The soccer legend and national team’s OG (original goalkeeper) has seen it all, and will talk about it fearlessly
Long before there was a Major League Soccer, Shep Messing was carrying the flag for U.S. soccer. After an All-American collegiate career at Harvard, Messing helped the 1972 team become the first U.S. squad ever to qualify for an Olympic Games. From there, he was a goaltender in the North American Soccer League, the first national men’s professional soccer league in the United States. During that time, he was teammates with some of the greatest players in the world, including Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, playing in front of over 70,000 home fans. When Messing moved over to the Major Indoor Soccer League, he inspired a whole new generation of fans to take up the sport. And for the last two decades, he has been the voice of the New York Red Bulls in Major League Soccer. Recently, Messing sat down with us in our New York offices to share his long soccer journey on the road no other U.S. player has ever traveled.
How did you discover soccer? It certainly wasn’t on television at the time.
Part of the joy that I get today is seeing how the sport has exploded. As a teenager, I didn’t even know what soccer was. Growing up in the Bronx and Long Island, I played traditional American sports: baseball, football, basketball, track and field. I didn’t see a soccer ball until I was 16. It was a bunch of fortuitous events that took me into it. In high school, the football team disbanded after a kid got hurt. The soccer team was very good, and they needed a goalkeeper. So you take a shortstop in baseball or a point guard in basketball—good hands, quick feet, a little athletic and a little crazy—and you put him in goal. I loved it right away—the action, the conflict. I liked being a target. Three years later, I was an All-American in college. Four years later, I was playing in the Olympic Games representing the United States. And five years after that, I had Pelé as my teammate. It was meteoric for me. I didn’t have time to see what was going on around me. I was just enjoying every minute.
You had an offer to play professional baseball as well.
I grew up with parents that focused on education. Sports were just a sideline. I had an offer from the New York Mets for very little money. It was a $5,000 signing bonus. There was no way I was going to forgo college to be a minor league baseball player. Tony Meola was the same. He was a goalkeeper for the U.S. national team. He tried placekicking for the Jets, and was offered a contract with the Yankees. I may be biased, but I think the best all-around athlete in the game is the goalkeeper.
In the 1970s, there wasn’t much money in soccer. Were there times that you thought about walking away?
There were probably 20 times where I could have walked away. Part of the joy I had from a 16- year career, I never took anything for granted. I always thought that each season could be my last. Late in high school, I tore a thigh muscle pole vaulting. I had set a state record for pole vaulting, and when I got injured, I thought it was the end of my soccer career. When I went to NYU, I was rehabbing. I thought I would never run or jump. I ended up playing for NYU, was an All-American, and then I left school. I tried out for the U.S. Olympic team, and remember, there’s no pro soccer on the horizon here. And I sprained my ankle playing basketball and couldn’t take part in the Olympic trials.
Mick Jagger after a Cosmos home game.
So how did you make the U.S. Olympic team in 1972?
I went home and wrote letters to everyone I could to beg for another tryout, because in those days, they had regional tryouts. Finally, I reached one guy, the mayor of St. Louis, because the final tryouts were in St. Louis. They said, “OK, if you can get to St. Louis, we’ll give you one last chance.” I had no money, so I hitchhiked from Long Island to St. Louis. It took me five days. I had no money to stay in the hotel. I’ll never forget, I went to the airport and slept on the floor of the airport. I woke up by the gate. I got a newspaper and read that I made the Olympic team.
What was it like to try to qualifying for the Olympics in a sport you’ve only been playing for a few years?
