By Michael Lewis
As an ardent soccer player and fan in the Twin Cities area, Manny Lagos can remember many a game in which his beloved Minnesota Kicks took on the New York Cosmos.
As head coach of Minnesota United FC, he will get an opportunity to have his team meet the Cosmos on Saturday, the first appearance by the New York side in Minnesota since the Minnesota Strikers defeated their rivals, 1-0, on June 30, 1984.
"We're looking forward to the Cosmos coming here," Lagos said in a recent interview.
And for good reason. Regardless of the outcome of the games, Lagos still has some enduring memories of those confrontations, first as a Kicks supporter.
He reminisced about being a fan during the earlier days of the North American Soccer League, "being a young kid and going to Kicks-Cosmos games and falling in love with everything about the sport, the great atmosphere those teams created for the young kids."
Lagos remembered when the Kicks hammered the Cosmos, 9-2, in the first game of a second-round playoff series in 1978 as striker Alan Wiley connected for five goals -- before an exuberant crowd of 45,863 at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn.. Unfortunately for Minnesota, goal differential was not a factor in the series as the Cosmos won the second leg at home before prevailing in a mini-game.
"The first thing I remember is we beat them 9-2 once," he said. "I was at that game. That will stand with anybody when you're playing one of the best teams in the world. Your home team beats them 9-2. It's a memorable night. That sticks out right away. A lot of it was the excitement of a young kid and really being able to see the sport."
He remembered watching the likes of Wiley, a marksman as a lethal striker, and South African midfielder Ntsoelengoe, who passed away from a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2006.
"Ace was my favorite payer on my team sure without a doubt," Lagos said. "Alan Wiley still lives around here and I still get to see him at events in the Twin Cities. I have a ton of respect for him now, especially as I get older I realize how much of a cold-blooded great goal-scorer he was and how he just went about his craft scoring goals any way he can. It was just amazing when you look at the ways he became a great striker.
"Ace was a little bit of a different story. It's tragic. He passed away years ago. I was working at the 2006 World Cup for XM radio and it just happened that our booth was right next to a South African radio booth. Somehow it came up about Ace and that I was from Minnesota and I'm doing a two-hour show on how much Ace meant to the community. A lot of people still remember his name and the legacy he had left on the field. Somebody from South Africa during that time period [during the apartheid era], to break away and live here and it was an important political moment to embrace somebody from that part of the world. And who did so well for us."
When United dropped a 1-0 road decision at the Cosmos on Sept. 14, it wasn't the first time Lagos and New York head coach Giovanni Savarese were matched up professionally. They were on opposing sides when the Minnesota Thunder battled the Long Island Rough Riders for the U.S. Interregional Soccer League crown in 1995 at Mitchel Athletic Complex, a long free kick from where Minnesota and the Cosmos tussled.
That game featured several future Major League Soccer players, including U.S. international Tony Sanneh and Lagos on the Thunder and U.S. internationals Tony Meola and Chris Armas and midfielder Jim Rooney and Savarese on the Rough Riders, among other talented players.
"I had certainly brought up some emotions," Lagos said. "That group that we played with an my father coached was a special group. It was a culmination for us as for some great years of pre-MLS soccer. I had been playing in Europe and coming home in the summer time and continuing to play with guys who were great guys. I thought we really excelled and did well those years."
In a close contest, the Rough Riders prevailed, 2-1, on a last-second goal by Savarese.
"It was just a great game," Lagos said. "I think both teams respected the other team really well. We were on the wrong side of an exciting final. I do think strictly some nice nostalgia about that game and the kind of players who were on that field that day."
Lagos was not at 100 percent as he was battling what he termed "a really weird nerve injury."
"I had to be used sparingly at time," he said. "I sure remember trying to navigate, not being 100 percent, but wanting to play, wanting to contribute. I sure remember how the game itself being such a back-and-forth, tight game like finals are. Then we had these moments of 10 or 15 minutes of wide open soccer and great chances for both teams. I was proud on how our team fought and battled that day. Then obviously the heart-break of scoring so late in the game makes it so tough as well."
Lagos, 42, who had played overseas with UE Lleida (Spain) and Clermont Foot Auvergne 63 (France) went on to enjoy a 10-year MLS career with the NY/NJ MetroStars, Chicago Fire, Tampa Bay Mutiny, San Jose Earthquakes and Columbus Crew before retiring in 2005. He also made three U.S. National Team appearances and scored a goal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.
Given that his father Buzz Lagos was the long-time Thunder coach, it wasn't surprising that Lagos decided to remain in the sport, first as the director of soccer operations of the Thunder in 2006, then as United coach in 2010.
"When I came back to Minnesota and started helping an helping pro soccer here, it was more I kind of loved being around the sport," he said. "I liked being around pro players. I liked the idea of the way the pro sport was growing -- not only in MLS, which was the league I played in for so many years -- but at the time the USL was transitioning into the NASL and this market. I grew up here. It's a great market to raise a family and it's a great market in the future for soccer. It was one of those things in which the sport ebbed and flowed. We had to work with the NASL to make sure that soccer stuck around here. My role became multi-tasking as both a technical director and a coach. I found the coaching side right away drawn to the competitive side, a reminder of being a player."
Entering playing date No. 10 of the 14-game fall season, United (4-3-2, 14 points) is in a three-way tie for second place along with the Tampa Bay Rowdies (3-1-5, 14) and Carolina RailHawks (4-3-2, 14) trailing the first-place Cosmos (5-1-3, 18) by four points. With the fall champion clinching a spot against the Atlanta Silverbacks for Soccer Bowl on Nov. 9, every game and every point in a short season is vital.
"I think we have a lot of work to do," Lagos said. "To get that honor we've got to be focused the next couple of weeks and get the results we need. That's the most important thing. I think as a group we're excited where we're at right now. We're working as a group and we're getting better every week. We're excited to see where it leads. We're certainly ready for the challenge."
Lagos also is optimistic about where the sport is headed in his native state and Twin Cities.
"I'm biased," he said. "We come from this great cold climate, but we have three other really nice seasons and I think people really take pride in this area. We kind of live on an island. There are not a lot of big cities around us. We have our two cities right next to each other, pretty good populations that is in the top 15 in the country. But we don't have a lot of big cities around so we tend to have to fight for relevancy within the country. I think that leads to some great pride. I think it starts with that. The soccer base, there has been a lot of great people who have really tried over the years to create a great legacy. You can say that about a ton of markets, but I think the reality is that our market has a legacy that has people really committed to making the sport grow and be special."
Michael Lewis is the editor of www.bigapplesoccer.com. Follow @BigAppleSoccer