By David Kilpatrick
When legendary New York Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing looks back on his fabled playing career, games between the Cosmos and the Tampa Bay Rowdies stand out for their intensity.
“The Rowdies were our archrivals,” recalls Messing. “Rivalries can’t be manufactured. They’ve got to be real. That rivalry exists because it was real.”
Having grown up in nearby Roslyn, Long Island, the Bronx-born Messing was drafted out of Harvard by his hometown Cosmos in 1973. He didn’t feature in goal as a rookie but saw some action in his sophomore season before his first stint with the Cosmos came to an abrupt end, when posing for a nude centerfold triggered a morals clause in his contract and he was released.
Messing quickly resurrected his career with the Boston Minutemen, where he began to emerge as the top goalkeeper in North America. When Bob Rigby was lost midseason to a shoulder injury in 1976, Pelé recalled the brash young American who had stopped so many of his shots and urged the Cosmos management to bring Messing back home.
Messing wasn’t in goal for the 5-1 thrashing dished out before a national TV audience in Tampa that June, but he started the final ten regular season games, including the 5-4 thriller over the Rowdies at Yankee Stadium in July and the controversial 3-1 playoff loss that Aug. in Tampa to end the Cosmos' title hopes for the year.
“1976 was a season where we flamed out,” says Shep. “It was disappointing. I was thrilled to be back on the Cosmos, but it was tough to be back on a team like that.”
Since 1977 would be Pelé’s last season, there was a desire within the team to give the Brazilian legend a fitting farewell, but the Cosmos got off to a shaky start. To bolster the side, Franz Beckenbauer joined the Cosmos in late May, making his debut at Tampa Bay.
For Messing, that game against the Rowdies was a nightmare.
“I split open an eye down there,” he said. “A cleat just split my eyelid. If it was a fraction of an inch further in, I'd be in real trouble. I had to come out of the game and there was a penalty kick on the play.”
Der Kaiser had been called for handling and Erol Yasin had to replace the injured Messing for the spot kick. It was another goal in a 4-2 loss that meant the Cosmos had much to improve upon if they could make their title dreams a reality.
A few weeks later, the Cosmos got the chance to play the Rowdies again on Father’s Day and this time everything seemed to click as the Cosmos Country phenomenon kicked into full gear.
“I’ll never forget it,” Messing recalled. “Werner Roth and I lived on Long Island and Franz Beckenbauer lived at the Essex House in New York City. So I was his designated driver because I would drive from Long Island and then pick up Franz in Manhattan and drive through the Lincoln Tunnel. We did that every day for training and games.
“The day it just took off was Father’s Day against the Rowdies in 1977,” Shep remembered.
“We picked up Franz, we went through the Lincoln Tunnel, and suddenly it’s bumper-to-bumper. We thought it has to be an accident or something. We were inching along and Franz is looking at his watch and he’s panicking because we’re not going to get there two hours before the game. That day it was a traffic jam. All of a sudden that Father’s Day we jump to [over] 60,000 people at the stadium. It was unreal. We had a great game. We won that game.”
The record-breaking crowd of 62,394 was treated to a Pelé hat trick and a 3-1 Cosmos win over the Rowdies.
The storybook run to the title included another win against their archrival Rowdies. A 3-0 win at Giants Stadium in the opening round of the playoffs further intensified the animosity between the clubs.
On Sept. 29, another chapter will be written in the history between the bitter rivals, as they struggle for the top spot in the North American Soccer League standings.
“This game is a big game,” claims Messing. “It’s unbelievable how psyched I am for this game.”
In honor of the iconic Shep, the first 5,000 fans will get a free Messing Mustache.
“I’ve had my mustache and my Cosmos connection for a lifetime,” says the honoree. “I’m no different from any of the guys who played for the team. We support this team. I don’t think of the day as special for me, I think it’s special for soccer.”
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