The build up to the Olympics was the greatest time of my life. Soccer is the one vehicle, maybe music is the other, that takes you around the world. It’s totally global. Once I made the Olympic team, it was the first thing that took me out into the world. Much like today, we had to play in CONCACAF qualifiers, so we were playing in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Trinidad, Jamaica and El Salvador. That was my first experience of seeing the world through soccer. The hostile environments aside, there’s something beautiful about it when you go to play in those Latin American countries, and there are 10,000 people waiting at the airport and 20,000 people at the stadium. It was my first experience with that type of passion. And there was a common language. You don’t have to speak the language if you’re playing soccer. I take great pride in the fact that we were the first U.S. soccer team ever to qualify for the Olympic Games. The U.S. team played decades before, when there was no qualifying. But we were the first U.S. kids, all college kids, to go through CONCACAF qualifying and make it to the Olympics. There were dramatic games. We played Mexico, and it was a great celebration. We had to win the last game in a penalty shootout. I’ll never forget the last guy that was going to take the penalty shot for them. I wanted to freeze him. So I took my shirt off and started waving it around, screaming at him. I got a yellow card for it. He ended up shooting the ball 20 yards above the crossbar! And we went to the Olympics.
What was the Olympic experience like for you?
You have to remember, I’m Jewish. The Olympics I played in were in 1972, when terrorists attacked and murdered the Israeli athletes and coaches. After achieving my dream of making it to the Olympics, I can never shake the thought of getting a knock on my door at 4 a.m. by two German soldiers with machine guns. They were taking the Jewish athletes on the U.S. team into protective custody, because they weren’t sure at the time if all the Jewish athletes were targets, or if the terrorists were holding them hostage. So Mark Spitz, myself, and others, we were all rounded up and placed in protective custody while the drama and the murders took place. After that, I walked out, got on a plane and flew home. It certainly wasn’t the Olympic experience I dreamed about as a child.
What did you plan to do for a living when you got back to the States?
Simultaneous to the period I was qualifying for the Olympics, I was playing at Harvard, where I was an All-American. But I was also preparing for what to do when I graduated. I graduated from Harvard in June of 1972, played in the Olympic Games, and I had no reason to think my soccer career was going to continue. I had applied to law school, and was registered to go to Fordham Law School after the Olympic Games. I had pro offers, but not in this country. I had offers from places like Mexico and Germany, but it wasn’t in my view that I was going to do that. When I got home, I found out that I had been drafted by a team I had never heard of—the New York Cosmos. The North American Soccer League had their first college draft ever, and I was drafted #2 in the draft. But still, it was a part time job. It wasn’t a full time job. I still had to try out. The coach was Gordon Bradley. So I tried out for three days. After the tryouts, he asked me to meet him at Burger King after practice. He said “Listen, you did very well. I think you’re the best college player we have. I can offer you $2,300. And I’m the Harvard guy, thinking to myself, is that $2,300 a month? A game? He said, “No, that’s for the whole season.” I said, “What If I told you I had to think about it?” And he took a bite of is cheeseburger and said, “I couldn’t care less.” (laughs)
What were the early days of the Cosmos like?
I was a bad boy. I broke curfew. I was a fun guy, but a wild guy. It goes with part of the mentality of being a goalkeeper. By the second year of the Cosmos, I was too much trouble. I was cut from the team and no team wanted me. Once again, I wrote letters to every single team in the league. The coach of Boston, Hubert Vogelsinger had been the coach of Yale, when I played against him with Harvard. And he gave me a chance to tryout. I was the best goalkeeper, led the league in goalkeeping and was traded back to the Cosmos. But I thought every year was the last year.
What made you decide that you weren’t going to accept it as the last year? Even with a Harvard degree, no real salary, there was something that kept you coming back to soccer…
I thought the career was over, but it was semi-pro soccer, and I could still play. The day Pelé signed with the Cosmos, I call it “The Explosion.” That’s when it became a full-time professional sport to me. When I played for the U.S. national team, they gave us gas money and told us to drive to Hartford. We had nothing. Soccer here in New York and across the country was totally unknown. At that time, it was more of a sport in the ethnic communities. In the parks, people from Latin America, South America, European countries, they would play in the park, but it wasn’t on the radar for the rest of the country. That New York Cosmos team before Pelé, we would get 1,000 people at the game. And we used to joke about it. The team’s general manager, Clive Toye, he would sweep the stadium, pick up paper cups. There was no media coverage. All of a sudden, the greatest player in the world was playing in New York. It woke up this country to what the sport was about.
