Tampa Bay Sports Day

Despite Fall Season Struggles, Coach Savarese Says Defending Champion Cosmos Are ‘Better Than Last Year’

New York Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese might be the most objective coach you’ll ever find.

Never allowing the Cosmos to get too high after a win or too low following a defeat or draw, Savarese looks far deeper than the final outcomes of matches to gauge his team’s overall progress.

Two weeks after New York stared the 2014 Spring North American Soccer League Season with an easy 4-0 win over the Atlanta Silverbacks, and one week after the Cosmos recorded a 1-0 win in Edmonton, Savarese compared a 1-0 home loss to the San Antonio Scorpions to the win against Atlanta in a surprising way.

“I leave this game with a better feeling than I had when we won 4-0 because we played good soccer,” he said at the time, back on April 26. “We were very good.”

Given that unique type of perspective, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that Savarese went a step further following New York’s dominating yet disappointing 0-0 home draw with the then-last place, expansion Indy Eleven on Saturday night.

If you go strictly by the 2014 Fall NASL table, the Cosmos have taken a significant step back during the third season of their modern era. But don’t tell that to Savarese, who knowing his squad best, prefers to look at the larger picture.

While the Cosmos are currently the defending NASL champions, after returning from a 29-year franchise hiatus with a 2013 Fall League title and its fifth Soccer Bowl championship (their sixth NASL title overall), and although they followed that up with a solid 6-2-1 campaign last spring (finishing in second place, just one point shy of first), they have been mediocre in terms of overall results this fall.

New York presently sits tied for fifth place in the 10-team NASL with a 4-4-6 Fall Season record.

Yet thanks to their 2014 Spring Season success, the Cosmos are in third place in the combined (Spring/Fall) table (at 10-6-7), four points ahead of the Carolina RailHawks, who at the moment, hold what would be the fourth and final playoff spot for 2014.

It’s the latter position, along with the way Savarese views his team, which has New York’s coach sounding as positive as he did following that April loss to San Antonio.

“I think we are a better team than last year,” Savarese said after the tie with Indy. “I believe in our team.”

That faith comes from having a roster that despite having less success in the standings than last year’s team is one that Savarese feels can be better built for another championship run in a few weeks.

“I feel we have more depth,” Savarese added. “We have different qualities [now], we have diversity, we have a bigger and longer, deeper team.”

Those comments were also without consideration to rumors of the Cosmos pursuing Spanish soccer legend Raul Gonzalez Blanco (better known simply as Raul), who attended Saturday night’s game between New York and Indy.

Since then, Monday’s NASL deadline came and went without the 37-year-old Raul (a Real Madrid superstar for 16 years) joining the Cosmos.

But then, Savarese doesn’t sound as if New York needed him.

When Italian striker Alessandro Noselli was forced to make a tough decision in leaving the Cosmos after the Spring 2014 season, to tend to his ill father back in Italy, the void was filled in a variety of ways, which has extended the number of quality of options that Savarese can turn to on New York’s bench.

Prior to his departure, Noselli had developed a good chemistry up front with Norwegian forward Mads Stokkelien, who since joining New York for the start of the Spring 2014 season, has become the Cosmos’ leading scorer (seven goals) and setup man (four assists) this year.

Initially, New York’s offense struggled to find its way sans Noselli, as the Cosmos started the Fall Season a mediocre 2-3-3 while netting just seven goals in eight matches.

At that point, Congolese forward Danny Mwanga, on loan from Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids, not only took Noselli’s old uniform number (22), but he helped to jump-start the team’s offense.

Although Mwanga only has a goal and an assist in his six matches with New York, his lone Cosmos score proved to be an early game-winner in a 2-0 home win over Fort Lauderdale, on September 6.

More importantly, Mwanga has helped the offense jell as a whole, something that Stokkelien quickly noticed.

