdies benefited from a pair of identical errors made by the normally sound, yet often risk-taking Reynish, who twice came out too far after the Cosmos’ defense made initial mistakes of letting the ball get behind them.
A pass ahead on the left wing was run down by forward Georgi Hristov, who might have had a more difficult shot had Reynish stayed in net. But as Reynish came out near the right corner of the box to meet Hristov, he left a wide open net for Hristov to roll the ball into for a 2-1 Rowdies lead in the 34th minute.
Twelve minutes later, forward Lucky Mkosana was fortunate that Reynish made the same bad decision to his left side that he earlier made against Hristov on the opposite side.
Defender Carlos Mendes had successfully cut the angle down on a pass ahead that was chased down by Mkosana, but Reynish came all the way out to the left corner of the box to meet the two. In full stride, Mkosana quickly chipped the ball over Reynish, and it bounced twice before landing into an open net, to put Tampa Bay up 3-1 in first-half stoppage time.
Even Mendes was surprised at seeing the result of the play, as he shook his head and threw his arms up in disbelief after realizing where Reynish was while watching the ball go into the net.
Senna nearly cut the Rowdies’ lead in half when he hit the cross bar from about 25 yards out, just before intermission.
Head coach Giovanni Savarese blamed his team’s defense more than Reynish for his team’s halftime deficit. “They got the ball behind [us]. Our communication needed to be a little bit better in the first half.”
Although New York had allowed as many goals in the opening half as it had over its previous five matches; had surrendered as many goals as it had in a match all season; and had already given up two more goals than it had in any home game of the season, the Cosmos were far from done.
Restrepo was kept busy early in the second half, as New York kept intense pressure on him, especially with eight corner kicks in the first 16 minutes of the stanza.
Moments later, after of a long kick by Reynish and a pass into the box by midfielder Paulo Mendes, the ball was cleared out toward the left wing, back to Mendes who rolled a shot to the left of Restrepo, to draw the Cosmos to within 3-2, in the 63rd minute.
That score held up until New York’s two leading goal scorers turned what would have been a costly loss into a dramatic win.
A touch pass by Senna near midfield set up forward Diomar Diaz to streak down the middle and into the box, before placing a shot into the upper right corner of the goal to tie the match, 3-3, in the 80th minute. It was a team-leading fourth goal of the season and third in New York’s past two games for Diaz, who drew a yellow card for his post-goal celebration, which included him Diaz taking his jersey off and running around the back of the net.
Only two minutes later, the Cosmos drew up a clever play that fooled the Rowdies and worked to perfection.
With Tampa Bay forming a wall, midfielder Ayoze appeared ready to take a left-footed free kick from just outside the box. But with Restrepo screened by his own teammates, it was Senna who stepped up and sent a right-footed kick around the wall and into the lower right corner of the net to provide his third goal of the season and the game winner.
Only then, was the solid travelling contingent of appropriately rowdy Rowdies fans silenced.
After the game, Messing, found similarities in his world famous Cosmos and the current version of the franchise.
“On this Cosmos team, they do have some personalities,” he said. “I watched a Marcos Senna kid (age 37) today. That’s a big-time play by a big-time player,” said Messing of the final goal.
“That’s a moment in a game where the big stars step up and that’s the similarity, really. We always had a Pele or a Chinaglia or a Beckenbauer who in a nano-second, could win the game for us, and I saw that tonight from Marcos Senna. I also saw a team, like us, the old Cosmos. We could go down three goals, and we’d never quit, because we always knew we could stick in four, and that’s what I saw from the guys tonight. As bad as it was after the first 45 minutes, they knew they could stick in a couple of goals.”
Confidence like that seems to stem from Savarese and his coaching staff.
“In the locker room, we were very calm as a coaching staff,” Savarese said. “I have to say that I believed in the team, that we were able to come back in the second half and we were able to win. That’s actually what we spoke about (at halftime). We just said, ‘Let’s go out there and do the job and get a win,’ because we have a great group of guys. I believe in the team, we as a coaching staff, believe one hundred percent in the group, whoever steps on the field, we know that they have the desire to win, and they have been showing it all along, every game they have played… all the way until the end, they always think that they can win, which is a great quality to have… as an example, someone like Paulo Mendes, hadn’t played [much], hadn’t been called, played an excellent game last week, and today he scored one of the most important goals.”
Of course, scoring alone didn’t secure the win. Reynish also needed to be better in the second half after his poor first half, and he was back to his usual self, with three big stops.
