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Rowdies

Rowdies, Cosmos renew rivalry in St. Pete tonight


Published:   |   Updated: August 9, 2013 at 10:37 PM

ST. PETERSBURG — One of North American soccer’s premier rivalries will be reborn tonight at Al Lang Stadium as the Tampa Bay Rowdies take on the New York Cosmos for the first time in nearly three decades.

In its heyday in the late 1970s, the Rowdies-Cosmos rivalry was played in packed stadiums and caught the attention of global media. Driven by stars including the Cosmos’ legendary Pele and the Rowdies’ Rodney Marsh, the rivalry caught the attention and imagination of sports fans nationwide.

“It was one of the best rivalries in the league,” former Rowdies midfielder and current technical director Perry Van der Beck said. “When the league schedules came out, that was one of the first games that we looked at — our game with the Cosmos at home and our game with the Cosmos in New York. The media really followed that game, and it was always one of our largest crowds.”

The rivalry was born in 1976, after a pair of contentious games, including a 5-4 thriller at Yankee Stadium, according to Marsh. From there, it grew into one of the most intense matchups in the American sports landscape. Van der Beck said in its prime, it was akin to El Clasico, the famed Real Madrid-FC Barcelona series.

Even as a young professional player in England, current Rowdies coach Ricky Hill was aware of the Rowdies and Cosmos.

“It was the mid-70s when it was first brought to the attention of the English public,” he said. “We used to have a soccer program called ‘On the Ball’ on Saturday afternoons, and they used to show snippets of NASL matches. Even back then, we were made aware of the iconic brands that the Rowdies and Cosmos had become because of the big names they had, the crowds they were drawing and the rivalry they had.”

In its new era, the rivalry won’t be the same. The NASL is no longer the continent’s leading soccer league. The new NASL operates as a second-division league below Major League Soccer, with less attention, lower salaries and fewer fans.

Still, the prospect of a Rowdies-Cosmos game is tantalizing.

In their inaugural game last week against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, another NASL legacy team, the Cosmos sold out Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium, with 11,929 fans enjoying a 2-1 Cosmos win.

The Rowdies anticipate a large crowd tonight, with the possibility of a sellout crowd of 7,000 fans or more.

“I don’t see why (this rivalry can’t grow to its old prominence),” Van der Beck said. “It’s hard to tell the future, but that’s the goal. We want to build this league to the level it was before and beyond.”

CONNELL HONOR: The Rowdies are retiring defender Mike Connell’s No. 6 jersey at halftime. Connell made 252 appearances for the outdoor Rowdies, and another 75 for the indoor team.

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