Jimmy Maurer: “We have a lot of different looks for this weekend.” (Photo courtesy of the Cosmos)
By Michael Lewis
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — No doubt the Cosmos’ task is a challenging one, but not an impossible one.
They take on Miami FC in The Championship semifinals of the North American Soccer League playoffs Sunday, a team that lost but five times in 34 matches during the regular season.
Two of those defeats were inflicted by the two-time defending champions, so they like their chances at Ricardo Silva Stadium in the 5 p.m. clash.
The fourth-seeded Cosmos were 2-2-1 vs. No. 1 Miami FC this season.
“We know how dangerous they are,” Cosmos captain Carlos Mendes said after training at Mitchel Athletic Complex Wednesday. “They have been the best team all season.”
But that hasn’t eroded New York’s confidence or optimism.
“I think it’s having the confidence and belief that we’re playing our best right now,” Mendes said. “We have improved as the year has gone on. The team the last couple of weeks is catching form. We are playing better soccer, too.”
Coming off a 5-2 home win over Puerto Rico FC that clinched a playoff spot, the Cosmos are unbeaten in their last six games (3-0-3).
“It’s been a big change the last few weeks here,” goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer said. “The way we have been playing, even when we haven’t gotten a win, we’ve been playing much better offensively and defensively, just being both sides of the ball. As a team, all 11 guys defending. Early parts of the season we were really breaking apart. Our lines were getting separated. We were playing five in the back, five attacking. The last few weeks it’s really coming together and some of the things are starting to click.”
Regardless of what transpired in the past, the Cosmos will have to play at full capacity against their southern Florida foes.
Miami FC, which is expected to dominate the postseason awards, bring many weapons and dangerous players to the table. The team had three players as double-digit goal-scorers, a rare feat in North American soccer, regardless of the division.
Striker Stéfano Pinho led the league with 17 goals. Vincenzo Rennella was next with 11 goals, while adding five assists. Jaime Chavez finished tied for fourth place while dishing out a league-best nine assists. And Dylan Mares chipped in with eight goals.
The Cosmos deployed three systems and formations against Miami FC with varying success.
“We threw some different things at them that we can potentially go for this weekend,” Maurer said. “We have played five in the back and sat in. We’ve pressed them very high all over the field and we found the success. Maybe we left ourselves exposed. We have a lot of different looks for this weekend.”
Head coach Giovanni Savarese likes the fact he can make some formation choices.
“There were three ways we played against them at different times,” he said. “So, it’s been deciding exactly how we’re going to play, what will be more effective for us. Sometimes changing these systems, we’ve been able to understand … what they are good at, and also maybe we can do in order to hurt them in some certain situations.”
But Savarese wasn’t about to tell the world how he would play his foes. “I’ll keep a little to ourselves,” he said with a laugh.
The key, according to Mendes, is team defense.
“They have so many players that can hurt you that are dangerous,” he said. “They’re good going forward. It’s being organized, being compact, making it difficult on them as a team. and if we do that well, we’ll have our opportunities. They can hurt you in so many ways, even set pieces. They’ve got guys that are very good at set pieces. You’ve got to limit their chances, be smart around the defensive area, around our box. It’s a team effort. Of you give them too much space, they’ve proven it all year, they can punish you.”
Even beyond that, it could come down to details and individual battles.
“The most important part about this game is the little things, the 50-50 balls, the moments in which you have to jump for the ball, how organized we need to be as a group,” Savarese said. “I think these are the keys, the intangibles. … Those intangibles are going to be crucial. Those little things, those basic things, that we have to be on top off, that we have to be better. The willingness to be able to win balls, to come back, to cover, to create that positive environment that will give us an edge in that game.”