In Part 1 of our Road to 100: Carlos Mendes series, we covered his beginnings from a Long Island youth soccer player to his time away at college in Virginia, before returning to New York to play USL ball and his break into MLS with the MetroStars.
In a few short years, the New York Cosmos have made their presence felt in the US soccer scene. Two NASL titles. Highly publicized friendlies in El Salvador, Cuba, and Hong Kong. The signings of players like Raul and Marcos Senna. So where does one start when covering all of that’s transpired in such a short time?
How about at the beginning? With the signing of one, single player.
Family is a term used often by many teams to describe the relationship between the coaches, the players, the front office and the fans. It sometimes gets thrown around loosely. But, in a very literal sense, family may have played a part in the signing of their first player.
“My brother ran into his sister Melissa and she asked about me and he asked about Carlos,” current Director of Operations Sofia Parkes tells TICC, describing a run-in that happened several years ago. The siblings in both families were all within a few years of each other back in high school. “His sister was like ‘Oh, you should have Sofia sign Carlos for the Cosmos so he can come back home.'”
Parkes brought up Carlos in conversation to the head coach during a lunch and found out an amusing coincidence.
“I’m thinking about him to be our first player,” Savarese told her.
“Well his sister actually mentioned to my brother that he wants to come back to New York,” she told him.
The coach called the Mineola native at that same lunch and started a conversation. The rest is Modern Era history.“At that time, it was brought up to me that he was in Columbus, and potentially was interested in coming back home,” Savarese tells TICC. “I knew him from before, and I gave him a call. He thought about it, he felt it could be something we could talk about. I thought he could be a tremendous player for us. To sign a local player, a player that understands the culture that we wanted to build. That’s why he was signed as the first player.”
And Carlos? What convinced him to return to Long Island and a brand new club? Was it the option to return home? The long and storied Cosmos lore? A vision presented to him by Savarese and the others behind the rebirth?“I think it’s a combination of things,” he says. “I think you kind of said it. First off, knowing Coach Gio, knowing what kind of a person he is, was a huge decision. Having the opportunity to play for him, so that was a big thing. Coming back to Long Island. When you get to play at home, that’s another big part of it. My family, my wife is from here. But more importantly, I think it’s like you said, it was the vision of the club.”
While he’s been happy to talk about the road that brought him to the Cosmos, Carlos is visibly happy to talk about the return to Long Island.
“When I sat down with the ownership and with coach, I believed in the vision of the project. I wanted to be here from day one, from the ground-up and hopefully see the club grow and be a part of the club moving forward so I think all those things combined: having the opportunity to come home, to play for coach, to play for a team that I grew up knowing about, that my parents supported, was all part of it.”
“Carlos, you have to say, was a visionary, because he was the first player to sign. He believed in the project when there was not a project. There’s a lot of credit to his belief, because it has helped to build the New York Cosmos in the new era,” says Savarese. “He’s been a solid player, an experienced player, a leader, a very important part of our club so far.”
The year went on. Mendes was named captain and led the club in their return to the pitch on August 3rd, 2013. The stage was set for Cosmos glory. An old rival in the Ft Lauderdale Strikers, a sellout crowd, former players like Carlos Alberto in attendance, and Pelé delivering a pregame speech to the new Cosmos about to take the pitch. How surreal must that day have been?
“Yeah, you said it, it’s pretty surreal,” says Mendes with a look of incredulity as he relives that day. “That’s probably the greatest player to ever play the game and he’s sitting there, talking to you about how proud he is about his time with the New York Cosmos and what the club has meant to him. Then, you put on that jersey and you realize, in a good way, the weight it carries, the responsibility. How proud you are to wear the crest of the club. It was special. Also, just to sit down and speak to the greatest player of all time and how humble he was and the advice he gave us. That’s stuff that you just soak in. We said ‘We’ll remember this forever.’”
But, the Strikers weren’t interested in that narrative forcing a 1-1 scoreline into stoppage. The draw felt inevitable, until Italian striker Alessandro Noselli poached a stoppage time winner, bringing back the Cosmos’ winning legacy nearly thirty years later and sending a stadium full of people into a frenzy.“Uh, thank God we pulled it off,” says Mendes with a laugh. “That was obviously an unbelievable game, a great atmosphere. The way we won, obviously the three points were huge but I’ll never forget just the energy and the atmosphere of the stadium and just how into the game the fans were.”
The rest of the season felt like a blur, feeling like “four or five” weeks as Mendes puts it, but the club pulled through with a Fall title and earned a trip to the title game against the Silverbacks in Atlanta.
“It was one of those things where we knew we had quality, we knew we had talent,” Mendes says. “We believe in ourselves, but you go one game at a time. We were coming into a new league; a lot of good teams. We said one game at a time and at the end of the season, we’ll see if we’re playing for the Soccer Bowl and obviously, going down to Atlanta was a huge game. We had great support. Thank you to all the fans, family, friends. It was fun to play for them, in front of them.”
He also relives the moment where club legend Marcos Senna scored the fateful goal that earned the first championship for the club in over 30 years.
Elation runs across his face as he reminisces on the moment that brought a perfect end to their first season.
“I just remember thinking to share that moment for the fans, for our family, the work we had put in all year and then to have Marcos score that goal, it couldn’t have been written any better.”
With that first title in the bag, the Cosmos seemed poised to continue their reputation set decades ago as a dominant force in soccer. But 2014 and 2015 would bring some very different experiences, including derbies, a superstar signing and more highs and lows.
Part 3 continues tomorrow with a look at the 2014 and 2015 seasons, a major signing, and two very different postseasons.