By Peter Schwartz
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Over the last couple of months, there has been a spectrum of emotions surrounding the New York Cosmos’ players, coaches, staff, and fans.
On Nov. 13, the team beat the Indy Eleven to capture its third NASL championship in four years and the eighth in franchise history. Going back to their heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, the Cosmos have been in the business of winning Soccer Bowls. But recently things have been anything but business as usual off the field.
Not too long after the Cosmos hoisted the championship trophy, it became apparent that the franchise was going through financial troubles. During the latter part of the season, the team fell behind in paying the players, coaches, and staff. Then, after the season was over, most of the staff was let go while all of the players were released.
“The last six weeks have been difficult,” captain and defender Carlos Mendes said during an exclusive interview with WFAN.com. “After the championship, we really didn’t see this coming. During the season, we were focused on winning the championship and then after was when everything started happening.”
Things were so bad that the Cosmos were on the verge of ceasing operations and the NASL was in danger of closing up shop because teams were either moving to other leagues or folding. As the United States Soccer Federation was figuring out if the NASL or the USL was going to be granted Division II status, a savior began to emerge.
Once the USSF awarded provisional Division II sanctioning to both leagues, the Cosmos were off of life support. This past Tuesday, the Cosmos were resurrected once again when they were sold to Rocco B. Commisso, the Chairman and CEO of Mediacom Communications Corporation.
While some players have already signed with other teams, head coach and sporting director Giovanni Savarese has begun the process of putting the band back together by contacting the players that were jettisoned, including Mendes.
“They have reached out to me and now it’s just seeing if everything fits,” said Mendes, who this past season became the first player in the reboot era to play in 100 games for the Cosmos. “I definitely still do want to play. I have been in conversations. I have to sit down with my family and make a decision, but I am hopeful. It’s no secret … I want to be here. I’ve enjoyed my time with the New York Cosmos and we’ll see what the future holds.”
Mendes was the first player signed by the Cosmos when they returned in 2013 following a 29-year absence. The Long Island native has enjoyed a stellar four-year run with the club, including three championships, U.S. Open Cup wins over the Red Bulls and NYCFC, and selection to the NASL Best XI squad in each of the last three seasons. While there’s no question that Mendes would prefer to stay with the Cosmos, the uncertainty of what was happening left him no choice but to talk to some other teams.
“It was very difficult because I’m coming towards the end of my career and I was expecting to retire with the New York Cosmos,” Mendes said. “When we found out that the contracts were terminated, I had to really try to think about whether or not I wanted to try to continue to play elsewhere or move on to the next part of my life and the next part of my career.”
During the crisis, the Cosmos’ fan base was burning up social media with concern for weeks. Mendes said he found it hard to see what was happening with a team that was so successful on the field, but was going through some serious problems on the business side. It was the holiday season and people throughout the organization were going through a very difficult time.
“To see everyone start losing their jobs and be really uncertain about the future, that was definitely the worst part,” Mendes said. “It was probably the most difficult time of my career, not knowing what the future holds. You’re expecting one thing and then all of a sudden your world is turned upside down.”
Fast forward to the last couple of weeks when there was optimism about a Cosmos return and Mendes has experienced a spectrum of emotions since winning the championship. He’s gone from being on top of the world to not knowing where or if he would be playing this year to now possibly returning to the Cosmos.
“You’re angry, you’re disappointed and you’re sad,” Mendes said. “Because you believe in this and then this is crazy with some things and then in the end it may end up working out. I was expecting to move on and look for other options and now with the big news of the Cosmos coming back, we’ll have to see if everything can fit and hopefully I’d love to be a part of the future moving forward.”
The Cosmos have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. They currently have three players under contract, including defender Ryan Richter, who converted the Soccer Bowl-winning boot in the penalty kick shootout against Indy. The team is also in the process of taking care of back pay for players and employees as well as looking for a place to play. Hofstra does not want them back, so the likely destinations are Columbia University, where new owner Commisso played soccer and has a soccer stadium named after him, or at MCU Park in Brooklyn, where the Cosmos played two games during the 2015 season.
In the interim, filling out the roster is one of the top priorities and it sounds like bringing Mendes back is a real possibility.
“Hopefully I can be a part of it and help this club in any way that I can in the future, but there’s still some things that have to be figured out,” Mendes. “I had a conversation with Gio and obviously things are so crazy with the club right now. Hopefully I’ll have some good news.”
In 2017, the Cosmos will look a lot different as they try for the three-peat. They will have a new owner, a new home, and some new players. But regardless of how many of the players from last year’s club are brought back, it will be weird if “The Captain … defender … number 4 … Carlos Mendes!” is not heard during the introduction of the starting lineup at home games.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartcbsfan and the New York Cosmos at @NYCosmos