“I felt it right away,” Stokkelien said of Mwanga. “He’s a very smart player. He has good movement and creates chances for others than himself, and also, he scores goals. So he’s been very good for us, and obviously, we scored a lot of goals immediately, when he came.”

Including Mwanga’s goal, the Cosmos scored 11 times in four matches, while posting multiple goals in each of those games, compared to the one time they accomplished that feat in the seven matches before Mwanga came aboard. They also went a better 2-1-1 over that stretch.

Agreeing with Stokkelien’s take, Savarese added, “We know the quality of Danny and we were very content to be able to bring him in. Noselli was gone, so we needed to add one more player and we felt that [Danny] could be a quality player for us with his experience. He has been playing very well and I think he was a great acquisition and he fit in right away.”

Mwanga noted the same. “I think I fit in right,” he said. “[The more] games I play with the guys, I feel more comfortable and get to know everybody a lot more.”

Another newcomer in 2014 who has provided a spark is forward Andres Flores (on loan from Salvadoran club Isidro Metapan), who came very close to scoring on three different occasions against Indy on Saturday night (the first time was on a header that just missed, after a great crossing pass by Mwanga).

For Flores, it’s the solid chemistry pervading throughout the roster which helped him have a fast, positive impact.

“All [my teammates] are really good, and that’s why I’m feeling so comfortable,” Flores said. “And that helps me a lot.”

As much as the Cosmos’ hit their scoring stride over Mwanga’s first four games with the team, they’ve gone back to their old ways over the last two matches, with wasting a bunch of good scoring opportunities during a 1-1 tie in Edmonton, prior to Saturday’s draw with Indy.

Taking their cues from Savarese, the dangerous offensive trio of Stokkelien, Mwanga and Flores chose to look at the positives of their play rather than the results of their past two matches.

“The confidence is still there,” Stokkelien said on Saturday. “It’s always a tough game in Edmonton and it’s difficult to score up there, so that was no surprise. [Tonight], it was disappointing that we didn’t score and didn’t win, but… I’m sure we will be back on track next week.”

Acknowledging the recent return to scoring troubles, Flores focused on New York’s continued ability to put pressure on opposing defenses.

“I think we did a lot of good things,” he said on Saturday. “[We played] a really good game… but we didn’t put the ball in and that’s [what] counts. I think we have to [be] concerned about making the chances. That’s how it is. When you make the chances, you’re going to get the goal.”

That kind of confidence was echoed by Mwanga, who added, “I think we just have to be sharp. We’re creating a lot of chances and at the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to be able to finish them… we just have to make sure somebody has to be at the end of [the chances we’re creating]. Most likely, [that’s] going to be either me or [Mads] because we’re higher up at the pitch… every game we play together, we get to know each other a lot more. I have no concern that we’re going to get back to the form we were at when I first got here.”

Even though Mwanga and his teammates are happy to contribute, they also don’t mind stepping aside to allow others to shine when called upon.

“As a player, you want to play every minute,” Mwanga said on being pulled in the 77th minute for yet another key contributor, forward Stefan Dimitrov, on Saturday. “At the same time, I think the coaches are making a decision to help the team win the game. You have a lot of guys fresh, off the bench.”

Whether it’s that group, or the regular starters that take the field for the Cosmos, Savarese has faith in everyone he coaches.

“I have a trust in every player that we have on the team.” He said. “Whoever we throw in there usually does a great job. I like our team right now. I think our team is doing very well. We should have won the game [against Indy] tonight.”

When it comes to deciding who to play, Savarese gladly embraces having to make tough choices over having limited options.

“[It’s often] a difficult decision for [me], but it’s a good problem to have,” he said.

So is being just .500 with just four games left on the 18-game Fall Season schedule, yet still having a great chance to qualify for the postseason as defending league champions, with a deep roster that Savarese feels is getting healthy and about to come together at just the right time.

And if New York eventually wins a second straight championship this season, Savarese will be right — that contrary to what the Fall Season standings show, the Cosmos might ultimately prove to be even better than last year’s team that won it all.