4 to 4: Werner Roth on the Cosmos and Carlos Mendes
The news that local soccer product Carlos Mendes is coming home to wear the number 4 jersey for his hometown team, the New York Cosmos, is welcome news to local fans who know him well from his rise from the Long Island Rough Riders to the Rochester Rhinos and then with the Red Bulls and Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer. But to fans of a certain age, the news triggers memories of another outstanding defensive product of the local soccer scene, who made the Cosmos number 4 shirt legendary, none other than National Soccer Hall of Famer, Werner Roth.
Roth was born in Yugoslavia (in what is now Serbia) but emigrated to the States as a child, and grew up playing local soccer in New York with the German-Hungarians Soccer Club of the German-American (now Cosmopolitan) Soccer League, before joining the Cosmos for their second season in 1972, when the club won its first NASL title at Hofstra University.
Clive Toye, the original General Manager and former President of the Cosmos said of Roth, "Werner Roth was one of the really popular players of the Cosmos. Werner came out of the German-Hungarians in Queens, everybody knew Werner. He was just a kid when he signed for the Cosmos and from being a young Cosmos reserve to becoming captain of the Cosmos and captain of the United States - you know that’s a fair achievement, right?"
Roth took the captain's armband from an injured Keith Eddy on May 15th, 1977 as the Cosmos made their title run in Pelé's final season. In the lead up to the title match, Roth was questionable with a bruised kneecap, but he played a crucial role in the Cosmos win against the Seattle Sounders, and the image of Roth lifting the Soccer Bowl trophy on the field at Portland remains among the most iconic images in American soccer history. He repeated the gesture at Giants Stadium the next season, leading the Cosmos to back-to-back titles before retiring after the 1979 season. Hollywood beckoned and Roth features as the German captain Baumann in the 1981 kick flick classic, Victory (starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Pelé). He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he runs Futbol Academia.
The news of the revived Cosmos signing of a local defender, who will wear the same number 4 shirt, brings back memories for Roth of the early days when the club was in its infancy, well before the glitz and glamor:
"The New York Cosmos didn't arrive on the scene until I was out of college in 1971. So it wasn't like I dreamed my whole life to play for them. This wasn't Manchester and they weren't United or City. It was only when Pele arrived in 1975 and the Cosmos bought my contract from my local NY club that it became a real profession for me, when I was able to negotiate a full time contract and train and play seriously. Up until then I had a full time job and practiced two nights a week and played on the weekends. But once Pelé hit town, all bets were off and we were on a whole other level of adventure."
For the local kid, the star signings meant not only a new level of popularity, but a greater challenge for playing time:
"We added other great players, Giorgio [Chinaglia], Franz [Beckenbauer], [Carlos] Alberto, [Steve] Hunt and signed some of the best young Americans, Bobby Smith, Shep Messing, and played some of the best teams in the world. This was finally pro football as I imagined it. To stay in that mix and keep a starting position, I had to take responsibility for my own development, training and preparation because this team could have just as easily passed me by."
That work ethic from the determined central defender was among the many reasons Cosmos fans grew to love Roth, and it is a character trait he shares with Mendes. When Roth signed with the Cosmos, it was for just $75 a game, so his first bit of advice for the newest member of the New York Cosmos is with tongue firmly in cheek: "To start I would say to hold out for at least one hundred dollars a game."
But then Roth recalls his years of effort and his meteoric rise to the top of the global game, telling Mendes to "take full responsibility for his own year round training and development and performances. This can be the opportunity, that stepping stone to greater things in world football. But it's totally up to him. And that is one good position to be in, in control of his own destiny, the football world is at his feet.”
From those first steps on the hardscrabble fields of New York amateur soccer to the big time, surrounded by teammates who still rank as the greatest legends in world sport, Roth knows what it means to have the world at his feet, with the Cosmos number 4 on his back.