The game promised exactly the right sort of zest, Tampa Bay vs. the Cosmos in Soccer Bowl-78, a renewal of the oldest, most genuine rivalry in the young North American Soccer League. Against the New York-based team, supported by seemingly unlimited financial resources, came the Rowdies from Florida, poor by comparison but equally proud. Previous matches between the two sometimes had seemed as much vendetta as soccer. And what a Soccer Bowl record crowd of 74,901 fans turned out to watch in Giants Stadium outside New York last Sunday was indeed a rock-'em, sock-'em game. The Cosmos won it handily, 3-1, but the victory was flawed, as we shall see.
Until a year ago last June, the Cosmos-Tampa Bay rivalry was confined to the soccer field. For the past 14 months, though, it had seethed like a witch's cauldron. At the root of it all was Cosmos Coach Eddie Firmani's inability to get on with star Rowdies Forward Rodney Marsh when Firmani was coach of Tampa Bay—and vice versa. "Him or me," Firmani had finally said to the Tampa Bay management. It was a rash ultimatum, and finally it was Firmani who went. In a reprehensibly sneaky fashion, claimed Tampa Bay fans, when they saw what happened next.
Scarcely two weeks after leaving the Rowdies and declaring he would take a few months off to decide his future, Firmani was announced as the new coach of the Cosmos. After his arrival last summer, the Cosmos went on to win the playoffs and the Soccer Bowl. The Rowdies crumbled. Last week, though more than a year had gone by, there was still bitterness. Rowdies owner George Straw-bridge had demanded compensation for the loss of Firmani. The Cosmos had conceded their share of receipts from a Rowdies-Cosmos game—$125,000. Moreover, it is strongly rumored that between seasons the two teams were placed in different conferences of the league so that a game like Sunday's could become a lucrative possibility. Under the arrangement, Tampa clearly stood a better chance of winning through to the finals.
As late as Saturday morning, dressed for practice as he was. Marsh looked ready to assume his customary starring role for the underdog Rowdies, even though he seemed more anxious to talk about the new home he had just bought in Florida than the way the championship game might go. Nor did Firmani have any doubts that Marsh would play. "The biggest threat," he called him. And nobody could really dispute that. Marsh, of uncertain temperament but capable of winning a game on his own when in the right mood, had scored 21 goals in 1978, including the playoffs. It was Marsh's shootout goal that decided the American Conference championship game and put the Rowdies into the Soccer Bowl.
But then—and there had been no hint of it until a couple of hours before Sunday's contest—it developed that Marsh would not tread the AstroTurf after all. In last Wednesday's conference championship game against Fort Lauderdale, he had clashed heavily with the Strikers' Maurice Whittle. "He came in high and late," said Marsh. Whatever happened. Marsh's shin was spiked. The gashes became infected. Sunday morning his right leg was badly swollen. "If I were 80% fit I would play," he said, "but I can't even run half speed. After the season I've had it is sickening."
So the prospects, which had seemed somewhat out of balance even with Marsh fit, took a further swing in the Cosmos' favor. At Saturday's practice, even though he could have had no knowledge of Marsh's injury, Firmani had been unusually chipper and ebullient, hailing a friend 50 yards away with a shouted, "How's the pizza parlor?" indulging himself in the occasional "bleddy" (which is South African for "bloody"), reassuring a reporter who didn't care for the way Cosmos Midfielder Vladislav Bogicevic was moving after a shoulder bump he had taken the previous Wednesday. "That's the way he always walks," Firmani said, grinning.
And he was certainly in a sunnier mood than he had been less than two weeks earlier after the Cosmos' Aug. 14 debacle against the Minnesota Kicks, who had driven in nine goals against them. A 9-2 score occurs rarely in professional soccer. A defeat of that magnitude is normally reserved only for doomed teams on their way out of the league.
"They lost discipline," Firmani said. "They had done the same thing before once or twice, but they managed to get away with it."
Since that time, though, the Cosmos had atoned somewhat. They retrieved the Minnesota defeat with a skin-of-their-teeth victory in the shootout of the return game. There was a creditable 1-0 win over Portland in Oregon in the first game of the conference final, and they routed the Timbers 5-0 in the return match.
Tampa Bay, meantime, had also made rather ragged progress to Giants Stadium. Fort Lauderdale, which started the playoff as a wild-card team and proceeded to eliminate favored New England and Detroit, ran the Rowdies very close—right to that Rodney Marsh goal that earned them the trip to Giants Stadium.
