Every Wednesday throughout the 2014 NASL season, a guest writer who regularly covers the NASL and soccer in North America will give their take on the league or the sport in general.
By Scott French
Pedro and Paulo Mendes have rarely been apart during their 24 years on earth, and so much of that time has been spent on a soccer field. The Brazilian-born twins were teammates as children, in college, as they climbed the ladder through the NPSL (National Premier Soccer League), and into the professional ranks in the NASL (North American Soccer League).
They’re supremely gifted attackers, capable of changing games with their skill and confidence, and they’ve attracted a growing legion of believers, headed by U.S. national team legend and current Atlanta Silverbacks Technical Director, Eric Wynalda, who discovered them at a Northern California junior college a few years back.
It’s been a steady climb, but every path has its deviations, and things haven’t gone so smoothly for the Mendes brothers in 2014. They finished last year rather spectacularly, facing off for the NASL Soccer Bowl championship in November -- Paulo and the New York Cosmos edged Pedro and the Atlanta Silverbacks -- but it’s been a thorny ride since then, with new adventures fostering growth but little reward.
"I had a good season last year and was looking forward to this season," notes Pedro, who joined Indy Eleven last December. "It hasn’t gone my way, but it’s not over yet. Still working hard every day, still training hard and waiting for my shot."
That’s the kind of attitude that has gotten Pedro, and Paulo, to where they stand today. Pedro hasn’t fit in as well in Indiana as he did with the Silverbacks, for whom he scored eight goals in a team-best 25 appearances last year. Paulo, who made an impact on the wing for the Cosmos after moving north last year -- the first time the brothers weren’t teammates -- is getting his feet wet in Venezuela, where he joined Metropolitanos FC on a loan deal at the end of July.
They believe they’ll come out of the experiences wiser and as better players, and Paulo says he’s "excited about this opportunity that I have been given." There’s a development deal between the Caracas club and the Cosmos, and Giovanni Savarese, the Cosmos’ coache (whose younger brother, Hugo, coaches Metropolitanos), says Paulo will "grow as a player" in "an excellent environment where we will be able to monitor his progress."
It’s all part of maturing, as people and players, and that’s true of their separation, too. They’ve been each other’s greatest supporter for so long, pushing each other to excel, but "we knew that time was going to come, we were ready for it," Pedro said. "He was going to go his way, I was going to go my way."
They were discovered -- together, naturally -- by Wynalda, who has shown a keen eye for talent since retiring following a career in which he starred in Germany and MLS and played in three World Cups. He got his first glimpse of them at Foothill College in Los Altos, Calif., nearly five years ago.
"The one thing that impressed me about them more than anything is that for Brazilian boys, they work for hard. On both sides of the ball, they never stop," Wynalda said. "But every time -- maybe to a fault -- they get the ball, they try to do something positive. I think some coaches might see that as a negative: You know, you can’t always do the play that’s going to win the game, but that’s just the way they think.
"Coaching them was always a challenge, but I appreciated their talent and their willingness to constantly try and change the game. More often than not, they did. You’ve just got to be patient, and you’ve got to wait for it, because if you wait long enough, they’ll provide you with the moment that most likely will win the game."
They learned that playing on the streets of Goiana, where they were born and lived until they were on the cusp of adolescence, when their family moved to the Bay Area, where an uncle lived.
"We grew up playing together in the streets of Brazil," Pedro said. "Put two rocks aside to make small goal, and everyone in the neighborhood would come and join, we’ll have a small game, pickup game, and it would go for days. My mom would be, ‘Oh, come have dinner,’ and we’d tell her, ‘Last goal, last goal,’ and that last goal would last forever."
Things were different when they arrived in Pacifica, Calif., on the coast just south of San Francisco.
"The U.S. is a lot different," Pedro explained. "In Brazil, kids play in the street all day, and all you see is soccer, all you see is football. You see football everywhere. Here in the U.S., you go out in the street, you don’t see a lot of kids out there playing the game, and sometimes it’s baseball, sometimes football. It’s not just one sport.
"Over there, the main sport is football, and the level, too -- in Brazil, kids start really young and they play in the street; that’s how they learn how to play. I think that’s a big advantage Brazil has over the U.S., is that kids start to play really young in the streets, and there’s a lot of talent out there."
