In the euphoria of the opening night domination over San Antonio and buzz from the first gameday at the transformed Al Lang it was easy to forget that the Rowdies are a team in transition. Head Coach Thomas Rongen said after the disappointing draw against Minnesota last week that some reflection and tinkering was necessary. It’s the same story after a much more potent Cosmos attack knocked off the Rowdies 2-0 on Long Island.
“We’ve got 20 new players. We kept 6 from last year. You know, it feels a little like 1996 when I started in MLS with an expansion team called the Mutiny, where we also had twenty-odd players. We’re slowly getting to a point where I think we’ve identified our top 11, 12, 13 players and also try to find the right balance as well,” said Rongen.
The investment and roster turnover undoubtedly ramped up fan excitement but it’s important to remember that Rongen tried to temper expectations in the preseason, especially for the Spring season.
Without question the Cosmos were the most in-form team the Rowdies have faced yet. Last week’s opponent, Minnesota has tremendous firepower but for whatever reason have stumbled out of the gate, evidence by their 1-0 defeat Saturday afternoon. The Cosmos played like a well-oiled machine for much of the match, particularly in midfield where Verneri Välimaa and Juan Guerra struggled to assert themselves.
“We played against a very good team today, in all fairness. You know Senna and Raul, but overall Gio’s done a great job. You can see this team has played together for over a year, or two years now. That’s a great luxury to have as a coach,” said Rongen.
The Rowdies found themselves down a goal after only 11 minutes. Walter Restrepo delivered a dangerous cross into the box for Marcos Senna and right back Darnell King was called for a hand ball on the attempted clearance. To no one’s surprise, Senna stepped up and buried the penalty.
From that moment on the Cosmos were in complete control. Possession for the match was fairly even, but the Rowdies still couldn’t manage to connect well with the forwards up top. The Cosmos applied pressure on the Rowdies back line and midfield, and it paid off in a big way. Tampa Bay abandoned its strategy of playing the ball on the ground and resorted to the long ball in an effort to feed the ball to Maicon Santos, who was ineffectual in his league debut.
The Rowdies attack also seemed too narrow and direct in the first half. There wasn’t much of an effort to stretch the Cosmos back line out. Corey Hertzog was left open with his hands waving in the air on the flank waiting for someone to switch the field of play. Guerra provided one excellent switch when he found Robert Hernandez alone on the right side to create the best scoring opportunity of the first half. Hernandez, though, could not finish off the chance, or the couple more he had later on in the match.
Rongen was far from happy with the possession and performance in the midfield and thought they allowed New York to put on “a little bit of clinic.” The Cosmos overloaded the midfield with aggressive players and Raul was excellent in his home debut. Making his first professional start, Välimaa seemed outmatched by Raul, who despite not being the quickest player on the field was impossible to dispossess.
The Rowdies showed positive signs near the end of the first half, but that was thrown out the window as the defense had a complete breakdown in the opening minutes of the second half. Ben Sweat lost a close 50-50 challenge to Marcos Senna and the break was on from there. Senna played a ball towards the byline for Walter Restrepo and Tamika Mkandawire and King both sprinted to cover Mads Stokkelien in the box, allowing acres of space to Leo Fernandes for the easy finish on the put back from Restrepo.
10 minutes after the second goal Rongen made his first changes of the match and brought on Martin Nunez and Darwin Espinal to replace Guerra and Hertzog respectively. It took a while but the game seemed to open up a little bit for the Rowdies after the changes.
“We wanted to make changes at halftime, but we had some cramp issues in the last game so I wasn’t sure if those same players would have that again,” said Rongen. “So we waited a little bit to bring in Martin Nunez and Darwin Espinal in, and those two guys actually changed the game a little bit for us. We were able to string more passes together, get with more ease into their defensive third and as I said this is how we got two very good opportunities late in the game to do something positive. So the changes made a difference and going forward I gotta look very hard at, are those potential starters for us. They’ve made differences for us in quite a few games.”
Despite the midfield dominance from New York, the teams were close to even on actual scoring chances. Like last week, the Rowdies failed bury their chances and this time around it was Georgi Hristov and Robert Hernandez who missed on clear-cut chances.
The loss is a big blow to hopes of a Spring title. The Rowdies need to count of the Cosmos stumbling on their own accord to have a chance at catching up. However, big questions need to be answered going forward if the team is going to even compete for a playoff spot in the combined points table. One is how to incorporate Maicon santos into the match more effectively, And the other, perhaps most important, question is who is going to make up the midfield on a full-time basis.
IMAGE, NEW YORK COSMOS