Road to 100 is TICC’s series covering members of the New York Cosmos who hit the century mark with the club. Carlos Mendes is the first to reach this milestone. Luis Hernandez and Steve Hamlin had a chance to sit down with the club captain and discuss his time with the club.
“A little chilly in here today, huh?”
Carlos Mendes, captain of the New York Cosmos, strides into the meal room at the club’s training facility, Cliff Bar in hand. He plops down on the folding chair set up in front of the team photo wall, rubs his arms, and describes for those in the room, in depth, how the locker room and meal room he spends most days in have a 20 degree difference in temperature. This does not feel like the preparation for an interview; this is a conversation between people who share the same space week in and week out. The great wall that usually separates media and player seems immensely shorter when “Los” enters the room.
It is clear from his charisma that this is obviously not Carlos Mendes’ first rodeo.
Carlos Mendes was born on Christmas Day in 1980, to two Portuguese immigrants in Mineola, New York. When you talk to Carlos Mendes about his beginnings, he speaks with a certain appreciation and pride of where he’s come from. Long Island is his home. He was molded here and he knows it.
“I always say that I’m very lucky to grow up in a community like this, on Long Island. First off, I think it’s such a diverse place; the youth game is huge. It’s a hotbed for soccer. Growing up here, I had a lot of opportunities presented to me; a lot of great players, a lot of great coaches. I was very lucky in that way, and having my parents who came here from Europe, who worked hard here, who gave everything to give us the opportunity to move forward and have a bright future; I’m blessed. I don’t think too many guys get to come back and play most of their career in the community they grow up (or very close by). For me, it’s a dream come true to play pro soccer. I always dreamed of it and then to now have the opportunity represent a club that, when my parents first came over, started watching; one of, probably the biggest names in terms of putting soccer on the map in this country. Now I’m captain of the team. I think it’s come full circle for me. I want to make the most of it, I want to enjoy it, and hopefully we’ll see what the future holds.”
Mendes got his soccer start on Long Island, both in school at Wheatley High and at a various array of travel soccer clubs, including the Mineola Portuguese Soccer Club. He went through the ritual that thousands before and after him have in Long Islands youth system. He practiced, he traveled, and most importantly, he dreamed. Today’s youth players look to emulate those they watch on television; the Neymars, Ronaldos, and Messis of the world. But, for Mendes, he looked to his backyard for inspiration. He attended Long Island RoughRiders games, watching the likes of future NASL adversary Tony Meola and future coach Giovanni Saverese battle in the infancy of United States pro soccer. Carlos continued to dream and work.
However, the next step to achieve his dream took him away from his beloved Long Island. Carlos decided to play his college ball at Old Dominion in Virginia. A tough decision, but one that Mendes credits as helping him mature at a young age:
“It was a really difficult decision for me. I spent most of my time doing travel soccer, but being close to my family and friends here on Long Island, it was a big decision to move away. It was the first time I moved away for an extended period. But, I think it was huge in the sense that it helped me mature, you know? It was difficult. I remember my first year of college, I was home sick. It wasn’t easy. I think, especially if you want to try and play professional soccer, it’s something you have to deal with. I think going away to college, playing for a great coach like Allan Dawson who expected a lot and pushed us, and being away for a while helped me mature and develop as a person and as a player. That was huge for me.”
It’s said that life always comes full circle, for better or for worse. Carlos Mendes can certainly attest to that, because after college he was able to play for his beloved Long Island RoughRiders, and then upstate for the Rochester Rhinos. His first decision to move away from home had immediately brought him back, giving him a special few years leading up to his first pro contract:
“Playing for the RoughRiders was special. For me, one of my club team coaches for a long time was Cordt Weinstein, a big Long Island RoughRiders player, and watching Coach Savarese play. All these players I grew up watching: guys like Tony Meola, Chris Armas. I would go to the games here at Mitchel Field, and those are memories that stick out in my mind. To come back home and play for the club, even for a short period, meant a lot. For me, when i first came out of college, I was injured a little bit and I didn’t get drafted, so I decided to come back home. Coach Reilly gave me the opportunity to play for the RoughRiders, things started from there. It was nice to start here on Long Island, then head to Rochester.”
Rochester, in a way, was where Mendes finally got his shot at the big time. During his time at the Rhinos, Mendes caught the attention of Bob Bradley, coach of the New York MetroStars. Mendes was called in to preseason camp for the MetroStars before the 2005 MLS season. Now, he had his shot at the dream he had carried from watching his idols at Mitchel Field as a child. He knew what this meant, and he knew what he had to do.
“I got invited to preseason and, of course going into preseason, you still don’t know if you’re going to have a contract, you have to go and play. I remember when Bob Bradley sat me down in Florida and said, ‘We’d like to sign you to a full contract with this team.’ I’m calling home, my family was crying and being all excited, very proud of me. After I signed the contract, going into preseason, you just work hard. You don’t say much, you try to listen to the veterans on the team, you try to learn.”
This began a self-described “whirlwind” of a first season in the big leagues for Mendes. He became a starter instantaneously, filling the spot formerly held by USMNT legend Eddie Pope. He and his teammates appeared in a photo shoot with Gisele Bundchen. And, on a personal level, Carlos was named MetroStars defender of the year by members of the media. When asked about the beginning of his professional career, Mendes’ voice becomes soft and reflective, a special emotional mix that only comes to players that have dedicated nearly two decades of their life to their sport.
“Being a starter for that year was a dream come true. I wasn’t expecting that… I just went in trying to get a contract, trying to get a roster spot. That worked out. Then you get defender of the year, you get recognized by some of the media and your teammates. Those things are all great, but for me it was just having the opportunity to do something love and signing a professional contract that I dreamed of from when I started playing soccer. Not many guys get to do that in their backyard.”
Mendes went on to enjoy six years at Red Bulls, which included an MLS Final appearance in 2008, a 3-1 loss to his future club Columbus Crew. Mendes calls that final “amazing”, despite not being the result the club wanted. “I remember having my family, probably 40-50 people, fly out to LA.” Mendes said. “It was a great experience.” In 2011, though, it was off to a new pasture for Mendes, who was selected by the Crew in the MLS Re-Entry Draft after the Red Bulls declined his option on his contract.
“Colombus, I enjoyed. I was there for one season, I enjoyed it, a great city and great club.”
Mendes remembers his time in Major League Soccer fondly.
“I can’t thank New York and Columbus enough, a great part of my career and I enjoyed every moment of it.”
What would be next for Carlos?
“…at the end of the year, when I had the opportunity presented to me to come back and Coach Gio called me up, everything made sense. I jumped on the chance to come and play for the New York Cosmos.”
Road to 100 continues tomorrow with a look at the signing of the first player of the Cosmos’ Modern Era and the first player to sign onto a vision.