A New York Soccer Story: Cosmos’ Carlos Mendes

IMAGE, NY COSMOS

Cosmos logoBefore the New York Cosmos moved to Brooklyn, any supporter using public transit to get to one of the their games at Hofstra University had to make a pit stop in Mineola, N.Y. For Cosmos captain Carlos Mendes, though, Mineola is his point of origin.

Like many Portuguese immigrants, Mendes’ parents Jose and Maria settled in Mineola. The two purchased a house in the Long Island village shortly before Mendes was born and have remained there ever since, adding three more children along the way.

“Mineola’s got a pretty big Portuguese community,” Mendes said. “You go through Mineola and you’ve got the restaurants, bakeries, everything. It kinda keeps you in touch with the motherland and it’s close to the city. I love it. I wanna retire here. It’s the place I’m comfortable.”

Mendes’ parents, who went to Cosmos games in the 1970s, encouraged but never forced soccer onto their son.

“I’d play in these mini-intramurals at two or three,” he said. “They could just tell I loved it and couldn’t get enough. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had a family that is very supportive in every way, always giving me every opportunity and never pushing me. That support system’s been so important to me.”

From those intramurals Mendes moved up to the local club in Mineola, then onto Albertson SC and Dix Hills for his teenage years. Mendes’ coach at Dix Hills, Cordt Weinstein, played an important role in getting the youngster to go all in on soccer. In addition to coaching, Weinstein played for the Long Island Rough Riders alongside guys like Tony Meola, Chris Armas and future Cosmos coach, Giovanni Savarese.

Mendes went to see Rough Riders games often. In the days before the New York/New Jersey MetroStars launched, seeing the game played up close and in a professional environment had a huge impact on him.

“I was so lucky to have a coach who was playing at a high level locally,” he said. “It lit that dream of playing pro soccer. I remember going to Mitchel Field and they had the stadium full. It was small, but it was packed. They had a great team. Soccer wasn’t as big as it is today; you didn’t see as many games on television.

“I don’t even remember how many people were there, but it was full and the feeling just stuck with me. It really is important to leave that impression. Long Island in general is a hotbed for soccer. So many kids play at the youth level here. To have different pro clubs around the area I think is massive.”

Mendes earned all-America, all-State, all-County, basically all-everything at Wheatley High School. St. John’s University and a few schools recruited him, but he chose to leave the comfort of home for Old Dominion University.

“All my friends still tell me I would’ve won a national title if I had went to St. John’s,” Mendes said, joking. “I really got what I was looking for. I remember the first year at Old Dominion being homesick. Even though I enjoyed my first season and was having a good time, it was difficult for me. I think that helped me mature as a person and as a player. I played for a great coach there in Alan Dawson. I had good teammates. I learned a lot about myself. I was happy with the decision.”

A quality career at Old Dominion was marred by an injury in his senior season, which took him off the radar of many Major League Soccer teams. Out of school, Mendes ended up back on Long Island with the team that inspired him as a youngster. Rough Riders Coach Paul Riley gave Mendes his first shot as a professional, though he had to pick up a new position to take advantage.

“I was a midfielder all through college and when I came to the Rough Riders, Paul said they were looking for a center back,” Mendes said. :He thought I read the game well. That was the first time I ever played in the back. I also got the opportunity to play with Cordt Weinstein, who I started playing for when I was 12. I got to play at the pro level with him and we win a championship. It was a great experience.”

Mendes took to center back quickly and moved on to the Rochester Rhinos in the USL A-League. After starting consistently for two seasons upstate, he got caught the eye of MetroStars Coach Bob Bradley, who scooped him up for the 2005 season. The next off-season brought many changes to the team, though, as Bradley left and European ownership came in and rebranded the team as the Red Bulls.

“It was definitely an eye-opener in the sense that it you love the game and then it becomes a business,” he said. “Coming into it, you have to know what to expect. It’s never easy when there are a lot of changes, a lot of coaches coming in and out. It’s something that every professional player in every sport has to be ready for and deal with. That’s part of it.”

In his seven seasons with the Red Bulls, Mendes played under six different coaches. Some favored Mendes’ skills more than others, but he kept his head down and remained a constant. His 166 appearances still rank as the sixth-most of any Red Bulls player.

Despite now being considered a Cosmos legend, Mendes was a stalwart for the Red Bulls for seven seasons. Photo by West Point

Despite now being considered a Cosmos legend, Mendes was a stalwart for the Red Bulls for seven seasons. Photo by West Point

“The Red Bulls were a club that gave me my chance in MLS. I enjoyed every moment. I appreciate all the fans,” he said. “When you’re there for that many years, you’ll always have that connection. Red Bull will always be something I look back on with pride. I was lucky to have that opportunity and I have nothing but great memories.”

Mendes moved outside New York for the first time in 2012, joining the Columbus Crew when the Red Bulls declined his contract option. The brief foray out of state didn’t stick as he made just a dozen appearances.

Fortunately, Savarese called up with a unique opportunity close to home. Signing up for the rebooted Cosmos wasn’t the easy call as Mendes still had interest in MLS, but the respect he had for Savarese as a player as a person swayed him.

Unlike his time with the Red Bulls, Mendes now got to be a part of building something from the ground up as the first player signed by the team ahead of the reboot season. Five years later, Mendes and the Cosmos have three league titles to show for their hard work.

“We didn’t even really have a field at first,” he recalled. “We were in the back at Mitchel with old Cosmos equipment. There wasn’t even much of a front office and then slowly it got bigger and bigger. It’s an honor to be the first player and watch the whole process. The best part is watching Gio and everyone bring in good people, not just good players. Guys I’ll have lifelong relationships with when I’m done playing.”

IMAGE, STEVE HAMLIN/COSMOS COUNTRY PODCAST

Mendes celebrating 100 appearances for the Cosmos. Photo by Steve Hamlin

Now at 36 and vying for a fourth title with the Cosmos, Mendes revealed this will be his final year as a player.

“It’s even tougher than I expected,” Mendes admitted. “I know once we’re done with the season, it’ll really set in. I wanna go out on my terms when I still feel good. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m either physically or mentally too tired, or I’m not as excited as I was when I was a little kid. I’m excited for what’s next. I wanna be around the game. It’s what I love.”

Expect Mendes to stay involved with the local soccer scene. Although he has no firm plans once this season is in the books, he hopes to focus more on his CM4 Academy, which he has used to bring clinics to his high school and throughout Long Island.

“To play the majority of it in the place where you grew up, I don’t think too many guys can say that. It’s special,” he said. “I’m very proud to be a small part of the game here, watching it develop and hopefully being a positive role model for kids coming out to the stadium. Outside of playing, the stuff we do in the community is the best part. I’m looking forward to the next chapter because I’ve built so many relationships here. The game keeps growing with the next generation. Hopefully keep pushing it to get bigger. That’s what I’m excited about.”