By Peter Schwartz
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On Aug. 28, 1977, the New York Cosmos won their second North American Soccer League championship when they beat Seattle 2-1 in the Soccer Bowl in Portland, Oregon. What was even more significant that day was that Pele, arguably the greatest soccer player ever, played his final competitive match and went out as a champion.
This Sunday, the Cosmos will be looking for more of the same when they host Ottawa Fury FC in the NASL Championship Final at Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium. The Cosmos will be seeking their seventh Soccer Bowl title and second in three years.
And just like with Pele 38 years ago, they are hoping to send some of their retiring stars home as champions.
Are the Cosmos feeling pressure to make sure all-time legends Raúl and Marcos Senna raise the Soccer Bowl trophy in their final game?
“I think any time you are playing in a final you feel pressure, regardless of the circumstances,” said defender Hunter Freeman. “Having said that, we all know this is their last game and you couldn’t have written the script any better.”
There’s no question that the current Cosmos are feeling the same obligation to win it all for Raúl and Senna that the players back in 1977 did for Pele.
After a lengthy courtship, the Cosmos were finally able to sign Pele during the 1975 season, but the team still failed to make the playoffs. A year later, the Cosmos made the playoffs but lost to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the conference semifinals.
Knowing that 1977 was going to be Pele’s final season, the Cosmos had the weight of the world on their shoulders to win it all.
“Every player in 1977 felt what I would categorize as both pressure and a responsibility to get Pele his championship,” former Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing said. “(Franz) Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto, both World Cup winners, said in many ways the pressure they felt for this game was greater.”
And the pressure is now on the current Cosmos, the top seed in the playoffs, to get the job done on their home field.
After a 29-year absence, the Cosmos returned to competitive action in 2013 and made a big splash with the signing of Senna. The Spanish midfielder scored the only goal in the Cosmos’ 1-0 win over Atlanta in the Soccer Bowl.
Senna spent three seasons with the Cosmos and loved every New York minute of it.
“These past three years with the Cosmos have surpassed my greatest expectations,” Senna said. “Everything that was said about the club and the project at the onset, I’ve been convinced of it in my time here. Once I got here, it was better than I imagined. I couldn’t be happier.”
Raúl, the former Real Madrid striker, joined the Cosmos this season and scored the winning goal in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Ft. Lauderdale in the semifinals at MCU Park in Brooklyn.
“I thought this year felt like the right year to finish,” Raúl said. “I thought it was time to invest in new projects and spend more time with my family. We’ll work hard to try to win the championship.”
The goal is simple: win a championship and send the two former Spanish national club teammates out in style.
“These New York Cosmos players feel the same,” said Messing, now a Cosmos analyst on One World Sports. “They also feel it’s an opportunity for them to be part of history.”
Hoisting the Soccer Bowl trophy will be no easy task against an Ottawa club that won the NASL’s Fall Season title and finished tied with the Cosmos atop the combined standings with 56 points. The Cosmos, champions of the Spring Season, beat out Ottawa for the top seed on the second tie-breaker, which was most overall goals scored during the combined season.
This will be the fourth meeting of the season between the two teams. The Cosmos won 1-0 back on May 2 in Brooklyn, played the Fury to a scoreless draw on Aug. 26 in Ottawa, and then, in perhaps the low point of the season, lost 4-1 at Hofstra on Sept. 2.
“It was a disorganized New York team that got punished by counter attacks and they won’t make that mistake again,” Messing said. “This should be a tight, even game with the winner being determined by one mistake or one big-time play.”
The Cosmos certainly remember what happened, but they have business on Sunday to focus on instead.
“The last game at home definitely left a bad taste in our mouth,” Freeman said. “Any time you lose, I think it provides motivation for the next time you face that opponent. Having said that, this is a final on our home field and if we need any extra motivation, other than that it’s a final, then something is wrong with us.”
In their reboot season two years ago, the Cosmos channeled their inner glory days to win their sixth Soccer Bowl, but that was on the road. On Sunday, they will host a championship game for the first time since 1978 when they beat Tampa Bay 3-1 at Giants Stadium in front of 74,901 (including my dad and I in row 30 of section 317.)
The Cosmos also have a chance to win a championship at the same venue where they won their first back in 1972, a 2-1 win over the St. Louis Stars.
“To lift the trophy at home would be extra special,” Freeman said. “To lift the trophy anywhere is a special moment, but to do it at home in front of friends and family, as well as all of our fans who have supported us the past three years would simply be icing on the cake.”
And it would be a delicious dessert for Raúl and Marcos Senna.
The original Cosmos featured so many legendary players like Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto and Beckenbauer, in addition to Pele. A franchise so rich in history has a chance to make history one more time.
Sunday’s NASL Championship Final at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium will kickoff at 5 p.m. To purchase tickets, click here.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @NYCosmos, @MarcosSenna19, and Hunter Freeman @huntfree