Carlos Mendes strides into a room at the New York Cosmos practice facility at Mitchel Field with the grace of an athlete and a stack of 5-by-7-inch cards bearing his photo.
“OK, who wants autographs?” he says.
Eleven small hands shoot into the air. “Me! Me! Me!” cry the members of a Mineola youth soccer team as they crowd around Long Island’s homegrown soccer star. Mendes produces a Sharpie and begins signing the cards, showing No. 4 charging down the field.
“Here you go . . . thanks . . . this one’s for you . . . ” says Mendes, 35, of East Meadow, as he whips his way through the stack, handing one to each of the boys, who are 10 or under. The young fans are soon joined by their siblings, who are gently prodded by their parents hovering nearby. (“Make sure you say ‘Thank you,’ ” whispers one mom to her son.)
The autographed cards aren’t enough: Several of the boys hand Mendes soccer balls to sign; a couple of Cosmos jerseys appear before him and his pen, then a backpack and, finally, one boy grins wide and hands him a shoe. Mendes laughs and scribbles his name on the side.
Abbe Sargeant of Mineola, whose son Jack is a member of the team, Academy 05 U10, smiles as the boys surround Mendes. “They idolize him,” she said.
With good reason: Twenty-five years ago, Mendes was also one of the legions of youth soccer players who have made participation in “the beautiful game” — as its proponents call soccer — almost a rite of passage of Long Island childhood. But he was better than most, talented enough to earn All-American honors at The Wheatley School in Old Westbury, where he was the recipient of the 1997 Jim Steen Award as Nassau’s best player; good enough to win a college scholarship (to Old Dominion University in Virginia); good enough to have a 14-year professional career that included stints with the Long Island Rough Riders, the New York Red Bulls and now the Cosmos, the famous soccer franchise of the 1970s that re-emerged on Long Island in 2013.
Mendes, who was playing in Columbus, Ohio, at the time, was the first player signed by the new Cosmos.
In their inaugural season on Long Island, he led the team to victory in the Soccer Bowl — the championship of the North American Soccer League (the second tier of the two major U.S. professional leagues, behind Major League Soccer). The team went on to win the championship again in 2015, and again, Mendes, a defenseman, was its captain. As he signed the autographs for the youth team on an afternoon in late April, Mendes faced a wall-size photograph that showed him surrounded by his teammates celebrating the 2013 championship.
‘We relate to him’
While the 21st century Cosmos are not quite the Cosmos of the 1970s, some of the stars of that team are still connected with the so-called “rebooted” franchise, including the most famous of them all, Pelé, who is the honorary president of the Cosmos. Mendes has met the great Brazilian star several times. “He was so humble,” recalled Mendes who, talking about the Babe Ruth of his sport, sounds himself a bit like one of his 10-year-old fans. “He signed a jersey for me,” he says, and it’s framed and hanging in Mendes’ home.
A long, solid career as a professional; championships; the opportunity to meet one of the greatest athletes in history. Not bad for a quiet, well-mannered kid from Mineola who, as his father, Jose Mendes, recalled, “never said ‘no’ to a coach, and never made excuses for a loss. He always took the responsibility.”
Truth be told, there doesn’t seem to be a surfeit of loss and disappointment in Mendes’ career or, for that matter, his life. He’s happily married to the former Jillian Karlewicz, a first-grade teacher at Willow Road Elementary School in Franklin Square, and they have a son, James, who is 11 months old. Mendes is surrounded by family and friends he has known since childhood. He loves playing for the Cosmos, and he’s a fan favorite.
“He’s definitely one of the most popular guys on the team,” said Cesar Trelles, of New Hyde Park, a member of the Cross Island Crew, the Cosmos fan club. “Especially with us, the fans from Long Island. We relate to him, and he relates to us.”
Unlike many players in American pro soccer, “he didn’t come from England or Spain or South America,” said Kevin McCrudden, of Smithtown, who publishes Soccer Long Island Magazine. “He doesn’t have an accent. He’s a homegrown guy playing at a high level. His influence on local kids and Long Island soccer is enormous.”
