HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The great Pele was there. So were Carlos Alberto, Shep Messing, and George Chinaglia, representing his late father, Giorgio.
And that same iconic logo — with the swirling green, yellow and light blue blades, surrounding the old North American Soccer League-styled ball — appeared throughout Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on Saturday evening (August 3).
Yet the Cosmos’ new head coach, Giovanni Savarese, a Venezuelan native of Italian descent, who played soccer locally, at Long Island University, before starring for the Long Island Rough Riders and New York/New Jersey Metrostars, captured the realistic direction and hopes for his team, in a single sentence.
“Patience is the best virtue for us right now,” he said.
Although quite spirited, a sellout crowd of 11,929 fans — that included continuous drumming and flag waving throughout the New York Cosmos’ 2-1 victory over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers — was a far cry from the more than 70,000 supporters that the old Cosmos sometimes drew at Giants Stadium, in New Jersey, during the late 1970s.
But the new generation of Cosmos, whose victory over the Strikers, marked the club’s first league match since 1984, isn’t meant to immediately approach the greatness and excitement that the most celebrated soccer franchise in North American history once exuded.
All that mattered for one historic homecoming was that for the first time in nearly three decades, the New York City area — specifically in the team’s early roots on Long Island — was once again, Cosmos Country.
Messing, who was honored in a pre-match ceremony along with Pele, Alberto, and the Chinaglia family, recalled a similar start to his own career, long before he was the star goalkeeper on a Cosmos squad that became internationally renowned as one of the most talented and glorified soccer teams in the world.
“I played in this stadium [at Hofstra], in my first professional game,” said the Bronx–born, current soccer television analyst, who (in 1977) helped the Cosmos win one of their five league titles, before he later added four consecutive Major Indoor Soccer League championships to his resume, with the New York Arrows.
“We had 1,500 fans, then 2,000 fans, 3,000, then it grew… everybody jumped on the bandwagon after that,” added Messing, who on May 20, 2011, was named the Cosmos’ international ambassador, a few months after Alberto and Georgio Chinaglia each received the same honor, and after Pele became the club’s Honorary President on August 1, 2010, to kick off the Cosmos’ rebirth.
While Pele (who is still widely considered the world’s greatest soccer player ever) was unfortunately unable to stick around for the post-match press conference, his former teammate, Alberto, who was clad in one of the new Cosmos jerseys, confessed that he was ready to help his old team to another win.
“I wanted to put the jersey on myself and go out there and play,” said the 69-year-old, one-time legendary defender.
Adding to that comment, the 63-year-old Messing chimed in by chuckling and admitting, “There’s no way I’m running onto the field [now].”
What the new Cosmos and Strikers put on Hofstra’s turf predictably fell well short of the level of play when the teams were intense rivals during the NASL’s heyday — such as when New York beat Fort Lauderdale, 8-3, in front of a North American record crowd of 77,691 fans, 36 years ago.
“I didn’t see an extremely strong Cosmos team or an extremely strong Strikers team,” said Fort Lauderdale rookie head coach Gunter Kronsteiner, who has only been on the job since July 17.
Still, the hotly contested match, which featured three yellow cards per side, didn’t lack drama, between the energized attendees in the stands, and the way each half concluded.
New York controlled much of the play in the opening stanza, but 19-year-old, Californian goalkeeper Richard Sanchez made several nice stops to keep the match scoreless until Yugoslavian forward Peri Marosevic gave the Cosmos a 1-0 lead with a left footer from close range, in the 44th minute, after a corner kick by Spanish defender Ayoze led to headers in the box by a Strikers defender and New York defender Carlos Mendes (who recorded an assist).
Marosevic and Mendes were later involved in second-half goals, as Fort Lauderdale picked up its play after intermission.
The Strikers finally got on the scoreboard after Mendes headed a long pass into the box. As Californian goalkeeper Kyle Reynish came out to play the loose ball, he was beaten to it by a fellow Californian, midfielder Walter Restrepo, who headed the ball into an open net, to equal the match, 1-1, in the 73rd minute.
Twenty minutes later, a Marosevic strike from outside the box resulted in a very fitting conclusion in stoppage time.
That shot was initially blocked at the edge of the goal box, but a Strikers header from outside the box, toward their own goal, allowed Italian forward Alessandro Noselli to sneak in and use his right foot to slip the game-winning score past Sanchez from just six meters out, in the 92nd minute, with about only one minute left in the match.
“I mean no disrespect to the Cosmos, but I would call it a lucky win,” Kronsteiner said. “From my point of view, it was an own goal… our defender had a blackout and this allowed the win for the Cosmos… under the circumstances, I was proud and a little disappointed because we had the draw in our hands and took it away from ourselves.”
