Written by John Archibald, Resolution Sports President
Meola capped 100 times for the U.S. National Team
The game of soccer has had somewhat of a hold on former U.S. National Team captain Tony Meola throughout his life. Born in Kearny, New Jersey, as the son of two Italian natives that immigrated to Long Island in the early 1960s, he made attempts to venture away from the game of soccer, but he always seemed to be pulled back onto its playing field.
“I grew up in a soccer household,” Meola recollected. “We watched as much soccer as we could, and we talked about it more than anything. My parents didn’t even know about baseball or basketball until I played.”
Meola lettered in soccer, baseball and basketball at Kearny High School in northern New Jersey. Playing alongside eventual National Soccer Hall of Famer John Harkes in 1984, the duo led Kearny to a perfect 24-0 record and state title. After tallying 43 shutouts for the Kardinals in three seasons, an injury at the striker position forced Meola to play forward his senior season. With his best friend Sal Rosamilia taking over in goal, he netted 33 scores in his final year of high school.
“I still think I’m a forward,” Meola half-jokingly stated. “It’s just that no one has figured it out yet.”
After high school graduation, Meola headed to the University of Virginia where he received both soccer and baseball scholarships. At the time, the former draft selection of the New York Yankees thought the diamond was the best place for him.
“When I was at Virginia, I thought baseball was my ticket,” he commented. “I had just been cut from the U.S. Youth (Soccer) National Team, and I had mentally had enough of soccer.”
Soccer was not prepared to let Meola go that easily. He made the full national team in 1988 and soon became the representative in net for his country. He was the youngest player on the national team, and he earned his first cap against Ecuador on June 10, 1988.
Back at Virginia, Meola was playing under eventual U.S. National Team head coach Bruce Arena, and he received All-America accolades for both his freshman and sophomore seasons. In 1989 he won the Hermann Trophy, awarded to the top collegiate soccer player in the country after leading Virginia to a NCAA co-national championship with Santa Clara. After that sophomore season, Meola began to fully pursue a career with the national team.
In 1990 the U.S. qualified for their first World Cup appearance in 40 years. While the team was eliminated after the opening round, the groundwork had been laid for a new era in American soccer. Prior to the 1994 World Cup, the United States was selected as the host country.
“We had very few believers heading into the ’94 Cup,” Meola said. “We knew that we could turn the corner on soccer in this country, and we needed to make people respect us.”
In their first match up of the opening round, the U.S. turned heads when they drew a 1-1 tie with Switzerland. In their next contest, the national team shocked the world by defeating Colombia, the overall number four ranked team in the World Cup, by a count of 2-1.
“We celebrated for about 20-30 minutes after the win, but then reality set in that we could actually advance to the second round,” Meola recalled.
Despite a 1-0 loss to Romania in the final group game, the U.S. made it to the knockout round for the first time in modern history. In the second round, the national team was eliminated by eventual champion Brazil in a tight 1-0 loss following a Bebeto goal in the 72nd minute.
“I still think about that ball going towards the goal,” Meola recollected. “It had just enough of a weird backspin to sneak in the far post. Seeing that ball go into the net is a pain that I will remember forever.”
Following the 1994 World Cup, Meola tried out as a place kicker for the New York Jets, surviving until the final cut. Just as before, soccer would again pull him back.
In 1996 Major League Soccer made its highly-anticipated debut and led Meola back to New Jersey as the starting goalkeeper of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. He remained with the MetroStars until 1999 when he signed a deal to play with the Kansas City Wizards. 2000 would see Meola reach the pinnacle of the sport in this country. He shattered his own league record by recording 16 shutouts en route to being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. He also backstopped the Wizards to the league championship that year, being named the MLS Most Valuable Player for the season and the MLS Cup.
“You don’t even realize what is happening at first,” Meola stated. “We were a committed group of guys, and we were on top of the MLS standings from day one. It was the perfect example of not needing the flashiest players to be the best team.”
Meola remained in Kansas City until returning to the MetroStars in 2005. He played with the club (now known as Red Bull New York) through the 2006 season. He also received his 100th cap with the national team that year and was selected to the MLS All-Time Best XI.
Meola and his wife, Colleen, formally moved back East with their three children, Jonathan, Kylie and Aidan, when he signed with the indoor New Jersey Ironmen on August 15, 2007. In a role to which he had become accustomed, he immediately became the face of the expansion side.
“There are some things you get used to and some things you don’t,” he remarked. “To be considered the face of anything is very humbling; all I ever wanted was to represent my sport in a positive light. It was always my dream to play soccer at the highest level possible, and I accepted every responsibility that came with that with the same energy.”
Meola backstopped the Ironmen into the 2007-08 Major Indoor Soccer League postseason that year, proving he still had the same determination and focus no matter the size of the stage or the surface of the playing field.
“I was always out there playing for the same reason as every fan and teammate I ever had, and that is to win,” he stated. “Winning is always the goal, but it doesn’t always happen, unfortunately. Regardless, it has to be the focus. The minute you lose that focus, it’s over.”
As the energy surrounding soccer in this country continues to grow with the 2010 World Cup less than a year away, one cannot help but take a look back in appreciation at what Meola and the rest of the U.S. National Team did to put our country on the international map. On the same note, I guess you have to show a lot of appreciation to the game of soccer as well. Had it not been for its persistence in continually pulling Meola back onto the playing field, this great story of a son of two Italian immigrants helping to stamp our place among the biggest sport in the world would not be one that could be told. And for that, soccer, we thank you.
Tony Meola co-founded a top-of-the-line athletics company in 2008 by the name of Gk1 Sports. For more information on the company, visit www.Gk1Sports.net.