In April, World Soccer Talk interviewed U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Tony Meola about his career and some of his thoughts on the U.S. Men’s National Team’s chances heading into the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
This week we spoke with Tony again, and he reflected on the USMNT’s performances, as well as what it means for MLS and the MLS All-Star Game.
Grant Miller (GM): We’re about a month out from the end of the USMNT’s time at the World Cup this summer. What are your thoughts about how they did, how it all went down and your opinion on the tournament as a whole?
Tony Meola: “I thought the USMNT did well, certainly, getting out of the Group of Death. I may have went against the grain a little bit in my predictions early on and said they would get out of the Group of Death and they would find a way — and they did. I know there were a lot of people that thought, “This is going to be impossible.” So from that standpoint, a success, there’s no question. Then they get into the knockout phase, and I think anytime you do that, if you’re a Brazil or if you’re a Germany, some people don’t look at that as a huge accomplishment. For us, it’s always the first challenge in a World Cup so from that standpoint I think we did well.
“You talk about gaining more attention for the sport in our country, that part of it as well, was a home run. Sometimes it’s unfair to put that pressure on one group of players, but with the national team here that’s sort of been what it’s become. This group of guys did a good job of really growing that part of it as well.”
GM: When you took the field at the Rose Bowl on that July day in 1994, did you think that 20 years later you would see the kind of crowds like we did in Chicago and Kansas City this summer?
Meola: “I thought we’d see it one day. We’ve started to build it and it’s continued to grow. But what we did see far outgrew my expectations for what I thought we’d see this year. There were a lot of positives in this [World Cup]. The fact that it was a primetime tournament I think really, really helped. The fact that we got out of this Group of Death. And whether you followed the team from the day of the draw or you were just reading about the World Cup, you kind of read about that the entire time. So the fact that we got out of it, meant that even the casual fan jumped on board and got involved a little bit more than they maybe would have in the past. All those things together really made for the perfect storm as far as marketing this team and this tournament in the U.S. It’s really, really exciting to see the direction it’s going.
“I say it all the time: as long as it’s going in a positive direction I think we should be happy. Some people want it to move at light speed. For me, thinking back to 1988 when I first started with the national team and played my first game, it has gone light speed, in my eyes. But I know when you’re just jumping on board here recently it might not seem that way, but I’ve seen it grow from where it was and I really do think it’s growing quickly.”
GM: Now that soccer has grown so much, there’s probably going to be more eyes on the USMNT’s next cycle. With that in mind, how do you think Jurgen has done so far and what do you think he can really do to build on the success the team they had this summer?
Meola: “I think it’ll be interesting to see what direction he goes with players, and interesting to see some of the young players continue to develop under Jurgen. I saw something a while back where Jurgen talked about how he learned about CONCACAF, how difficult it is, and we did a pretty good job of getting through. Early on it was a little shaky, but now I think it become a little bit easier when you have an idea of these places and how to go in and approach playing in CONCACAF qualifying. But it’s not easy. People think it’s easy. I’ll put any team in the world to try to come and qualify through CONCACAF and some of the bigger teams will qualify, there’s no doubt there, but I think every one of them would come out and say, ‘This wasn’t as easy as people thought it was going to be.’ And that’s kind of what we saw in qualifying, and it made it interesting in the beginning and I think it was a learning lesson for the new coaching staff and now that they’ve gone through that hopefully we continue to get better here in CONCACAF.”
GM: Now turning our attention to this week and the MLS All-Star Game… For the past 10 years MLS has used the format of playing a European club rather than an intra-league exhibition. Do you like the current format?
Meola: “Yeah, I think it works for what we’re trying to do here. I played in a couple different formats (East vs. West, U.S. MLS vs. Rest of World MLS) and I like this format. Especially now coming off the heels of the World Cup and you’ve got a team in Bayern Munich that’s one one of the most storied teams in the world. You’ve got six World Cup winners and a whole bunch of World Cup players on the field, and it’s a group that a lot of people can identify. I love the fact that our American fans get an opportunity to see these teams here in the U.S., see them play, can go and get a true feel for their massive following.
“I can tell you just in my hotel alone, there were boatloads of people that were obviously Bayern supporters that were coming in last night. And you know, you build that however many years they’ve been doing it, it doesn’t happen overnight, and we’re trying to do that here in the U.S.
“I also think it’s great for the city of Portland. For me, they’ve been one of the biggest stories in Major League Soccer with what they’ve been able to do up here and what they’ve been able to accomplish from an attendance standpoint. They do such a great job, so it’s a huge reward and a huge honor for them to be able to host this game.”
GM: You talked earlier about the success of the World Cup here in the U.S. Do you think that popularity can translate to MLS and to more people getting involved with our own domestic league?
Meola: “I think that’s the next step. To try and figure out how to get these people to come week in and week out to their local clubs. How do you get them in New York, how do you get them in Philly, how do you get them someplace else and not just supporting the European teams. Look, I have no problem with — and I talk about this on my radio show all the time — the fact that people support other clubs and I don’t suggest for one minute that they should do one thing over another. I just think there are soccer fans out there that we can see now, and we need to try and somehow translate that. Now, I’m not smart enough to figure out how to do that, someone else in a much better can do that. It’s just, we need to find a way to get them. And we’ll do that, we’ll do what we’ve been doing and getting one person at a time, and I think we’ve got to continue to go in that grassroots mindset and get it done.”
GM: Last time we spoke you were partnering with Allstate to help some local soccer clubs out in Arizona. I hear you’re doing something similar this week in Portland?
Meola: “We go around to the major soccer events, between Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team. So I’ve been lucky enough to do that and be part of the program. One of the things we do while we’re in town, and that’ll happen tonight (Monday), is that we do a community event. We go into a local team’s training, we sort of barge in, make ourselves at home, and Allstate does a big presentation so the kids feel a part of something special. We interact with them during training and at the end we get them together and Allstate’s got some great stuff to give away like outfits for the team’s entire season: shirts, jerseys, sweat tops, shorts, bags, soccer balls. And then they outfit the coaching staff with everything they need equipment-wise to train these kids all year. Then at the end we give them all a ticket to the All-Star Game. So it’s a major, major commitment by Allstate and one that, at the end of the night, everybody feels good about what we’re able to do.”
Portland hosts the 2014 MLS All-Star Game, which will be shown live on ESPN2 between the MLS All-Star team and Bayern Munich at 9:55pm ET on Wednesday.