Sunday brought out that huge home crowd, which had become sophisticated enough to rain down Argentinian World-Cup-final-style confetti showers and had learned a deep-throated howl of Cosmos! Cosmos! that would not be out of place in Liverpool or Munich. And the sheer weight of talent, even though it had shown itself vulnerable, could hardly fail a second time in two weeks, even though Firmani himself declared, "We could be our own biggest threat."
Inevitably, the Tampa battle plan had to be the same as that of all the teams that come to Giants Stadium, where the Cosmos are 30-4 over the past two years: to attack all out from the start and hope for an early goal that would put the Cosmos off balance. Without Marsh, though, the Tampa attack was already blunted. In his stead the Rowdies played David Robb, a red-headed Scot with a reputation for aggressiveness.
The early exchanges were even. Once Carlos Alberto, the Cosmos' veteran Brazilian defender, made a fine solo run and shot just wide. And once Bogicevic, passing back somewhat casually to his own goalkeeper from a Tampa corner, almost opened the way for a Rowdies' score. The Tampa Bay midfielders, pivoting on Graham Paddon, were pressing, running harder for the ball than the Cosmos, intercepting ill-judged passes. But it was the Cosmos who produced the first moment of serious menace when Dennis Tueart got loose on the left wing and fired in a shot that Winston Dubose, the excellent young Floridian goalie, just got a hand to.
As he would right through the game, Tueart was getting some robust treatment from Rowdies Defender Arsene Auguste. Tueart was body-checked, tripped and just plain obstructed more times than the referee whistled. Once he just sat on the grass in mute appeal. Auguste finally got a yellow caution card, but for a time he was allowed to damp down Tueart's skills in most of the illegal ways there are.
Meantime, the other elements in the Cosmos attack were also being contained. Mike Connell, Tampa Bay's other South African, was doing a notable policing job on Forward Giorgio Chinaglia, and Steve Hunt was pushed out of his normally composed game. The Cosmos began to look ragged. At one point Chinaglia shouted angrily at Vito Dimitrijevic over a misplaced pass. Alberto, normally the calmest of players, got a yellow card for arguing with the referee. With 20 minutes left in the half Steve Wegerle let go a shot that barely missed.
But that was Tampa's last chance before the Cosmos slammed in the first nail. Instrumental in the goal was a player who was not associated with the dreadful defeat in Minnesota. Robert Iarusci came to the Cosmos from Toronto last year for the un-Cosmoslike sum of $25,000. Last season he played in only one game. This season, until the Minnesota debacle, he had started in 16. But in the last three playoff games he had been on the field every minute, showing himself adept at meshing in with Alberto. "He directs me, and I hope I am an intelligent enough player to follow his directions," he said before the Soccer Bowl.
With 15 minutes left in the first half, Iarusci broke clear of the Cosmos defense zone, cut through the middle and got the ball to Hunt. Tueart timed Hunt's crossed ball perfectly—and the Cosmos were a goal up. In turn the Rowdies' battle plan was in disarray. They were getting opportunities to score, but there was no Marsh there to work the final magic. After that first Cosmos goal something of the early eagerness seemed to go out of them. And when they did get into the Cosmos' penalty area, they overelaborated, as if reluctant to take the responsibility of a shot. Marsh might well have cut through all that rubbish.
And indeed it seemed the end when, for once escaping Mike Connell's attentions, Chinaglia alertly headed in a Steve Hunt rebound that Connell could only deflect into the net. That was just before halftime. A deluge seemed likely.
Now the only chance Tampa Bay had was to throw everything into the attack, leaving its defense zone thin. That this was its plan became clear as it replaced a defender and a midfielder with two forwards. With 17 minutes left, Paddon had the best chance of the match thus far for Tampa Bay, but he fired over the bar. And then, a moment later, the tactics seemed to have paid off and Tampa Bay was back in the game. A low shot from the big Brazilian Mirandinha made the score a retrievable 2-1.
But the reprieve lasted only three minutes. Then Tueart, cutting in from the left, with the Tampa defense standing still and appealing for an offside call, made the score 3-1 and victory for Tampa Bay unattainable.
"They just had too much for us," Tampa Bay Coach Gordon Jago said tiredly. Without Rodney Marsh, that was certainly true.