Tampa Bay and New York, the NASL 's two best teams, were obliged to meet in the playoff quarterfinals—and the Rowdies clobbered the Cosmos
August 29, 1976

Warner Communications, Inc. owns Bugs Bunny. They also own Pelé and the New York Cosmos soccer club, and last Friday night in Tampa they learned that the Elmer Fudds of the world can come out on top. The Cosmos and their mercurial superstars, Pelé and George Chinaglia, lost to the Tampa Bay Rowdies—who have no flashy performers to match—3-1 in the North American Soccer League's quarterfinal playoff round.

Warner Communications also learned 1) It is risky business to try buying a championship by spending more than $4 million for Pelé and another half million for Chinaglia if the rest of the team cannot support them in the fashion to which they are accustomed; 2) It is unsound to have the NASL's two best teams—the Cosmos and the Rowdies, who were last year's champions—meet as early as the quarterfinals because someone misread divisional balance; 3) It is also nice to have a team song, as the Rowdies do, and even a trademarked motto with as much zing as Tampa Bay's: "Soccer is a kick in the grass."

The game to decide the winner in the league's strong Eastern Division shaped up as a confrontation of styles both on and off the field. The Rowdies are a drilled, balanced team, proponents of the English system of long touch-line kicks and quick action at the goal area. The Rowdies have no Pelé, no George Best (Los Angeles), not even a Kyle Rote Jr. (Dallas) to give them national prominence, and yet the defending champions, an expansion club last year, had quietly put together the best record of any of the NASL's 20 clubs, finishing the season with 18 wins, six losses.

The Cosmos, even though they wound up second to Tampa Bay in the division, had a better record (16-8) than any of the league's remaining 18 teams, mainly because of the Black Pearl, Pelé, and his newly acquired teammate, super-striker George Chinaglia, who had to be smuggled out of Italy after the season started for fear of widespread rioting when it was learned that he had signed with New York. The Cosmos' game is structured around these two and their brilliant one-to-one play in front of the opponent's goal. "Our game is like music," says Pelé's former teammate on Santos of Brazil, Midfielder Ramon Mifflin. "It is short passes, always moving, tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tick-tock, goal."

In two previous meetings this season, each style had proved effective. In Tampa last June the Rowdies beat the Cosmos 5-1 in a nationally televised game in which their strong sweepers and defensemen shut out Pelé. A month later, with Chinaglia now aboard, Pelé & Co. won 5-4 in New York.

And so Friday's game was the decider, a contest of team play by a solid, well-seasoned club against the more spectacular, and nearly as efficient, star system. The differences in styles could have been perceived the night before in Bern's Steak House, a Tampa Bay restaurant where the decor runs to red velvet and white iron filigree, and one orders filet mignon ounce by expensive ounce. In one of the main dining rooms sat Tommy Smith, the captain of the Rowdies, and his teammate, Midfielder Lenny Glover. No one rushed up to them for autographs, no flashbulbs popped.

In a back room, meanwhile, shielded from view of other diners, Pelé, his bodyguard and a few Cosmos officials dined on lobster, protected from interruptions by a thick, carved wooden screen; they had come in quietly and wanted it to stay that way.

Through a series of running jokes that seemed to involve monkeys, bricks, cigars and Irishmen, Smith and Glover talked about the problems of not being superstars in America. Said the battle-scarred Smith, a 14-year veteran of England's first division Liverpool club, "At home I had to have my phone number changed every six months, but not here. And I could never go out shopping with my wife. Even if I went out for a drive in Liverpool there could be traffic jams."

"That's because of the size of your nose," cracked Glover. "All them drivers saw that big buzzer and laughed so and they crashed." The accents at the table were deep, making conversation with the two like talking to any given half of the Beatles.

"Of course Pelé's been great for the game in America," Smith went on, covering the offending proboscis with his hand, "and he's still one of the greatest soccer players in the world. I don't think anyone's jealous of him because he got so much money." When the playoffs are over, both Smith and Glover will return to England and earn the main part of their living by playing the regular 42-game English season over the winter. The two-season year is not uncommon among NASL players, whose U.S. contracts fall considerably short of Pelé's.

Informed that the Black Pearl himself was in the restaurant, Smith and Glover went to seek an audience with the Presence behind the wooden screen. After handshakes and "long time no sees" all around, Tommy Smith patted Pelé on the back and said, "Enjoy your meal," managing to leave behind the implication: "It may be your last."

And indeed, because of Tommy Smith, one of those "does-a-good-job, real team players," Pelé was indeed enjoying his last pregame dinner of the playoffs.

The next night, 10 minutes into the second half, Smith ran over to tackle Pelé, teammate Alex Pringle ran up behind Pelé for the same purpose and Pelé ended up on the ground. It was hard to tell from the stands if Pringle had hit Pelé in the back for a foul, or if Smith had tripped him in front for another foul—or whether Pelé had, as Smith would say later, "done the usual South American thing. If they think they can draw a foul, they take a bloody great dive. I never touched 'im."

With Pelé on the turf, the Cosmos' midfielders and defenders slowed down, quite obviously expecting the referee to stop play with a whistle for the foul. But the referee did no such thing, and the Rowdies swept the ball downfield. Defender Alex Pringle lobbed a long pass to Forward Stewart Scullion, who went in alone for a hard shot past Cosmos Goalie Shep Messing.

