HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – When asked if he had spoken with any of the legendary New York Cosmos from the 1970s, defender Chris Rodd said, "Well, we went to lunch with Pelé."
He shrugged, almost as if to ask, "Does that count?"
Any sports fan in the world knows Pelé, so yes, it counts. The Brazilian superstar, who sparked a Cosmos championship run in 1977 in the old North American Soccer League, returned with his teammate Carlos Alberto to see the club's first match in 29 years – a 2-1 victory over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at Hofstra's Shuart Stadium on Saturday night.
In early June, the Cosmos' players and coaches attended a lunch with Pelé in New York, and he offered them advice on life – on and off the pitch. According to Peri Marošević, one of just 14 signed players at the time, Pelé talked about his passion for the club, declaring that it was the new Cosmos' turn to be successful and to not worry about the greats that came before them.
"It was really an honor to be able to sit down with a legend like that," Marošević said.
"That day is a little bit about what we are," Cosmos chief operating officer Erik Stover recalled. "We'll always honor the history, but we will treat our players with a tremendous amount of respect, knowing that they're the ones that are going to get us back there."
Where the Cosmos want to be is back in the American soccer spotlight. Their return to the recently reborn NASL was thought to be a short stay on the way to the U.S.'s new top division, Major League Soccer, but that dream appeared to be dashed when MLS surprisingly chose New York City Football Club, a partnership between the New York Yankees and Manchester City of the Premier League, to become its 20th franchise and join the Red Bulls as its second team in the New York area.
MLS commissioner Don Garber announced last week that the league will add four more teams by 2020 to give the Cosmos new hope of joining MLS. Stover, however, admits he isn't sure if the Cosmos' long-term future will be in MLS. The uncertainty isn't stopping the club from pursuing plans to build a privately funded, 25,000-seat stadium at Belmont Park.
"We don't worry about it," said Stover of the Cosmos' MLS expansion chances. "Our focus – we talk about this all the time – is building a proper club. That's our players on the field, our front office, our relationship with supporter groups – all of that is building a club. … We're not worried about those other guys, whoever they are, except when we have the opportunity to play against them."
"They want to be at the pinnacle of soccer for the day," ex-Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing said of the new Cosmos. "Whether that means the route they're taking now through NASL or different business approach that Major League Soccer has taken, I see these guys as wanting to be the best of the best. Who knows where it goes five years from now?"
Alberto, who also played with Messing and Pelé on the '77 NASL championship team and is serving as an ambassador for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, said he believes that within two years the Cosmos will be making their own name in American soccer.
"[Their play] will be at a very high level," he said. "They will bring in great players."
Meanwhile, the Cosmos embrace the greats of their past.
When Messing and Alberto come to the club's training sessions, midfielder Dane Murphy said he and his teammates realize exactly what they are tasked with. For the current Cosmos, the presence of past stars adds an extra motivation to succeed.
"If there wasn't the history that there is to this club, it wouldn't be special," Murphy said.
Messing worries about the pressure the Cosmos could be feeling, though. He compared it to sending your children off to college – you want them to succeed but also to make their own destiny.
"We don't want them weighted down by the burden," Messing said. "We want them to know they have a history, know that there have been very good players that wear the uniform, and have fun. We don't want them looking in a mirror or looking at us as a shadow."
On Saturday, the new Cosmos took a step toward creating their own identity. After yielding a late equalizer, Alessandro Noselli scored in stoppage time to make the Cosmos' season opener a victorious one.
"We'll always have pressure going into every game," Marošević said. "As long as we do our job right, stay focused, committed to the task at hand, and really enjoy the game, [winning] will take a little bit of the pressure off."