Professional soccer in the United States is still relatively young when compared to that of other countries across the globe, but a few major traditional rivalries have developed through the years. Perhaps the biggest cross-sectional rivalry in the USA is the matchup between the New York Cosmos and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. First played in 1975, it was the rivalry that defined the late 1970’s in the North American Soccer League (NASL).
The rivalry will be renewed on Saturday night in New York (7:00 pm ET, One World Sports and Sling International) with first place in the ten match NASL Spring Season on the line, and it’ll be a game where Pele will be in attendance. The winner will be in the driver seat for the spring title which carries an automatic berth into the NASL Championship, a 4 team playoff in November.
Through the years, the rivalry has been defined by great players and large crowds. In 1975, Pele arrived in New York, but it was Tampa Bay that ended up winning the Soccer Bowl title. A year later in 1976, Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia led the Cosmos to acclaim across the globe as attendances throughout the NASL spiked and soccer fever firmly began to take root. But it was Rodney Marsh who left Manchester City in the middle of the English season and joined the Tampa Bay Rowdies that won the day, crushing New York 3-1 in the Conference Semifinals at Tampa Stadium in front of close to 40,000 fans.
The following season, Franz Beckenbauer arrived in New York, and international TV audience was treated to the rivalry. Eddie Firmani, who had managed Tampa Bay to victories over the Cosmos the previous two seasons, was poached away from the Rowdies and given the New York job. But that season both teams were chasing the upstart Fort Lauderdale Strikers who would win the NASL’s Eastern Division, forcing the Cosmos and Rowdies into a rare early round playoff match. The Cosmos would crush Rowdies, then upset the Strikers en route to winning the Soccer Bowl in Pele’s final competitive professional match.
In 1978, a young American player, perhaps the best of his generation, Perry Van der Beck joined Tampa Bay. That season Van der Beck and the Rowdies would meet the Cosmos in the Soccer Bowl, a match ultimately won by New York. Van der Beck remembers the rivalry fondly. Speaking to World Soccer Talk earlier this week, he recalled “Every time we would play the Cosmos in Tampa, it would be the talk of the town. We could expect a close-to-filled Tampa Stadium and a week full of hype around town. We were very successful against them, especially at home.”
In 1979, the Cosmos were upended by Vancouver in the NASL semifinals, which prevented a Soccer Bowl rematch with the Rowdies. Tampa Bay lost to Vancouver in the 1979 Soccer Bowl.
The rivalry continued to produce great moments until the NASL 1985 shutdown. When the New York Cosmos joined the reformed NASL in 2012, immediately talk began about the renewal of this great rivalry. For the first showdowns between the clubs in 2013, dozens of fans from both markets traveled to see the away rivalry matches having either enjoyed the Cosmos-Rowdies games as youngsters or learned the history and importance of the matchup.
When New York hosts Tampa Bay with the opportunity to claim an inside track on the 2015 NASL Spring Championship on the line Saturday, former players, older fans and former staff from all over the country who have lived through this epic series will have their eyes firmly on the latest incarnation of one of the biggest rivalries in US professional soccer history.
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