Five Storylines For Saturday’s Semifinal Clash Between the Cosmos, Rayo OKC

IMAGE, NY COSMOS

by JAKE NUTTING

The New York Cosmos are rightfully favored to prevail in Saturday’s semifinal matchup with Rayo OKC, but that doesn’t mean the expansion team has no shot whatsoever — or that the match will be without intrigue.

Here are five storylines to be mindful of heading into the knockout match that will determine which team advances to The Championship Final.

NASL’s Best Home Team vs. NASL’s Strongest Road Team

The Cosmos have been historically strong at Shuart Stadium, with this year’s performance highlighting that fact. With 14 wins and two draws in all their contests at Shuart Stadium in the regular season, Gio Savarese’s Cosmos have firmly established the venue as their fortress.

If there is one team in the NASL perhaps best suited to topple the Cosmos at home, though, it would be Rayo OKC.

The expansion side slipped into the postseason as the fourth seed on the final weekend of the season, but that positioning could actually be to their benefit. No team has earned more points away from home this year than Rayo OKC, who recorded 23 of the 47 points of their inaugural season away. Part of the reason Rayo OKC is sitting in the fourth seed right now is the massive five-game unbeaten road-stretch (3W-2D) they went on in the final two months of the year.

Rayo OKC also held their own in both trips to New York earlier in the year, falling in a close 1-0 battle in the Spring Season and picking up a hard-earned point in a 1-1 result in head coach Gerard Nus’ first game in charge in early August.

Set-Piece Assassins

Saturday’s semifinal will also see two of the league’s most adept set-piece strikers square off. The efforts of New York’s Juan Arango and Rayo OKC’s Michel have earned them a spot on the league’s shortlist for the Golden Ball award, but it’s their free kick skills that could prove decisive in the high-pressure environment of the postseason.

Arango has been the most productive from set pieces, with five of his team-leading 15 goals coming from dead-ball opportunities. The Venezuelan appears to be in a groove after tallying three free-kick goals in his last two appearances of the season. While Michel’s two-goal tally from set pieces might not be as impressive, the Brazilian’s talents can’t be overlooked. The Cosmos know all too well what he’s capable of, having seen him burn them with a scorching free kick into the top corner in the 3-0 rout they suffered at the hands of Rayo OKC back in July.

The Team Nobody Believed In

Off the field, Rayo OKC has been on shaky ground from the very beginning. With significantly less time to prepare for their first year in the NASL, speculation was rampant that the majority owners from Rayo Vallecano in Spain and local management were doomed before the team even kicked off.

The season was full of stumbling blocks, including the departure of the local managing partners amid accusations from the Spanish investors that the team was on the verge of collapse in July due to financial mismanagement. The team lost experienced head coach Alen Marcina to resignation in the turnover, but first-time head coach Gerard Nus stepped right in to transform Rayo OKC into one of the hottest teams in the league. Even throughout the turmoil, the players never lost their competitive edge or faith that they could get the job done and, as a result, have earned a date with the Cosmos in the postseason.

Potential Cosmos Killers Laying in Wait

Outside of the obviously potent Michel, Rayo OKC has two other attackers the Cosmos should be wary of. In terms of production, neither Georgios Samaras nor Billy Forbes have had a year worth writing home about, but both have shown a knack for performing well against the Cosmos in the past.

Samaras only has two goals under his belt for Rayo OKC, but both were notched against the Cosmos, demonstrating the Greek striker might have a tad more motivation in these matchups. Meanwhile, Forbes leads Rayo OKC with just four assists and showed his capable of causing fits for the Cosmos down the left side when he helped set up Samaras in the 1-1 draw back in August. Forbes’ history of wreaking havoc on the Cosmos’ defense while with the San Antonio Scorpions cannot be discounter either.

Farewell to Hofstra and Shuart Stadium

No matter what the result on Saturday night, the match could very well be the final time that the Cosmos play at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium. Despite the historical ties as a home of the original Cosmos back in 1970s, and the utter dominance the modern Cosmos have enjoyed at the venue, the team is looking to find a new venue to call home next year.

The relationship between Hofstra University and the Cosmos front office hit an all-time low this year, with the school not allowing the team to host any U.S. Open Cup matches at Shuart over concerns with fan behavior. To make matters worse, the school also refused to work with the team on scheduling a potential championship final on a weeknight, which forced the Cosmos to pencil in the 2,600-seat Belson Stadium should they advance past the semifinal round.

So savor this weekend’s tailgate outside Shuart, the Long Island Railroad trip, or the big, yellow school bus shuttle from Mineola to Hofstra one last time — and ponder where the Cosmos will land next year.


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