As someone who certainly knows a thing or two about making big saves for the Cosmos, Messing said, ” I’m a big believer in Reynish, I really am. I’ve seen him a lot over the years, and I’ve seen him a lot this year. As a goalkeeper, the one thing in his defense… he’s got things to get acclimated to. So, poor decision-making early in the year, and I think tonight. But the measure of a big goalkeeper, and think Kyle Reynish is a big goalkeeper, is the moment you make a mistake, you have to have the feeling that, ‘I’m the best guy to be between the sticks for the New York Cosmos,’ and that’s what he showed me in the second half. That takes a special kind of player to overcome what I’m sure he would say were two tactical mistakes in the first half. He’s got the macho to get back up and say, ‘You know what? I’m the man,’ and he showed it.”
Echoing those sentiments, Savarese focused on the positives with Reynish while confirming the trust he has in his goalkeeper, despite Reynish’s propensity for sometimes taking too many chances. “I think he has been excellent the whole season… he just made those two mistakes communicating with the defense, but then he was big… we trust him one hundred percent. He was a big part of our win today.”
While Savarese and his team were certainly happy with the win, they’re keeping it in perspective as they get ready for a game on Saturday night, October 5, in Minnesota, a team New York beat 1-0, at home, on September 14.
“The guys are very down to earth,” said Savarese. “They understand that they have to keep working, that today was a huge win, a very important for us, but it’s another game… every game is a final. It’s a short season, it’s a very competitive league and now we have another final next week… we play a very good team, Minnesota, which was very good against us. Every game for us is crucial, and I’m hoping that we can do something strong away from home.”
What Savarese’s club does on the road — where the Cosmos are 1-1-2 — could decide if they reach the 2013 Soccer Bowl, which will be hosted by the spring champions, the Atlanta Silverbacks, who currently sit in fifth place in the fall season, at 3-2-4, with 13 points. New York and Atlanta tied, 1-1, at Hofstra, on September 7. The teams meet in a potential Soccer Bowl preview on the Silverbacks’ home field to close the regular season, on November 2.
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More From Messing:
During a post-game interview done on the same field (if not the same playing surface) where Messing, now a longtime soccer bradcater, played his first professional game (with the Cosmos), the Bronx native — who attended high school in nearby Old Westbury, before winning an NASL title with the Cosmos in 1977 and shortly thereafter, adding four MISL indoor championships with the New York Arrows, across the street from Shuart Stadium, at Nassau Coliseum — gave further insight on a variety of topics.
On fans receiving a “Shepstache” resembling Messing’s decades-old moustache:
“It’s not about me, it’s never been about me. It’s a nice promotion, it’s light-hearted and fun.”
On being honored during the rekindling of the Rowdies-Cosmos rivalry:
“I think it’s apropos that it’s against Tampa Bay because that was really the seminal moment in the 1970s for the New York Cosmos. I never forget picking up [teammate Franz] Beckenbauer, we’re averaging 25,000 before the game at Giants Stadium and it was that Father’s Day in 1977, a nd we’re driving to Giants Stadium and there’s 70,000 people there, and that was the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The Tampa Bay Rowdies always historically mean a lot to the Cosmos. That was the team against whom we took it to the next level. Hey look, I’m not going to tell you it wasn’t sweet tonight. I was feeling angry at halftime, and watching the second half unfold, that’s old New York Cosmos, that’s good stuff.”
On the crowd support at Hofstra so far this season:
“This crowd is super. I know we want to see more, I know it’s building, but I played my first year here to 1,500 people. We’re at practice one day and a father comes up with ten kids and he said, ‘I want to buy 11 tickets for the game. What time does it start?’ And, I said, ‘What time do you want the game to start?'”
(After reporters, myself included, chuckled at that remark, with “Let’s Go Cosmos!” chants in the background, Messing continued)…
“We had a tough hill to climb. These New York Cosmos (routinely drawing over 6,000 fans per game since an opening night sellout crowd of nearly 12,000) are starting with a good, solid fan base, but it’s pretty cool to be here tonight.”
On penalty kicks versus shootouts:
“I happen to love the shootout. I still think a shootout is more game-related a penalty kick to decide a championship, a champions league, a world cup.”
On his own skillset and if it would fit with today’s game:
“In terms of playing the ball back, I was terrible with my feet. If I played today, I’d have to be much better with my feet, but I was great with my hands. In those days, if you play a ball back to me, I could pick it up and throw it like a rifle. I could pick out a guy 60 yards away, and put it on us foot on a dime.”
All quotes courtesy of Jonathan Wagner, while covering the Tampa Bay Rowdies-New York Cosmos match for New York Sports Day, on September 29, 2013 at James M. Stuart Stadium in Hempstead, New York.