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Messing recounts return to Cosmos in 1976 and that famous photo

Published Nov 24, 2020

The photo is iconic. It’s probably the most famous image of the 70’s era Cosmos not including Pelé, Chinaglia or Beckenbauer. There’s so much to take in - the colors, the attitude, the backdrop of Yankee Stadium. But, what’s the backstory?

We sat down with Shep Messing to find out.

"I love that picture," Messing said with a grin.

Messing spent the 1973 and 74 seasons in New York but moved to the Boston Minutemen prior to the 1975 season. That year he led the North American Soccer League with a 1.24 goals-against average. As he was enjoying his time in New England, the Cosmos made huge international news - Pelé was coming to the Big Apple.

"I pick up the paper and Pelé just signed with a Cosmos, so I'm like, 'You got to be kidding me,'" Messing said. "If I didn't screw up, I'd be on the team with Pelé."

Messing would soon join ‘O Rei,’ but it would take one life-altering match to make it happen.

On June 16, 1976, the Cosmos and Pelé would host Messing’s Minutemen at Yankee Stadium. It was a back and forth affair with both Messing and Cosmos keeper Bob Rigby standing tall. With regulation time coming to an end with a score of 2-2, the match went to a penalty shootout to decide the winner.

It went back and forth in the shootout including the total chaos of Minutemen players going out of order with the referee allowing a restart. The ultimate result turned when Pelé lined up for the Cosmos. Messing guessed right and Pelé’s shot caromed off the woodwork. The Cosmos would protest the result to no avail, but the match left a lasting impression on the World’s greatest player. Afterwards, Messing was seen consoling Pelé in another famous Cosmos photograph.

Later that month, Bob Rigby would find himself sidelined for the rest of the season – with notorious, hard-nosed Washington Diplomats striker Paul Cannell barreling into Rigby on a corner kick. Rigby would break his collarbone on the play, and the Cosmos would lose the match, 3-2.

Cannell, who scored twice, told the Passaic Herald-News: "I'm a dirty SOB. I'll do anything to get the ball in the net. I felt a bit bad when I saw him shaking on the ground but then, I was punched in the first half. I was getting even."

The news reached Messing quickly. "My brother-in-law was watching the game," the goalkeeper said. "He calls me in Boston, and he says Bob Rigby just broke his collarbone. I don't do anything – I'm just pissed off. You feel bad for the guy and goalkeepers stick together."

The Cosmos, without their starter, needed a goalkeeper, desperately.

The Minutemen – in the middle of a fire sale to steer the club through financial difficulties – needed money, desperately.

So, a deal was struck.

“From what Pelé told me later, he went to Steve Ross and said, ‘get us the guy from Boston’,” said Messing.

“The Minutemen were getting on a flight to go to Seattle, and the owner there was going bankrupt. We used to try and get paid from the hot dog stand guy,” laughs Messing. “So, I'm at Logan Airport with the team ready to fly to Seattle, and [Head Coach] Hubert Vogelsinger sitting there calls me over and he says, 'You've just been traded to the Cosmos for 22 plane tickets, round trip to Seattle.'"

Upon his arrival in New York, Messing met with Rigby – friends before the trade - and made a promise to his fellow member of the “goalkeepers’ union.”

"I’m going to get him for you, pal.”

Messing’s arrival sparked a six-game winning streak for the Cosmos that set-up a rematch at Yankee Stadium with Paul Cannell at center stage. True to his word, Messing found the proper moment to make his presence felt.

"The first time I have an opportunity. I had the ball in front of me," he said. "Cannell was 10 yards away. So, I held that ball out in front of me. I said, 'Come get it.' When he stepped up and he came towards me I put the whole ball behind my back. I drew him to me. I said, I'm gonna [expletive] you up.' He put his right arm out and said, 'Well, what are you talking about, mate?’ I said, 'You did Rigby. I'm going to [expletive] you up.”

And thus, the photo was taken.

"So, you can see why I love that picture," grinned Messing, again.

Cannell steered clear of Messing the rest of the match, as the Cosmos routed the Diplomats, 5-0.

Cannell would meet the Cosmos one more time that season – warning them in the New York Daily News that “No prisoners will be taken” prior to the first round of the NASL playoffs at Shea Stadium in August. Messing had the last laugh, though – blanking the Diplomats 2-0, and leaving Cannell with only nine fouls to show for his efforts.

"Hey, if he can get other goalkeepers to lose it, that's cool," Messing said that season. "But he can't intimidate me. No way."

Especially when you're a card-carrying member of the goalkeepers' union.

Shep Messing backstopped the New York Cosmos to victory in the 1977 Soccer Bowl, Pele’s last competitive match. You can hear the latest from the American soccer legend on his podcast, The Shep Messing Daily Cast. You also can follow Messing on Twitter.