What was it like as players when Pelé arrived?
We were journeyman. We were in awe. Up until Pelé, there was a group of the best American players. But the European and South American players here weren’t the top tier players. I’ll never forget the first game I played with him. I took a picture with him and asked him to autograph it, because I thought I’d never be there again.
To this day, Messing and Pelé remain great friends.
Was the league that tenuous at the time?
I grew up in the Bronx. I was a Yankee fan. When Pelé signed, I wasn’t on the team. I had already been cut, put on waivers, and I was playing in Boston. You want to talk about agony? I pick up The New York Times, and Pelé was on the team I just got cut from, and I missed the opportunity. Now Pelé and the Cosmos are getting all kinds of publicity, and I am not on the team. That year, games were decided by penalty kicks. I was playing against Pelé for Boston at Yankee Stadium, five blocks from where I grew up. I stopped Pelé five or six times during the game. When we went to penalty kicks, Pelé takes the final penalty kick. I make the stop, and we win the game.
That must have been amazing!
It gets better! The next day, Pelé told them, “I want the American goalkeeper from Boston,” and I was traded the next week. Now I walk into Yankee Stadium for the first time with Pelé as my teammate. I had to get a picture with him, because it was too good to be true. For me, a Yankee fan from the Bronx, to get introduced while coming out of the same dugout that Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio did. Hearing the announcer saying, “#1 Shep Messing.” Pelé still jokes about the first six weeks he was there. Any time we got the ball, we would give it to him. We were scared to make a mistake. He came to us all and said, “Guys, I can’t do this alone. Hold the ball. Make a play.” As with many great athletes, he made everyone around him better. We became like a family. I don’t think the awe ever wore off, but we became his teammates.
Had the Cosmos signed other high profile players when you returned?
I was back in the middle of 1976. They had already signed Giorgio Chinaglia. It wasn’t until the next year in ‘77 that they signed Carlos Alberto, who had been the captain of Brazil, and Franz Beckenbauer, the German captain. Never in the history of the sport had so many captains of their World Cup winning teams been on the same team. This was the precursor for the Galacticos of Real Madrid. Up until this time, German players stayed in Germany, Spanish players stayed in Spain. We were the first team that made a team of Galacticos. It didn’t explode right away. Giants Stadium opened in 1977, and soccer was just gaining traction. Pelé is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, getting publicity. That summer, we were getting 30,000 people tops.
When did it explode?
I’ll never forget the day. It was Father’s Day in June of ‘77. I used to pick up Franz Beckenbauer in Long Island and drive him to the stadium. I picked him up, and we drive through the Lincoln Tunnel and there’s an unbelievable traffic jam. Beckenbauer is panicked because he thought we were going to be late. We thought there was a traffic accident, but 70,000 people showed up for the game!
What was it like for you during the height of that experience?
I could never dream about how it would evolve. Warner Communications owned the Cosmos. Steve Ross understood that soccer was supposed to be entertainment. Warner also owned a film company; they owned Atlantic Records. So every game, you never knew who might show up—Mick Jagger, Elton John, Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. They were merging everything together—Hollywood, rock-n-roll, sports. We hung out with rock stars, and people started treating us like rock stars.
I understand Pelé was a big factor, but it must have been more than that. How did this all happen so quickly?
I think there were a bunch of events surrounding what happened. The big stars of New York had left. Joe Namath had left; Clyde Frazier had left. Reggie Jackson had just got there. For that summer, it was the New York Cosmos. It was a real tough year in New York City—the Son of Sam murders, the blackout—sports is the one thing that can lift the city on their shoulders. We started getting 77,000 people at the games. We were on the back page of the New York Post and Daily News, and the front page of The New York Times, ahead of the Yankees. We captured the imagination of the country. It started the explosion of soccer in this country. Granted, it hasn’t been a path going straight up for 30 years, because it died for a while.
When the NASL folded in 1984, were you devastated that the league you put so much time and energy into to get off the ground had failed?
