Carlos Mendes started his pro career with the 2002 Rough Riders. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
The last time the Long Island Rough Riders won a national championship, Carlos Mendes was just starting out his professional soccer career.
That happened in 2002.
The Rough Riders recorded to one of their most successful campaigns after they dropped down from the A-League to the USL D-3 Pro League. What could go right, went right for the Rough Riders, especially during an incredible stretch run as the team won its second national title.
Mendes, who helped anchor a tenacious defense, went on to have a 16-year professional career with the Rochester Rhinos, MetroStars, Columbus Crew and Cosmos before coaching the Cosmos.
On Saturday night, the Rough Riders will aim for national title No. 3 as they visit the Ventura Fusion in the USL League Two final at 9 p.m. ET
They were an ordinary side early on, going 4-5-1 in their opening 10 matches. They hit rock bottom in a 5-1 loss to the New York Freedoms while suffering two red cards on June 15.
Long Island rebounded a week later behind a 2-0 victory over the New Jersey Stallions, igniting a tear in which they lost only once in their final 13 games, which included the playoffs. Long Island finished the regular season winning the Atlantic Conference crown with a 13-6-1 mark. Derrick Etienne (15 goals, 3 assists) and Cordt Weinstein (12 goals, 4 assists) combined to become the lethal one-two offensive punch while Billy Gatti (1.30 goals-against average) anchored the defense.
They continued their roll although the quarterfinals were a tense battle with the New York Freedoms. The teams battled to a 2-2 draw after 120 minutes. Brett Davis and a Freedoms own goal put Long Island on the scoreboard. In the shootout, Gatti converted his penalty kick for Long Island’s fourth goal before Christer Arnesen beat goalkeeper and future Rough Riders owner Peter Zaratin for the game-winner, 5-4.
In the semifinals, Long Island took only three shots in the second half and put all three into the net while playing most of the final 45 minutes a man down after Karim Diallo was red carded in the 53rd minute. Georges Haba scored in the 59th minute and Weinstein gave Riders some much-needed breathing room in the 75th minute. Fausto Klinger converted a PK in the 80th minute to put a bow on a 3-0 win.
In a confrontation between the top two scoring teams in the league – the Wilmington Hammerheads (58) and Riders (54) – the Long Island recorded a 1-0 come-from-behind triumph in front of 5,768 spectators in the championship match at the Legion Sports Complex in Wilmington, N.C. on Aug. 24. The hosts drew first blood behind Anthony Maher in the 40th minute. Carlos Mendes converted a free kick off an unusual formation to knot things up in the 58th minute. Haba set up Etienne’s game-winner in the 82nd minute. Etienne, selected as MVP of the match, celebrated with a back flip.
There were plenty of unsung heroes that season, including defenders Edgar Bartholomew, whom Riley considered the team MVP, and the always reliable Steve Cadet, who went onto the become a successful local high school coach at Wheatley H.S. after he retired, and long-time Riders midfielder Daniel Leon.