SI Vault
J. D. Reed
August 30, 1976
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
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August 30, 1976

It Should Have Been The Final

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

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"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 Pel� 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, Pel� slept soundly, as a group of youngsters watched him. Even asleep and defeated, a legend is a legend.

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