Tall, tan and fit at age 65, with a full shock of salt-and-pepper hair, original Cosmos star defender Werner Roth looks like he could still scrimmage with the 2013 squad, cleverly being marketed as a re-boot of the North American Soccer League's flagship franchise.
Roth remembers when his old Cosmos got a much-needed kick-start from a legend and suddenly, there was NASL congestion at stadiums around the world. "It was Pele. He walked into a vacuum of spectator interest and it was the power of the Pele personality and the Pele history that brought people to the stadiums," said Roth, who spoke to the expansion Cosmos during practice at Mitchel Park on Thursday.
Presumably, his audience knew of Roth's former teammate, the Brazilian superstar who joined the Cosmos in 1975 and launched a soccer boom in America that never reached supersonic proportions but still is sending out aftershocks such as David Beckham's brief U.S. tenure and the Cosmos' rebirth.
"It became the Pele Show. There were times I caught myself just watching instead of getting into position," said Roth, who began playing for the Cosmos in their second season of 1972, when they won the league championship and played their home games at Hofstra, as they will again until a proposed new stadium is built, likely near Belmont Park. They host Fort Lauderdale in their season opener on Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. at Shuart Stadium.
"That was one of the challenges in the beginning -- to accept him as another teammate without being awestruck," said Roth, who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Los Angeles where he is involved with soccer youth development. "The other thing was raising our level of play to meet his because it was obvious in '75 and even in '76 that we were not up to Pele's level. It was later in his career, but you still saw those touches of brilliance. He was always in the right position to get the ball and we always passed it to him. He used to tell us, 'I'm not the only guy on the field. I get tired, too.' "
Soon, Roth recalled, Pele was not the only star on the field. Under the ownership of Steve Ross, head of Warner Communications, and the guidance of shrewd general manager and team president Clive Toye, the Cosmos added huge pieces, such as international stars Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and Steve Hunt. They won back-to-back titles in 1977 and '78, playing to huge crowds here and abroad. They left their Long Island home after the '73 season and played their home games at Randalls Island before moving to Giants Stadium in 1976.
"It was business as usual until the whirling helicopter above Randalls Island -- manna from heaven. Pele was coming down," Roth said. "I remember that first day when they introduced him. We'd heard the rumors, but we still didn't believe it until he was dressing next to us. Nothing was ever the same after that."
The soccer culture was changing. "Clive and Steve put the Cosmos and U.S. soccer on the world map," Roth said. "Franz only came to America to play with Pele. It was somewhat of a precursor to the Real Madrids and Manchester Uniteds of today, where they have some of the world's best players playing together on one team."
It didn't start that way. Roth recalled that when he and his no-name teammates played before modest crowds of 2,000 to 3,000 at Hofstra, it was a vast improvement over the crowds for his German-American League games in New York City, where many NASL players came from. As he watched a group of relatively unknown players work out this week, Roth said he felt "like a parental godfather and they are my children. I've been looking for them for 30 years. They have the potential now to complete the original Cosmos' legacy -- which was not just to win championships but to dominate American professional soccer and to take it international."
Just as Roth's teams did.
"We were part of a seminal moment in American soccer that will never, ever be repeated," Roth said, "because none of those circumstances will ever be the same."