Young Americans: The (Almost) Forgotten Cosmos

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13438818_10209864394237351_781099334921652311_nMention of the Cosmos teams from their Giants Stadium era likely conjures memories of Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Pelé, Carlos Alberto and Johan Neeskens in the memories of aging New York City/New Jersey-area soccer fans. Those international stars may have grabbed the headlines and attracted the crowds, but I recall a less-heralded group of American players on the Cosmos just as fondly.

Those young Americans toiled at a time when the U.S. was habitually absent from the World Cup, but they provided the Cosmos a spark and their fans some thrills. Often, they also enabled the veteran Cosmos stars to preserve their legs on the hard, hot Giants Stadium turf.

If you assembled the young American Cosmos players during the peak of their careers, they probably would have formed a strong North American Soccer League club and competitive U.S. national team (there was no women’s team at the time!), perhaps one that could’ve qualified for a World Cup. Here’s how I think this team would’ve looked:

Goalkeeper: David Brcic or Shep Messing

Defenders: Jeff Durgan, Santiago Formoso, Werner Roth, Bobby Smith

Midfielders: Boris Bandov, Rick Davis, Angelo DiBernardo

Forwards:  Chico Borja, Mark Liveric, Steve Moyers

Davis was arguably the best American player during the years the Cosmos played at Giants Stadium in front of huge crowds while winning the NASL title four times and hosting international teams between 1977-84. A clean-cut youngster from California who was only 19 when he joined the Cosmos, Davis’ game grew leaps and bounds playing alongside Beckenbauer, whose No. 6 he wore near the end of his Cosmos career, after the German had retired.

Rick Davis, right, and Franz Beckenbauer

Rick Davis, right, and Franz Beckenbauer

Davis drew the wrath of some fellow American players in 1983 when he refused to join Team America, a short-lived NASL club intended to include the best Americans and strengthen the country’s chances of qualifying for the 1986 World Cup. But, he was quite happy to remain with the Cosmos and, in fact, was an honorable mention NASL all-star that season, when the league required teams to field only a few Americans.

Durgan, who made his Cosmos debut as an 18-year-old alongside Carlos Alberto, accepted the call from Team America after three seasons with the Cosmos. Durgan benefitted immensely from playing with the crafty Brazilian for a couple of those seasons, showing courage and strength defending against the league’s top attackers, and developing a mental aptitude for the game not normally associated with such a young America.

Durgan remained humble as his star in U.S. soccer circles rose quickly, and retained a great sense of humor. Watching an international star excel on TV after a difficult Cosmos indoor game at Madison Square Garden, Durgan quipped that the star “played almost as good as he did in indoor soccer.” He once wore a Bozo the Clown patch over the Cosmos crest on his uniform for a road game.

Two other Cosmos and Team America clubmates of Durgan perfected their skills in the U.S. and featured on the national team after arriving in the country as youngsters. The Ecuador-born Borja played at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, near his family’s Belleville, N.J., home and Giants Stadium, before making his Cosmos debut in 1981. He dribbled the ball and shot on goal with confidence rarely seen in Americans at the time. Both he and Durgan were favorites of Coach Hennes Weisweiler. Bandov, born in Yugoslavia, spent 1979-82 with the Cosmos, his fourth NASL club. Comfortable in midfield or defense, Bandov was a calm and steady presence on the field.

Liveric and Angelo DiBernardo, on the other hand, although they also were born abroad and established their professional credentials in the NASL, were more difficult to overlook during a game. Liveric was a cheeky attacker. During the second year of his second stint with the Cosmos in 1980, he once delayed a game after hanging on to the crossbar and bringing the whole goal down after scoring. When healthy between 1980-84, DiBernardo was perpetual motion on the field, causing midfield teammate Vladislav Bogicevic to yell, “Easy, easy, Angelo!” loud enough for fans to hear during a game.

Smith was another young American difficult for fans and opposing players to overlook during games. A Trenton, N.J., native and prolific goalscorer for Rider University in Lawrence, N.J., Smith began his NASL career with Philadelphia before spending three seasons with the Cosmos between 1976-78 as a respected, fearless, hard-nosed defender.

Many soccer fans walking through the Giants Stadium parking lot to games during 1978-79 didn’t have to guess who owned the 25th anniversary Corvette near the entrance with the license plate, “Santi.” It belonged to defender Formoso, who immigrated to New Jersey from Spain and was perhaps a bit ahead of his time with overlapping runs from the back of the field.

Werner Roth in the film "Victory"

Werner Roth in the film “Victory”

Another American Cosmos defender during much of the 1970s, Werner Roth, became a heart throb of many young female fans with his long black hair and twinkle in his eyes and smile. There was no doubting his steely presence on the field, however, and he was cast as a stoic German player for the 1981 movie, “Victory,” which also featured former teammate Pelé, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, and a collection of international soccer stars like Halvar Thorsen, Kaz Deyna and Ozzie Ardilles.

Among the Cosmos players also popular with female fans was Moyers, the blond attacker who was a prolific scorer during the last three years the Cosmos played NASL games at Giants Stadium. Moyers also showed good footwork on the dance floor of the Front Row, the now-defunct nightclub in the shadows of the stadium.

Of course, few American Cosmos could match the magnetism of Messing, the Harvard-educated mustachioed goalkeeper who posed nude for Viva magazine during his first of two stints with the club. Messing parted from the Cosmos a second time in 1977, after minding the nets in the club’s championship game win, and became the league’s highest-paid American.

You could argue, however, that Brcic was as fine an American goalkeeper as the Giants Stadium-era Cosmos ever had. Brcic joined the club as a 19-year-old understudy to Messing in 1977, and was Hubert Birkenmeier’s backup for many of his eight years with the Cosmos. His quick reflexes, however, gained him lots of playing time with the indoor squads of the Cosmos and other teams for many years after the original Cosmos ceased operations.

Although most Americans who played for the Cosmos during their Giants Stadium era between 1977-84 found themselves in the shadows of more renowned players with international credentials, their contribution to the club cannot be overestimated. Nor, for at least one aging New York City/New Jersey soccer fan, are they forgotten.