Mendes is aware of his good fortune. “To play soccer for a living where I grew up, and for a club that has this famous name, I’m proud and honored,” he said. “Not too many guys get to do this.”
Mendes is confident and aggressive on the field, and polite but reserved off it.
“It took him three months to ask me out,” his wife recalled. The two met in 2006 at a now defunct gym in New Hyde Park. Jill was working the front desk and doing some personal training, while Carlos was doing his offseason conditioning. When she got home after their first date, her brother, Jesse, heard that she had been out on a date with a guy named Carlos Mendes. “He said, ‘Wait. Carlos Mendes? The soccer player?’ ” Jill recalled with a laugh. “It was a pretty big deal for him.”
The fact that her new boyfriend was a well-known athlete didn’t concern her, even though she knew little about soccer. “He was very soft-spoken, he was a gentleman, he listened,” she said. “He wasn’t just into talking about his career; he was interested in mine as well.”
The two were married in January 2011. James was born last May. Weeks shy of his first birthday, he is kicking a soccer ball around, although Mendes maintains he won’t push James to play.
“If he wants to, fine. If not, that’s fine too,” he said.
When he’s not practicing or playing with the Cosmos, the couple enjoy the same kinds of things as many Long Islanders. They have family barbecues, go to Long Beach and attend concerts at Nikon at Jones Beach Theater. (They’re both big Dave Matthews fans.) Unlike most residents of Nassau and Suffolk, however, Mendes is occasionally recognized in public. “Last year in Times Square it happened,” his wife recalled. “Anyplace where there are a lot of soccer fans. And, of course, in Mineola.”
Molded by Mineola soccer
Mendes is a product of the close-knit Portuguese community in Mineola. His mother, Maria, was 7 when she moved to the village from Portugal, and later owned a hair salon in town. Father Jose, who owns a landscaping business, was also born in Portugal, and arrived here as a teenager. Mendes was born on Christmas Day in 1980 and is the oldest of four children. Siblings Melissa, 32, Rob, 28, and Juliana, 16, all live on Long Island.
Soccer has deep roots in Mineola. The local football organization, the Mineola Portuguese Soccer Club, was founded in 1936. One of the organizers of the club’s youth program, David Neves, has been playing the game with Mendes since they were kids. “He’s still the same Carlos we used to hang out with in high school,” Neves said.
Seeing Mendes on the Cosmos field in a practice with the Academy 05 U10 youth team in Mineola — coached by Mendes’ brother Rob, himself a standout player at The Wheatley School — is like seeing a future coach in action.
“Pay attention . . . good!” Mendes says as he trots through the lines of boys, observing the 10-year-olds practicing their ball skills and addressing them by name. “Let’s go, Andrew, I like it!”
When the team drops to the ground for 10 push-ups, Mendes gently teases one of them, who thought he could get away with some extended downtime. “You did, like, three,” he said, laughing. “You owe me a couple, Colin.”
The Cosmos’ coach, Giovanni Savarese, observed the practice and Mendes in action. “I think he has the personality to coach,” Savarese said. “He has patience; he analyzes the game.”
While he clearly enjoys working with the kids and is interested in the idea of coaching professionally at some level, Mendes said talk about his post-playing days is premature.
“Honestly, I feel really good, physically and mentally, and I’d love to play another couple of years,” he said.
Although the Cosmos will not release player salary information, Mendes reportedly was paid $103,000 per year in 2012, when he played with his previous team, the Columbus Crew.
A hamstring strain cut short his playing and practice time briefly last April, but Trelles said he remains a “solid, able player.”
All indications are that Mendes, who drives a Volkswagen and helps change diapers, should continue enjoying the star status that keeps him signing autographs. He has been immortalized not just on a playing card but with a bobblehead. He laughs and shakes his head when reminded that fans attending the Cosmos’ May 22 game at Hofstra’s James M. Shuart Stadium in Hempstead will receive a doll in his likeness.
“I’ll be made fun of awhile for that,” Mendes said.