I wasn’t, because in some ways I helped precipitate the failure of the league. Pelé had retired. I was at the height of fame as an American player. I was the first American player to make $100,000 for a season. Some promoters called me because they had an idea about creating indoor soccer. The Russian army team was coming to play a game in America. They had an idea about putting together the best American players to play them. We played the game in Philadelphia, and it sold out. It was spectacular. The next year, Ed Tepper and Earl Foreman wanted to start the league. They needed an American player to make the jump from the NASL to their new league, the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL). I was no longer on the Cosmos; I was playing out in Oakland. They asked if I liked the indoor game, and I loved the game as a goalkeeper. I wasn’t making five saves a game, I was making 30! I never thought that what would happen would actually happen. They offered me a five-year contract to be the first player to sign. So I came back to play in the Nassau Coliseum for a new league and a new team, the NY Arrows. It started a war between the leagues, where many players from the NASL started jumping to the new league. It didn’t cause the demise of the NASL, but it didn’t help, because salaries started to spiral out of control. The outdoor league didn’t know what to do with the indoor league. If the indoor league didn’t happen, I would have been devastated. I was sad to see the outdoor league fold, but it was the beginning of a new eight-year career for me.
How did the hardcore soccer fans in America feel about the league?
The soccer purists went nuts! At that junction of my career, I was home. I was married, and had a baby. I was playing at the Nassau Coliseum where I used to watch the Islanders. I was never one to care what other people thought. To the soccer purists, I was the enemy. I got horrible reactions from soccer people, until they went to the game. There was a whole generation of boys and girls that grew up with the New York Arrows or the New Jersey Rockets—Branko Segota, Steve Zungul, Freddie Grgurev, Juli Veee, Luis Alberto. We were dynamite! We were entertaining! When you look at the NFL introductions, the NBA All-Star Game, those elaborate introductions started in the MISL. Tim Leiweke, who is a big sports executive now, was 21 years old when he worked at the Arrows. He came to me with the idea to have the players run through the tunnel in smoke with the rock music playing. I thought it was great! It was a form of entertainment that was new to traditional sports fans. Of all the championship games I played in, the best atmosphere by far was the MISL games. Purists didn’t like it, but it was still a soccer ball, and it kept things alive until ‘94 and the World Cup, and then Major League Soccer.
Where did the MISL go wrong?
I thought the sky was the limit for the game. If you asked me 30 years ago what would be the bigger sport in America, indoor soccer or outdoor soccer, I would have told you indoor soccer. Places like Cleveland were sold out—Wichita, Buffalo, Chicago, the old Baltimore Blast. In retrospect, egos got in the way. The league was beginning to expand and do well. Ed Tepper and Earl Foreman got an offer from Al Davis and the NFL to buy the league; that’s how well they were doing. Earl and Ed scratched their heads and said, “Well, if the NFL wants to buy us, we don’t want to sell.” Their ego took precedence over their wallets. They didn’t have the money to get the better players. They rushed expansion. They made all the mistakes that we’ve seen other sports make because they were undercapitalized in something they created that had real value. Could you imagine the NFL with their front office and organization experience taking over the league? I think the league would be around today. Two years ago, Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the Nets, reached out to me about putting a team there. He didn’t realize that the MISL as they knew it is no longer around.
Could an indoor league of that size prosper today? I can imagine soccer fans would love to be able to watch games live in the winter.
I don’t have the time and energy, but if I could waive a wand, I would start an indoor league. I looked at cities that have both NHL and NBA franchises, and which only have one. I’ve already identified about 12 franchises that could do it. The way the outdoor game has grown, it would have to be first class. You would need about five million dollars per team in player salary. You would have a 12-team league. You have cable networks that desperately need live events, so you would have TV sponsorship immediately. You would have tons of sponsors because the indoor game is much more sponsor-friendly than the outdoor game. It’s a much easier vehicle for advertisers.
Muhammad Ali visits the Cosmos locker room.