Being on the opposite end of that moment, Savarese had a different take, saying, “[Noselli] scored in Italy for many years. He was very smart reading the play and being able to put it in dramatically at the end.”
A smiling Alberto noted the irony between the accomplishments his former teammate, Giorgio Chinaglia, and Noselli netting the deciding goal in Cosmos’ return to action after such a long period of dormancy.
After leaving as Lazio’s greatest scorer and player in his native Italy, Chinaglia retired as the NASL’s all-time leading scorer with New York. Although Noselli wasn’t nearly that as skillful, the 32-year-old, playing the same striker position that Chinaglia played, was still a dangerous scorer in Italy before joining the Cosmos.
“What a coincidence,” said Alberto, with pride.
Alberto also felt that he, Messing, and Pele had a sort of telepathic hand in the win, as the trio tries to instill its brand of ultra-competitiveness in the Cosmos’ latest incarnation.
“We were out there giving mental strength to the Cosmos,” he said. “It was very important that they started with a victory… you can’t always win, but the mentality of the team has to be that of a winner.”
Mendes, a former Major League Soccer veteran from nearby Mineola, New York, who played with the local MetroStars and New York Red Bulls, acknowledged that, “It wasn’t the prettiest game,” while adding, “We need to work to get better.”
But he also said, “It’s an honor to play for this club. To get the three points is important.”
Especially at home, in a stadium that should help the Cosmos adjust as they learn each other’s games and try to develop some solid chemistry this season.
“You could feel the energy and the atmosphere,” Mendes said. “It was an incredible atmosphere. You could feel the energy. It gives us a great push.”
Of course, that can work against New York, as well.
“One hundred percent, we used the Cosmos name [as a motivational factor],” Kronsteiner said.
Even a young keeper like Sanchez added, “You hear the name Cosmos and you hear the name Pele… it’s just an honor to play against the New York Cosmos… I did know [Cosmos and Strikers] were big rivals. Being a part of this was a great experience.”
Echoing the Mendes’ sentiments, Marosevic said, “We knew we were going to have pressure on us. It’s an honor to wear the New York Cosmos jersey.”
Meanwhile, Savarese linked the different Cosmos generations, saying, “The Cosmos name is so many great things. Everyone knows it internationally. This night was expected. The parents wanted their kids to see what they [saw] when they were kids.”
Well, not quite that type of soccer was displayed, but it was a good start, nonetheless. And, as Savarese alluded to, the Cosmos name is still as robust as ever, even after 29 years of inaction, with the fall of the NASL following the 1984 season.
“We’re thrilled with the return of the Cosmos,” Alberto said. “Wherever I go, people ask me about the New York Cosmos. It’s a very strong name. Unbelievable.”
Shedding more light on that notion, Messing said, “We’re very excited… wherever we meet, in New York, in South America, wherever, it’s ‘What about the Cosmos?’”
For now, that question has been answered, with New York’s successful return to the NASL.
Going forward, there are bigger plans, which center on a proposed state-of-the-art 25,000-seat stadium that the Cosmos hope to construct (a few miles west, right off of the same main road that goes past Shuart Stadium) across the street from the famed Belmont Park.
As a parting message, Alberto (who along with Pele, were inundated from their suite box with fan requests for autographs and pictures while the match was taking place), had a special request and prediction for media members and fans.
“Believe in the Cosmos,” he urged. “The work didn’t start today, it started three years ago. I believe in the next two years, the Cosmos will have a great team. Not like before, but at a high level. I say, ‘Not like before,’ [only] because there aren’t players like Pele and [Franz] Beckenbauer.”
He then assured the media of the continued work being done to remake the Cosmos into a success. “Pele and I are working on this,” Alberto said.
Eloquently putting the thoughts of the old and new Cosmos in their proper perspectives, Messing said, “We want them to be very proud of our history, but we don’t want the team to be burdened with our legacy. We want them to create their own.”
Just as with Messing’s team, there are no shortcuts to becoming the best. But that process has to start somewhere.
“Like many years ago, it didn’t happen overnight,” Messing said. “Tonight, it’s the first step, and we are very happy about it.”
Winning was just a bonus. Simply playing again is what truly counted.
Even if the first victory of a brand new era came on what Kronsteiner termed an “own goal,” in a league that is considered a cut below the MLS, what matters most for now, is that the Cosmos are back.
All historical and game information provided by the New York Cosmos’ media relations staff. All quotes courtesy of Jonathan Wagner, while covering the Strikers-Cosmos match for New York Sports Day on August 3, 2013. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanJWagner.