Shep Messing will be back Saturday where it all began, at Hofstra watching the Cosmos play soccer, and marveling at the long, strange trip both he and his sport have taken over (gulp!) 40 years.
"Surprise would be an understatement," he said Thursday, recalling that when he signed his first, one-year contract to be a Cosmos goalkeeper, "I thought the next year would be my last involvement in soccer."
Messing, 63, who grew up in Roslyn, still is at it, analyzing Red Bulls games on MSG, serving as an "international ambassador" for the reconstituted Cosmos and looking (with mixed emotions) toward 2015, when a third pro team is scheduled to arrive in the metropolitan area.
None of them will attract crowds of 70,000-plus anytime soon, as the Cosmos famously did in the 1970s, but this time around, pro soccer in New York is evolving toward a more sustainable model than that long-ago fad.
"The next two years the soccer scene in New York, I think it's going to be captivating to see what happens," he said.
Messing said the original Cosmos captured "lightning in a bottle," tapping into a relatively unsophisticated market wowed by the novelty. Soccer has come a long way from there amid changing demographics and greater exposure to the world game.
"This is almost a soccer-crazy town," Messing said.
The Cosmos hope their return is another step in that direction, even if it starts in the NASL, which is considered a level below MLS.
The reasons behind that are complex, but the primary motivation is independence from MLS' restrictive ownership structure. Messing had no say in that decision but said it reminds him of the "rebel streak" of the old Cosmos.
"We were kind of the rock-star bandits of the [original] NASL, and it seems to me they're sort of doing the same thing," said Messing, who applauded Cosmos management for its modest initial expectations. "I think these Cosmos don't have arrogant expectations to think they're going to be an overnight sensation."
Messing plans to attend the opener with fellow "ambassadors" Pelé and Carlos Alberto, taking advantage of a night off from MSG with the Red Bulls playing on NBC Sports Network.
Speaking of the Red Bulls, in the short term the best thing that could happen to local soccer is an MLS Cup for the New Jersey-based team, which is 10-7-5 and in second place in the Eastern Conference.
Not bad, especially for observers such as Messing who in his 13 seasons at MSG has watched the franchise transform from its dreary Giants Stadium days as the MetroStars.
"The history and evolution of these New York Red Bulls finally, finally has sorted itself out, and it's on the right path and I think in the nick of time," Messing said. "Pro soccer in the New York marketplace is about to, I don't want to say explode, but this is a significant moment."
The next big milestone after tomorrow will be the arrival in 2015 of a new MLS franchise financed by Manchester City and the Yankees, one that still does not have a home but does have skeptics.
On one hand, Messing said, he believes New York can support three pro soccer teams. On the other, he said, "I'm unconvinced this is the right group to get a soccer team that has New York roots."
Among his concerns is the state of human rights in Abu Dhabi, where the leader of the new franchise's ownership group, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, is a member of the royal family.
"It wasn't one I jumped for joy at," Messing said of the news. "But I'm not against them. I'm just not convinced."
There will be no such ambivalence for him and his friends Saturday, only the joy of looking back -- and ahead.
"We're soccer people, and the Cosmos were a great part of our life, so we're watching," Messing said. "I don't know what the emotions will be. But we'll be there, excited about the game."