They nonetheless thrived in Northern California soccer circles, led Terra Nova High School to a sectional title game in 2009, played together the following fall at Foothill College, then spent some time with DV8 Defenders, a top Bay Area club.
Wynalda’s conviction that they could become good pros helped them blossom.
"It was even better that he thought we were good enough to play. Coming from him, you know?" Pedro said. "One of the top forwards the U.S. ever had."
Says Paulo: "Eric has helped us tremendously. He has always supported us through the tough times and great times. He has turned into a great friend and mentor. It meant absolutely everything to me to go pro. I am so thankful for the opportunity Eric has given us. It has always been my dream to be a professional soccer player."
They ended up on the other side of the country in 2012, playing for the Rhode Island Reds. It was a girl who lured them there: Pedro met Kassandra Raposo at a soccer tournament in Baltimore and followed her to New England, where she played at NCAA Division III’s Worcester State in Massachusetts. Paulo followed.
"She lives there, and I was there with her, and that’s how we got to the East Coast," Pedro said. "I found the love of my life there."
They spent much of the 2012 season with the Reds, who were in their inaugural campaign.
"They were very impressive," says Rhode Island Reds owner/coach Kabba Joof. "They were very dedicated. Never missed practice. They actually would come in a half-hour before practice and do their own practicing before we start, warming up or running. So I knew there would be something big coming for these kids."
The Mendes brothers played with the Reds during their inaugural season, in 2012, and Joof says their "skill set was above everybody else I had" until he rounded up some top New England college talent. Paulo scored several goals and Pedro played a key role as the Reds went 5-4-4 and finished fourth in the Atlantic Conference.
"We went there mostly to keep in shape and get games and touches on the ball," Pedro said. "We knew we’d both have an opportunity [to play at a higher level]. I believe that Eric had told us that he would do anything to get us to play, so we knew that shot was going to come, and we just had to be ready whenever it came. And it came."
Joof let them go early so they could join the Cal FC side Wynalda put together for a U.S. Open Cup run, with huge upsets of the USL Pro’s Wilmington Hammerheads and then MLS’s Portland Timbers, and they joined the NASL’s Silverbacks when Wynalda was hired as technical director shortly thereafter.
They still keep in touch with Joof, and Pedro will train with the Reds on occasion.
"I’ve been very proud of them," said Joof, who serves as the NPSL’s Northeast Division commissioner. "And they haven’t forgotten the Rhode Island Reds. They keep up with the Reds, and we speak regularly. ... To me, they are fantastic guys."
Wynalda prized their versatility. Pedro primarily played up front, often as a second forward, and Paulo -- Wynalda thinks his best position is forward, too -- was stationed primarily on the left side in a 4-3-3 formation. Paulo made the greater impression that first season, making 10 appearances, and then left for the Cosmos, where he’s played 16 league games, with 12 starts, and scored three goals over the equivalent of a full season.
"Playing for the New York Cosmos was a tremendous learning experience," Paulo said. "We came into the league as a new team and won the Soccer Bowl together. It goes to show how hard work plays off."
That title game, a 1-0 Cosmos victory, is a high point in the brothers’ tale. Pedro had enjoyed a superb campaign for the Silverbacks, who won the spring title but faded during the fall. Paulo was a key contributor for the Cosmos, who romped to the fall championship. They’d never faced each other before.
"Winning the Soccer Bowl, it was a great feeling. Especially being the ‘new team’ in the league ...," Paulo said. "It was very different playing against my brother. Our whole lives, we played alongside each other. I didn’t really think about it much, to me it was another game. I was focused on winning."
Pedro thought it was "a good thing" to face off as rivals, a worthwhile experience, and the final, played in Atlanta, "was a good game."
"It could have gone either way," he said. "We maybe should have had a call, a handball in the box that wasn’t called, but it could have gone either way."
They’re farther apart now, with Paulo in Venezuela, where he’s awaiting his paperwork to be finalized so he can get onto the field. Things are "going well," he reports. "Everyone has been really nice and have helped me get settled in."
Pedro has made just four starts for Indy Eleven and hasn’t scored. It’s frustrating, but he’s working to impressed coach Juergen Sommer, who, like Wynalda, is a former U.S. national-teamer.
"I know what I can do," Pedro said. "I have been in the league, so I know what to expect. I would like to be starting more games. I know my potential, and I think I can help out the team."