World Soccer Talk got the chance to have an exclusive interview with U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Tony Meola. The goalkeeper, who was a two-sport college athlete, made his name as the USMNT’s No. 1 during the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. Meola went on to a successful career in MLS, and is now heavily involved in coaching youth soccer at different levels. We got to talk to Tony about the game against Mexico, as well as ask him to reflect on his incredible sporting career.
Grant Miller (GM): While the buzz in United States soccer is all about Julian Green, who made his debut in the friendly against Mexico, how excited are you to see him play for the USMNT?
Tony Meola (TM): He’s been a guy that has been on the radar for quite some time and of course nobody knew what direction he was going to go but I think everyone’s excited that he chose to play for the US, and now that he’s made his one-time switch, he’s locked into the US so we know that we have a kid. And if he’s a guy for this World Cup we’ll soon find out but we have a kid that will likely be with this US team in an attacking role for the next three World Cups. Of course, most people haven’t seen him play because he doesn’t play a lot in the first team at Bayern. He played a little bit in the Champions League back in November, but Bayern’s not one too overinflate their young players and they couldn’t say enough good things about Julian and what he’s done there and so hopefully that will translate to the national team.
GM: Let’s talk about your career. When you were younger, you weren’t just a soccer player. You also played baseball, and played both in college at Virginia. How did you manage to balance being a two-sport athlete and a college student?
TM: It took a lot of time, for sure. I used to go from soccer training at night and I used to have the key to the gym and would spend time in the batting cages at night after I did work. It was forever, but I didn’t know any different, and I didn’t want to do anything other than that, so it wasn’t like it was a drag for me to get there. It was something I loved doing. Of course, I had the chance to go to the University of Virginia. For me, I always told my parents I picked the best academic school I could go to and also play sports at and be competitive, and that was it for me. But the only way I was going to be able to go there was on a dual scholarship, and I was lucky enough to do that. My parents would have never had the ability to pay for me to go to school at that time. They probably would’ve found a way, but to strap them like that for years wasn’t an option. The majority of the offers I had were of the same nature. I just chose to go to the place that was best for me.
GM: You talk about how important your college education was to your parents, so how hard was it to leave college and look for a contract abroad before finally signing a deal with US Soccer?
TM: When I was in Europe, I went to Brighton first, to Watford and then Toulouse in France. At that point, it was so hard for American players to get work visas. That’s why I left. I loved it in both Brighton and Watford. Actually when I got transferred, I had a six-month work permit. I got a transfer from Brighton to Watford, and I thought I was going to stay there, and it didn’t work out. I couldn’t get a work permit. It was the most frustrating three months of my life. I literally came home from practice everyday, went over to the consulate, spent hours there doing interviews trying to get a work permit, and eventually it didn’t work out. So I went to Toulouse, and was about to sign with the small club in the southern part of France — a team that was in the second division looking to go to the first division. Then US soccer decided to do what it did: bringing the kids to Mission Viejo, and that just seemed like the quickest way to play soccer and not worry about work permits, interviews, and phone calls. I just wanted to play at that point. That was the route I chose, and it was good for that particular group.
GM: You get your chance with the national team in the final four games of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup. You kept a clean sheet in every one of those matches, and you were on the field during that famous game in Port of Spain in 1989. Did you guys realize at the time just how important that win would prove to be?
TM: I think we realized when it was all said and done what we had accomplished. Our country hadn’t been to a World Cup for 40 years, and we knew we made history at that point. Of course, the focus immediately turned to preparing for the World Cup. Because we had heard that if we didn’t make it to the 1990 World Cup, FIFA was thinking of potentially taking away the World Cup in ’94. There were alot things that that group had to deal with, and we did a pretty good job of just focusing on what we were there to do, and that was to qualify for the World Cup.
As it turns out, we needed shutouts in all four of those games. It’s funny because that group just recently has been getting credit for what they accomplished. It took a little longer than I thought, but I’m happy they’re getting credit for what we did. We didn’t have a professional league. I was lucky, along with a few other guys that were still playing in college, that we were able to train every day and play games every weekend. But not everyone on that team had that chance, so you look back on it, and that story may never happen again.
GM: So, in a matter of months, you went form a college campus to playing in a World Cup in the nation of your parents’ native country. How surreal was that change of scenery?
TM: It was great. I suppose we were playing a lot of pretty significant international friendlies leading up to that, but for me personally, if I had to choose two places in the world I would want to play a World Cup in, it would be Italy and the US, and I was able to do that. To go back there and play and meet family I had never met before – knowing the passion they had for the game – that was pretty cool.
GM: You mentioned the ’90 team getting a lot of praise, but with the 20-year anniversary of the ’94 World Cup coming up, that team has had a lot of press. Does it feel like it was all that long ago?
TM: I can’t believe it was 20 years ago. I was in those few stories that were done, and even though it was 20 years ago, I could literally retrace every step of that experience. I could retrace every day in my mind from the hotel, getting to the games, to the locker rooms and all that stuff. When they started calling about those articles – and they were really well done – I had to do the math a little bit because it certainly doesn’t seem like 20 years ago.
GM: Then you were a member of the 2002 World Cup squad that made it to the quarterfinals. As someone who laid the groundwork for US soccer, how did it feel to see how far the game had come?
TM: I realized it from every angle. I think you could ask any guy from that ’94 group that our motto was “Just keep the ball rolling.” Keep promoting; keep developing players, everything that goes along with what we try to do now. It’s so nice to see all those guys in positions that will help the game grow. I think it’s really neat and really needed in our game.
GM: You did participate in MLS from the start, first with the Metrostars but then you had your biggest impact with Kansas City in that 2000 season when the team won MLS Cup and you won all the individual trophies on offer. What did that mean to you to win a championship in an American soccer league that seemed unlikely to materialize back when you were playing in college?
TM: Anytime you win a championship, it’s special. That year, for me personally, was a little extra special because when I got injured in ’99, I had read so much about “Can he come back?” “Will he come back?” And it kind of all fell in place. I worked hard, there’s no question. We were a determined group, and we were a good group. That particular team, from 2000-2003, had the best overall record in MLS during that period. So it was a pretty special group. We lost in the final in 2004, but won the Open Cup in 2001, so it was a group that was able to win things, and one that Bob Gansler had to put together from misfits from other teams.
GM: This week you’re participating in a special youth soccer initiative. Can you tell us more about it?
TM: This program with Allstate allows me to get back into the community. We’ll barge in on a youth team practice and sort of take it over for a night, and when it’s all said and done these kids, that wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity if it weren’t for Allstate, receive uniforms, shin guards, sweat suits, bags and soccer balls for the team, along with training equipment for the coaching staff — really everything they need to get through a complete season the way we think they should.
If it weren’t for Allstate and their efforts, they probably wouldn’t have a chance to do that.