The Cosmos are a storied name in American soccer, still revered as the driving force in bringing the game out of the ethnic communities and into the country’s consciousness. It was the perfect organization for the time, a swinging array of talent — Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia and so on — that conquered the most vital city on the planet.
In some circles, the Brooklyn Italians’ name inspires the same kind of respect. If you know soccer in the Big Apple, you know the Brooklyn Italians.
The histories of these storied clubs, so intertwined as they’ve been, makes their coming Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup showdown something far more special than the usual pros-vs.-amateurs encounter, and those involved understand just how meaningful this will be.
The New York Cosmos, restored in 2010 and back on the field last fall, take on the Brooklyn Italians in a third-round game Wednesday night at Belson Stadium on the campus of St. John’s University in Queens. The survivor gets another landmark outing, a fourth-round assignment with Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls.
“It’s a great story,” said Joe Barone, the Brooklyn Italians’ vice president and the National Premier Soccer League’s chairman. “For us, it’s the highlight of being an amateur club to play a professional club, so it means so much. And from New York City, it’s two storied organizations, and to play each other for those 90 minutes is a highlight of pretty much what we put into [the organization]. … For 90 minutes, we’ll compete on the field, and the story in our tradition will continue, and the story in their tradition will continue.”
Those traditions have intersected since the early 1970s, when the Cosmos arrived, and especially once Pelé showed up in 1975. Joe Manfredi, an auto dealer and the Brooklyn Italians’ president, was one of the North American Soccer League club’s first sponsors.
When Cosmos reserves needed a game, they suited up for the Brooklyn Italians.
The relationship was strong until the original club disbanded in 1985 — a handful of its players moved on to the Italians — and the resumption of the Cosmos brand has tightened the ties between the clubs.
Cosmos head coach Giovani Savarese played a few games for the Brooklyn Italians before Major League Soccer kicked off, in 1996, and he went on to star for the MetroStars, as the New York Red Bulls were initially christened. Assistant coach Carlos Llamosa played several years for the Italians, and his son is in the club’s youth system. Italians head coach Lucio Russo coached Savarese with the New York Greek-Americans in the early 1990s; they’re old and dear friends.
“We couldn’t ask for a better situation,” said Barone, a former Italians head coach. “We’re friends and partners. We have a great relationship, not only with the coaching staff of the New York Cosmos, but with the ownership group. I have a personal relationship with their ownership, and so does our president, John Saia. There is a bond, a working relationship there, a lot of tradition.”
The teams have never met in competition, of course, and if it was going to happen, the U.S. Open Cup was going to be the venue. The tournament, in its 101st year, brings together clubs of every stripe, from amateurs such as the Brooklyn Italians to semipro teams, those involved on every tier of the ladder right up to MLS, whose clubs have won all but one title since its debut.
The tournament has evolved into a bigger deal with MLS’s participation; the old NASL clubs never took part, and some of the most legendary names in Open Cup annals — clubs like Bethlehem Steel, Fall River Marksmen and Maccabi Los Angeles — mean little to nothing to today’s American soccer fanatics.
This is the first time the Cosmos have entered the Open Cup. They won the NASL fall title last year, then beat the Atlanta Silverbacks in the league’s Soccer Bowl championship game, and their aim is another trophy.
“It’s exciting for us to participate in the U.S. Open Cup. It’s such a prestigious competition,” said Savarese, whose team is 4-2-0 and second in the NASL heading into Saturday’s game against Indy Eleven. “As with everything we do, we take it very seriously, competing in the best possible way, in presenting the Cosmos in the best possible way.”
They’ve got a strong roster led by Brazilian-born Spanish midfielder Marcos Senna and defenders Carlos Mendes, the captain.
The Brooklyn Italians, formed in 1949, have twice won the Open Cup, as the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1979 and under the Italians name in 1991. They joined the NPSL in 2010 and have won two divisional titles while going 35-5-7 in regular-season play. Their primary goal this year is to win the NPSL championship.
There’s talent in Italians’ team. St. John’s defender Tim Parker has a pro future, they believe, and they rely heavily on captain Kirk-Dean Scarlett, also a defender. The Cosmos are closely watching forward Yvener Guerrier, who has eight goals in four games this year, including a pair in a 4-2 triumph over USL Premier Development side Jersey Express in a second-round Open Cup game.
Russo, who played against the Cosmos in a scrimmage 33 years ago, when he was playing at St. Francis College, says that “it’s just an honor to be on the same field as” the Cosmos. The Italians know they’re not supposed to win.
“Look, I mean, we’ve got to be realistic, right? We’re an amateur organization, and they’re a legit professional organization that has a budget, is very results-driven. Whatever comes of it, we’ll take it,” Barone said. “We got nothing to lose, we definitely got nothing to lose, so we’re going to go out and play as best as possible. Whatever happens happens in those 90 minutes.”
Says Russo: “Here’s the problem: We have players coming out of work now, players that can’t even make practice. I mean, Cosmos? This is their job. They train every day, and it’s work. For us, it’s a hobby. We’re going to do our best, don’t get me wrong, we’re going to go on that field and we’re going to prepare ourselves, but how much can you really prepare for a good NASL team, let alone any NASL team?”
The Cosmos don’t think it’s going to be simple. Amateurs have been known to pull off upsets in this competition, as recently as May 14, when the NPSL’s Chattanooga FC stunned the USL Pro’s Wilmington Hammerheads in the second round.
“We’ll never underestimate, we respect always the opposition, and especially a team like the Brooklyn Italians,” Savarese said. “Even though [they are amateurs], we have to treat it very seriously. We respect the club, they have a great organization. We know the team, we know their roster. That’s why we know it’s a team we have to respect.”
Mendes, who grew up on Long Island and played for the Long Island Rough Riders and New York Red Bulls, says it will be a “difficult game.”
“I think [the amateur] teams come ready to play, bring their best game,” he said. “They’re excited to have the opportunity to play a pro team, and they have some good players. They’re going to come out fired up. We need to be prepared and play our best if we’re going to come out on top.”
It promises to be an emotional game, especially for longstanding members of the Brooklyn Italians. “I hope the the players understand the magnitude of this game, and I know most of them do,” Russo said. “I’m just somewhat worried that, uh, some don’t.”
Scarlett says he understands the game “sits as more sentimental for others,” but the players, he says, merely see “the Cosmos as a professional team that we would like to take down.”
Can they do it? Why not.
“Taking the referee out of it, it’s 11 against 11. And as far as I’m concerned, I’m equally a man as any one of those players,” Scarlett said. “There are a lot of players on our team that I think could be professionals but for one reason or another aren’t.
“[The Cosmos are] a team in our way right now, and we’re just going to try our best. I know not too many folks expect us to do well, but we’re confident in ourselves, and we’re just going to go out and try to do our best.”