By Jason S Rufner
Huge match this Saturday at Al Lang Stadium. Check it out on ESPN3. Tampa Bay Rowdies, the 2012 NASL champs, are hosting 2013 champion New York Cosmos with three big points in the #Fight4Fall at stake. Both these teams need a good result -- not only to get those points, but to keep the other guy from getting them.
Seems we've seen this story before.
Almost 36 years ago, the Rowdies and the Cosmos came face-to-face in a classic showdown known as the Soccer Bowl -- the championship tilt of the North American Soccer League. It was August 27, 1978, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., one of the greatest dates in NASL lore.
Just shy of 75,000 souls congregated on that warm Sunday afternoon, sunny skies casting light upon hallowed grounds for what would be -- and still is -- the largest throng ever to witness a professional championship soccer match in North America, staging a truly epic setting.
"The atmosphere was electric, to say the least," recalled Michael Lewis, a veteran soccer writer who covered the Bowl for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. "The crowd was entertained and entertaining at times, with their enthusiasm."
Many more were tuning in to the live national television broadcast, to see the 1975 champion Rowdies and the 1977 champion Cosmos do battle.
"It was the sort of game that, as an athlete, you always hope to be involved in," Rowdies great Steve Wegerle told me. "The noise was deafening. It was absolutely marvelous."
Cosmos captain Werner Roth declared the time to be "the pinnacle of U.S. pro soccer."
Two star-studded, recent-champion clubs in the league's biggest game within sight of the nation's biggest metropolis. Rodney Marsh, the supremely talented Rowdies forward, was forced to a cheerleading role due to injury. Pelé, the world's most famous player in his first year of retirement, rooted on his old Cosmos teammates from the sideline.
A veritable bevy of world-class talent did grace the field, though: Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Dennis Tueart, Carlos Alberto, Werner Roth, Steve Wegerle, David Robb, Arsene Auguste, Mirandinha....
"The Tampa Bay Rowdies were a formidable foe in that game and in those days," Lewis told me. "But when the Cosmos were on their game, particularly at home, they were difficult to beat."
Apparently so. After a half-hour of back-and-forth scorelessness, Tueart got open, collected a pass and banged it in. It became 2-0 New York just before halftime on a Chinaglia tally. Tampa Bay rallied late when Robb stole it and played it ahead to Mirandinha, who knocked it in. But the Cosmos answered three minutes later, effectively sealing the title when Roth assisted Tueart to cap a 3-1 win.
As he was setting up Tueart, Roth slipped it through the legs of the Rowdies' Joey Fink -- with no regard for the fact that the two were boyhood buds from their Brooklyn neighborhood.
"And I nutmegged him!" Roth remembered with a bit of glee. "Later he and I were having dinner up on the West Side, and I reminded him of it...after a few bottles of wine. That memory will certainly stay with me."
At game's end, with the massive stadium roaring, Roth accepted the gleaming trophy on behalf of the New York Cosmos, champions of Soccer Bowl '78. Minutes later, engulfed in celebration, the Cosmos got to toss the legendary Pelé into the shower, kicking off a fun night on the town.
As for the Rowdies, they made another Soccer Bowl in 1979, and went on to become a sports mainstay for the Tampa Bay region. Wegerle, who ranks fourth leaguewide in all-time assists, is among several ex-Rowdies who still live in the area.
"We had a marvelous team and a great year," he said to me. "They had a lot of terrific players and they were at home. They were just better than us that day, simple as that."
It was the Cosmos' third of five titles from the #NASLGoldenEra, while the Rowdies were denied their second championship.
But the rivalry between media-darling Cosmos and fledgling-upstart Rowdies -- arguably the league's most fierce -- continued unabated.
Wegerle fondly remembered a match in 1977 when his homestanding Rowdies defeated Pelé and the Cosmos 4-2 on national TV. Two of those goals were authored by him.
"The Rowdies/Cosmos games drew the biggest crowds, by far," Wegerle said. "For us to meet in the Soccer Bowl was probably what the league wanted, and it turned out that way."
New York's list of rivals was long, as everyone wanted to knock off the big-spending club from the Big Apple. But Roth conveyed good-natured sarcasm when he called Tampa Bay "our favorite team from the south."
Lewis, who would go on to cover soccer for 22 years with the New York Daily News and now edits BigAppleSoccer.com, told me the Cosmos/Rowdies rivalry was "intense."
"Both teams were competitive and did not like to lose," he said, citing a 1976 match in Yankee Stadium in which New York got past Tampa Bay 5-4. "These teams knocked heads in several classic confrontations through the years."
Now, in the 2014 season of the #NASLModernEra, the two are again contending for one prize. Neither has yet staked a spot among the four clubs who will vye for The Championship, but either of them still could. Both seek their second title since the rebirth of the NASL. And neither will give an inch to the other.
Some things never change.
When the two sides square off on the pitch underneath the Florida sun, wearing the same colors as they wore 36 years ago, they will harken back to a moment when -- at least for a day -- the world's sport was America's passion.
"I think soccer grew because of those two talented teams and the rivalry," Lewis opined. "It added to the culture and history of the game. And what a history it was!"