Carlos Mendes: “If someone asked me you would be playing professional soccer for 15 years, most of it in the city that you grew up, in front of friends and family, I’d say probably ‘You’re crazy.’ ” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
When he began his professional soccer career with the Long Island Rough Riders in 2002, Carlos Mendes had no grand delusions of playing soccer for a long time. All the 21-year-old was interested pursuing a dream, however short it would be.
Little did the Mineola, N.Y. native realize he would embark on a 16-year-old career that would take him to five clubs, three league championships and 315 regular-season matches, almost 20 playoff games and countless friendlies.
On Saturday, Mendes, now 36, will play his final home game for the Cosmos against Puerto Rico FC at MCU Park at 7 p.m. It remains to be seen whether it will be his last game as a player as the Cosmos need a win to clinch a berth in the North American Soccer League playoffs.
“When you start, you take it year by year,” Mendes said. “I also didn’t imagine how much the game and the sport would grow. In the professional leagues, soccer has taken off. At the time, it was ‘Ok, I’m doing what I love and we’ll see what comes next.’
“You take it a year at a time. If someone asked me you would be playing professional soccer for 15 years, most of it in the city that you grew up, in front of friends and family, I’d say probably ‘You’re crazy.’ I’ve been very lucky and blessed for so many reasons. Hopefully, we’ll see what the future holds. I’ll be involved in the game. It’s what I love to do.”
Saturday’s game will be an emotional one for the Cosmos captain and his teammates because there is so much on the line. The two-time defending NASL champions have not missed the post-season since returning to competitive soccer in 2013, winning titles that year, 2015 and 2016.
So, Mendes is more concerned about getting the right result than worrying about whether it would be his career finale.
“The most important thing is the game at hand and to make sure that we clinch playoffs, that we get in,” said Mendes, the first player signed by the Cosmos on their reboot. “That has to be the primary focus. Nothing’s changed. We came into this year wanting to get into the playoffs and have another shot at a championship. We have to take care of business on Saturday.”
While Puerto Rico FC is at the bottom of the eight-team league, Mendes won’t be taking his opponents lightly, though the Cosmos recorded a 1-0 home win over their foes Oct. 1 and a 4-1 road triumph in Lauderhill, Fla. Oct. 18.
“We’re playing a team that’s going to be very difficult, a team that’s out of the playoffs but a complicated team,” he said. “They’re never easy to play against. That’s the most important thing to be ready to play well in front of our home fans, see if we get the win, we secure the spot. On a personal level, it will be emotional for me because most likely it will be my last home game. I’ll have a lot of friends and family there, people that have supported me throughout my career, not just professional career, as I’ve grown up as a kid in my youth career. It will mean a lot to have them all there.”
After playing a season with the Rough Riders, who captured the USL Pro League title in 2002, Mendes performed two years with the Rochester Rhinos from 2003-2004 before signing with the MetroStars (now the Red Bulls). He played 146 games there from 2005-2011, helping the team reach the 2008 MLS Cup. He had a season with Columbus Crew SC before joining the Cosmos for the 2013 season.
After discussions with his family, Mendes felt it was this was right time to hang them up.
“It wasn’t an easy one, obviously,” he said. “To be honest, when i came into the year, in the back of mind, maybe this will be it. I hadn’t made any decisions or anything. Of course, as you get up in age towards the end of your career, you start thinking about the next step. I spoke to my family and they’ve been so supportive. ‘We’ll back you whatever way you want to go if you feel if it’s the right time.’ ”
So Mendes figured he would go out on his terms.
“For me, mentally, it’s the right time to step away,” he said. “I’ve had 15 years. I was thinking if I play another year … after (16) years it gets exhausting. I’m lucky to have this job. I do what I love. Physically and mentally it’s not easy and you have to prepare. And that kind of started to kick in. I said, ‘You know what? i still feel good physically. I’m still enjoying it mentally. I don’t want to retire any other way. This feels like the right time for me. I feel very lucky and blessed. I’m looking forward to the next chapter. I know its it’s not going to be easy. I know I told my wife, just be ready for me. After the holidays come and everything, be ready for me to be cranky and miserable for a while as I adjust to a different life and a new chapter. We’re excited. My family’s excited. It’s never easy but I think it’s just the right time.”
That next chapter could be anything in the sport, from coaching to front office with the Cosmos or another team. He runs the Carlos Mendes Soccer Academy.
“I want to be involved in the game,” Mendes said. “I’m kind of focused right now on the season and haven’t really fully explored what the next chapter will be. I know I would love to be involved in the game, even like a club like the New York Cosmos. Hopefully everything goes well know with the league and the future. I can sit down and talk to them and see what the options are. I want to be involved. I would love to be involved with a club that means so much to me. We just have to wait and see. Once things settle down, we’ll talk and we’ll see the options and make a decision.”
It is uncertain whether the Cosmos or NASL will return for 2018. U.S. Soccer has pulled back its Division Two status. The league has asked a U.S. District Court for a preliminary injunction and has filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the federation. A judge is expected to rule on the suit Tuesday.
Of course, Mendes and company have some business take care of Saturday.