Giovanni Savarese: “I can’t be more proud of our group because they fought through it and now we’re in the final.”(Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — No coach has endured what Giovanni Savarese has experienced this year.
When the Cosmos thought they were all but dead and buried in January, he went out of his way to get his players jobs with other teams.
When the North American Soccer League team was revived, the 46-year-old head coach did a 180-degree turn and tried to re-sign many of those players.
With several vital players already committed to other clubs, Savarese scrambled to put a competitive team together.
After a slow start, giving away points at home due to a leaky defense and an embarrassing elimination from the Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup by a lower division team, moving players in and out of the lineup while trying to find a system and finally, booking a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season, the Cosmos have finally themselves. In fact, they find themselves in The Championship final as they will battle the San Francisco Deltas for NASL glory Sunday at 8 p.m.
The Deltas have endured plenty of problems, challenges and headaches themselves as their owner has said they won’t be back in the NASL this season.
In contrast to the Cosmos, they are an expansion team with no history.
The Cosmos, well, they are the New York Cosmos, the team that brought American soccer to another level in the seventies and eighties behind the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, among other stars.
While the modern incarnation of the team hasn’t had the flash of the original side, it has continued its winning tradition. New York will vie for its third consecutive NASL crown and fourth in five years since returning to competitive soccer in 2013.
Yet, the road to Kezar Stadium has been fraught with so many unexpected twists and turns on a rollercoaster ride that seemed never destined to end.
“Even in the past we have faced some challenges,” Savarese said earlier this week. “I think this is the year with the most difficulties that we have ever had because we had to figure things out in the beginning.”
Savarese remembered back to the season opener against Puerto Rico March 25 when he scrambled to find center backs in what turned into a scoreless draw. With David Ochieng on international duty and Dejan Jackovic not available, Carlos Mendes was the only available center back until the team brought in Darrius Barnes.
“He played without one practice,” Savarese said. “So these are the challenges that we have had to face, but I can’t be more proud of our group because they fought through it and now we’re in the final.”
Players with respected reputations were brought in, but did not make an impact. Italian veteran Amauri was brought in, but he did not work out. Juan Arango, last year’s NASL MVP, was signed midway through the season, but an injury has denied him from working his magic.
In contrast to his other championship teams that revolved around stars or well-respected international players such as Marcos Senna and Raul of Spain and Arango of Venezuela, this team has forged a different identity than the other squads.
This Cosmos team has grinded out wins and results, especially down the final stretch of the regular season when every point was magnified. To put things into perspective, the Cosmos (10-7-15, 45 points) won less than one third of their games and drew in almost half of them. They managed to reach the postseason with a 5-2 victory over Puerto Rico in their season finale before pulling off an upset at fall and spring champion Miami FC in the semifinals last week.
“We always have tried to maintain our way of playing,” Savarese said. “This year from the beginning it has been more difficult because we had so many challenges. In regards to the roster, the players signing late, always trying to figure out covering some holes of players, missing some positions.
“This year has been the year in which we had tried, more than the lineups, but the tactical system. We’ve played everything that you can possibly play in order to make sure we cover. I think this team right now is showing resilience and strength now to coming to the final in the playoffs and this final is our best moment and the right spirit.”
And the Cosmos are peaking at the right time.
“Finally, we have arrived to the moment that we believe 100 percent of ourselves,” Savarese said. “I think during the season there was doubt of that because of different reasons. But now we have a united group, pushing in the same direction.
“I think it’s a completely different team than the other teams that we have won championships. This is a different team with a different quality. I think we have a lot of quality in different areas and I think it’s a very interesting team to go into this final.”
So are the Deltas, which overcame North Carolina FC in the semifinals last week. The Cosmos finished 1-1-2 against San Francisco during the regular season.
“We’re very clear on what they’re good at and also what we can do to be able to find areas that can hurt them,” Savarese said. “They are a team that is growing in confidence in the last part of the season. They’re playing at their best right now since their coach changed their tactics to play with five in the back. That definitely gave them the opportunity to re-organize some things that in the beginning were not working for his team. It has solidified the system. Everyone understands what they have to do. It’s going to be a tough game.”
New York’s motivation? To Savarese, that’s easy.
“New York Cosmos, the New York Cosmos,” he said. “This group is ready always to give their best in every single game we have to play. We owe it to the past, we owe it to the logo, the history of this club. And everybody in this club understands it every well. So the motivation is that we’re the New York Cosmos and every game we play we have to play our best.”
But don’t ask Savarese how much winning three consecutive championships would mean to him.
“Nay, I am not thinking about it right now,” he said. “I will think about it after. I am thinking how to hurt this team [Deltas], how to prepare our team. Glad we’re in the final again. Anything that could come of the match will be analyzed after.”