The goal put the Rowdies in front 2-1, and Tommy Smith watched it standing over Pelé, and Pelé watched it lying on the soft Bermuda grass of Tampa Stadium. With the goal went the Cosmos' playoff hopes.

The game had begun with Super Bowl-sized hoopla. A phalanx of cheerleaders called "Wowdies" released balloons on the field, and the playing of the theme song (The Rowdies run here, the Rowdies run there, they kick the ball around), set the 36,863 "fannies"—which is what fans are called in promotion-crazed Tampa—screaming wildly. But they had class: a special standing ovation was reserved for Pelé, the king of the league home or away.

Tampa Bay controlled almost the whole game. Their sweepers and midfielders, led by Smith, negated the threat of Pelé and Chinaglia and found holes through the Cosmos midfielders. The Cosmos were operating, too. At the end they led the Rowdies 27-24 in shots on goal, and Arnold Mausser, the Tampa Bay goalkeeper, had stopped so many hard, well-placed shots by Chinaglia that the ex-Italian star applauded him at one point, shaking his head in disbelief.

The Rowdies gained their clear edge through the play of their forwards, called "Murderers' Row"—Clyde Best, who is a square-framed Bermudian, and three Englishmen: Scullion, flamboyant Rodney Marsh and the league's leading goal scorer, Derek Smethurst.

Smethurst, a graduate of several lower-order English teams who has blossomed in his two years at Tampa, scored first at 39:57, trapping a hard shot by Marsh on his foot and firing it into the goal.

Near the end of the first half Pelé drove in a classic header to tie the score. After a severe halftime lecture by Coach Eddie Firmani on the dangers of playing Pelé too respectfully, the Rowdies came back on the field fired up. There followed the fateful meeting of Pelé and Smith and Pringle at midfield, and after that, all that remained was for Marsh, unassisted, to curve in goal No. 3, the icer. "Worldwide is a different matter, but we're the champs here," said Firmani afterward. "We proved it by beating Pelé and the Cosmos.

"We could have the first dynasty in American soccer," he went on, extending his vision somewhat. "I'd rather have the good, steady players I've got; I don't want to have to deal with a Pelé or a Chinaglia—but I wouldn't mind at all having the money they spend on just one player. Just one."

Whether Firmani and his Rowdies have, in fact, begun a dynasty cannot be known until the Soccer Bowl has been played this week—and to reach that, Tampa Bay first would have to get through the semifinals on Tuesday. Nevertheless, the game against the Cosmos had a significance that almost transcended the playoffs. "It's a pity these teams have to meet in the quarterfinals," said Cosmos Coach Gordon Bradley before the contest. "The game would have made a fitting final one." Everybody agreed, and Cosmos General Manager Clive Toye had a sort of explanation of how the unfortunate early matchup had come to be. "Each team had a vote at a league meeting," he said, "and I thought, 'Can Tampa be as good this time as they were last year?' Naw, so I voted them into the Eastern Division."

The immediate problem for the Rowdies was the Toronto Metros, who upset the Chicago Sting in the Atlantic Conference's Northern Division playoff, 3-2 last Friday. It was a rough night featuring five major penalties and two scoreless sudden-death overtime periods. The overtimes made it a goalies' game, and the Sting's regular netminder, Mervyn Cawston, had to leave the field after the regulation 90 minutes because of a bruised knee. He was replaced by Brad Steurer, who made a classic statement attesting to the mixed emotions of fear and excitement he felt at finding himself in the tensest of situations. "I was floating," he said. "I felt light as a butterfly, but I almost threw up."

Toronto's goalie, Zeljko Bilecki, finally won the game by making the most saves in the penalty-kick procedure for breaking the tie after two overtimes. Toronto was already awed by the prospect of going up against the Tampa Bay men. Said the Metros' player-coach, Marjan Bilio, "Tampa is a far superior team. Their large crowd will make a big difference, too. We only have a few people at our home games."

In the Pacific Conference playoffs San Jose Earthquake striker Ilija Mitic claimed revenge against Dallas, which let him go last season, by scoring both Earthquake goals in a 2-0 defeat of the Tornado in the Southern Division quarterfinals. At one point in the season San Jose had been 31 points behind Dallas, but winning nine of 11 games put the Quakes into the lead, although at the end of the regular season only six points separated the teams. Near the close of last Friday's game, San Jose was down to 10 players after Paul Child made such a violent tackle on a Dallas player that he was ejected from the game.

San Jose's opponent in the semifinals is the Minnesota Kicks, a relocated team that dominated the Western Division most of the year and advanced by beating the Seattle Sounders 3-0. Minnesota won without the services of its leading goal scorer, Alan Willey, who was sidelined with tonsilitis.

So as Eddie Firmani dreamed on about his Rowdies' soccer dynasty two games down the line—Toronto and then either San Jose or Minnesota in the Soccer Bowl Saturday in Seattle's Kingdome—the Cosmos packed up for home. Said Messing, "I've been in the league for a long time and I can remember when we used to play for a six-pack. Now it's different. You lose a game, and those Warner Communications vice-presidents are down there in the locker room, looking you over."

On the plane back to New York, Pelé slept soundly, as a group of youngsters watched him. Even asleep and defeated, a legend is a legend.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERRodney Marsh drives downfield on his way to scoring the insurance goal in the 3-1 game. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERPelé had a rough evening, especially in the second half. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERChinaglia took a lot of shots, but none went in.