Samindra Kunti – “Soccer is a Kick in the Grass” v “This is Cosmos country”. It´s hard to voice your support for any of these slogans. The first seems to be a blatant platitude, the second a bit snooty. Indeed, the precise extent of the Cosmos´ claim to their country has never been clear, but this Sunday afternoon one of the fiercest rivalries in the history of North American soccer returned with the Cosmos hosting the Tampa Bay Rowdies in a battle for first place in the NASL.
Earlier this week, Cosmos legend Shep Messing had shed some light on the rivalry in the seventies between the two clubs. “Rodney Marsh [Tampa Bay Rowdies striker] was as charismatic and outspoken as anybody – and we were the Cosmos with Pele and all the superstars. Rodney at a press conference before one of the games was asked if he felt he was the white Pele. Rodney, who is pretty quick witted, said no, he is the black Rodney Marsh! Pele was a little miffed by it.” Messing explained.
The rivalry at the time became larger-than-life: a band of superstars, record crowds and high end entertainment propelled the beautiful game to unprecedented heights in the US. Messing considered it to be a seminal moment for the Cosmos in the seventies, implying that the Rowdies too were instrumental in boosting soccer´s popularity on American soil. In 1977, Messing shined and the Cosmos knocked the Rowdies out of the NASL with a comprehensive 3-0 victory, thanks to two goals from Pele and one from Chinaglia.
Gone are those days of glitz and glamour, but the second tier of American soccer, which the NASL has effectively become, was unwavering in its attempt to regain some of that gone by glory as the top two outfits in the league squared off. And while a 29 year-hiatus may have cooled off some of the rivalry, its new incarnation did not disappoint. Classic Cosmos and classic Rowdies: fierce play, bags of commitment and a galore of goals.
Cosmos coach Savarese must have been fuming though at the interval with his goalkeeper Kyle Reynish, who got badly exposed in the 32nd minute when he rushed out to intercept the ball, but found himself caught in no-man’s-land with lethal Georgi Histrov coolly steering the ball into the net. On the stroke of half time, Reynish was dawdling in no-man´s land again. Lucky Mkosana took advantage of Reynish´s suicidal habits and chipped the ball over the desultory goalkeeper. The Rowdies were 3-1 up at the break.
The goal fest continued as the Cosmos impressed with an authoritative performance in the second half to pull off an unlikely victory. With Hagop Chirishian coming on for Peri Marosevic in the 57th minute, the Cosmos showed a positive attitude early on, resulting in a fair few numbers of corners. Brazilian Paulo Mendes pulled a goal back in the 63rd minute before Diomar Diaz, with a solo run through the heart of the Rowdies defense, dispatched the ball into the top-right corner in the 80th minute.
Marcos Senna and his silk touch provided the climax of the game two minutes later. He curled the ball with meticulous precision, but at the same time a sense of nonchalant flair, over the Tampa Bay wall and into the bottom-right corner of the net. Rowdies goalkeeper Diego Restrepo stood momentarily flabbergasted as the home fans celebrated in total delirium.
Senna had shown utter class in deciding the game – in a way the likes of Pele and Chinaglia would have done in the past. Messing called it “nanoseconds-moments”. He lauded the way Savarese´s men had dug in and not given up, drawing another parallel with the past. The new Cosmos will feel that reaching the 2013 Soccer Bowl against the AtlantaSilverbacks may be a chance to step out of the shadows of the past. With a cushion of four points at the top of the NASL, they might well be on their way.