You’ve been a broadcaster for Major League Soccer games since the league began in 1996. How did that come about?
Timing is everything. I was injured later in my career and had to sit out a few games. The team asked if I would sit in the broadcast booth for those games, and I enjoyed it. When I retired from playing, I formed an agency that represented players. Pelé was my partner and we had offices in New York, London, Brazil. When MLS soccer started, the Red Bulls were originally called the MetroStars. I went to the team and, as a player agent, asked if they needed players. The guy who was the team president, Nick Sakiewicz, said “You don’t remember me, do you? I was your backup goaltender on the New York Arrows! I don’t need players but I do need a color commentator. I remember that you did some television analyst work years ago. Would you be interested?” That was my entrée into MSG Network, ESPN and FOX. I’ve been doing it ever since. I don’t want to make light of it. You have to work at what you do. The advice I give to any young man or woman about working in soccer as a player, broadcaster, whatever, you’ve got to work at what you want to be and how you want to do it. I’ve worked harder at broadcasting then I did as a player. You also have to be yourself. Fans like honesty. You can’t be something you’re not. You have to be yourself.
As someone who has been involved in U.S. Soccer in every iteration—U.S. national team, NASL, MISL, MLS—where do you see the game now in the U.S.?
Obviously, it’s been tumultuous times for U.S. Soccer. The men’s team missed qualifying for the World Cup. There’s a change in leadership. Bruce Arena is no longer the coach. But it’s important to keep a broad perspective. When I was on the U.S. team, they would give us gas money and tell us to drive to Hartford. Both the men’s and women’s teams, we had nothing. There wasn’t even really a professional league at the time. Look at where we are now! I never envisioned the sport being in this place. We have a great platform going. I don’t understand why people have the need to denigrate it our tear it down. Obviously, there are some fundamental problems that are not easy to solve.
Everyone has a different way to look at the beautiful game. To me, soccer is great because every player has the ability when they have the ball to create something. They can pass, they can beat a player with the dribble, and they can pass back to the goaltender. It is the greatest individual expression within a team sport to play beautiful soccer. There are many different ways of teaching soccer. I think we’re doing everything completely wrong in this country. Maybe it’s the fabric of what this country is. We’ve turned youth soccer not into a multi-million dollar business, but a multi-billion dollar business. I see it every day in the streets with my grandkids. It’s happening in every suburb in the country.
How is that harming player development?
That business is doing two critical things. First, it’s taking out all the spontaneity and creativity which makes it such a great sport. For example, we teach right away how to spread out and pass the ball. In more sophisticated soccer countries, they don’t teach a kid how to pass the ball for three years, because the hardest thing to do is to control the ball and beat a player off the dribble. The second thing that is catastrophic is that 80% of the kids playing drop out by age 14.
Because they aren’t having fun. Soccer is the ultimate sport where as a child, you should be able to freely develop your skills, because that will translate into what kind of player you are. The better you control the ball, the more fun you are going to have. But now, we have this multi-billion dollar coaching industry that’s hard to break now. In Germany, which is very rigid and structured, if you talk to anyone at any level, and they’ve done a great job with their youth soccer, they don’t play a game with tactics until they are 13. There is no such thing as “We’ll play four in the back, three in the middle, and three up front” in their youth games. They just work on fun games to develop skill and technique. They won’t play 11-v-11 games until they are around 14. Young kids 6-to-13 play technique to control the ball and put it into a fun game, 5-v-5 lots of touches on the ball. You see young kids here in the U.S., they barely touch the ball, and coaches and parents are yelling at them to spread out and pass the ball.
How can we fix it here in the U.S.?
I don’t know how to fix it specifically, but it’s a problem we need to solve for the game to develop. That being said, I love where the game is! Part of the nature of soccer that I can’t stand is that we’re so full of hate and anger, blaming individual people for everything. This is a beautiful sport! We should be celebrating this, always thinking how to make it better, more beautiful, and how to keep kids from leaving the game because they are still having fun.
Photograph by Chad Griffith