Legendary U.S. MNT Goalkeeper Tony Meola On Soccer Today
In just a few short weeks, the U.S. Men’s National Team will be in Brazil to take on the world at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. For some of the team members, it will be their first experience at one of the world’s largest single-sport events. Former U.S. MNT goalkeeper Tony Meola likely remembers his first time playing at the World Cup in 1990, as well as most of his other 100 caps. Today Meola, who was protecting the net when Paul Caligiuri scored his famous “Shot Heard around the World” goal against Trinidad & Tobago during a 1989 qualifying match, continues to play an important role in the U.S. soccer world and developing youth players.
Today Meola is dedicated to developing the next generation of soccer players and believes the future of American soccer is bright saying, “We are strong at the youth level.” Spending his time working with U.S. Soccer’s Youth National Teams programs and helping to promote the game around the country, Meola believes the youth players on the National teams are the best ever and can compete with against any country in the world.
This week, Meola was on hand with Allstate Insurance for pre-match activities leading up to the battle between the U.S. MNT and Mexico at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. He recently spoke with SoccerNation editor Diane Scavuzzo about his playing days, his continuing role with soccer and on the importance of the US Development Academy and what he expects for the U.S. MNT in Brazil.
Diane Scavuzzo: You played 100 games for the U.S. National Team and went to three World Cups, so you know what our country is up against. What do you think about our chances in Brazil in the so-called “Group of Death” with Germany, Portugal and Ghana?
Tony Meola: I’m excited about how far we have come. It’s a very difficult group, but there is never an easy group in a World Cup.
Diane Scavuzzo: You played one of the most demanding positions in the game. What was it like being a goalkeeper at the professional level?
Tony Meola: It is one of those positions that is more recognized when you make a mistake than when you play a good game. It is the nature of being back there – it comes along with the territory of playing the goalie.
Diane Scavuzzo: What would you tell a young player who is thinking about becoming a goalkeeper?
Tony Meola: It is a position you must enjoy playing. If things do not go well, you have to continue to play. It is easier to say than to do, but that is obviously what separates the good goalies from the great ones who succeed.
I coach youth soccer players, and you can see the fear or passion in their eyes when you ask who wants to go in goal. You have to be fearless and have the courage to do it. It is fun to watch kids who can do this.
Diane Scavuzzo: What do youth goalies need to do to become a pro and play in a World Cup?
Tony Meola: Goalies often need tactical adjustments that help them in their game. It is a daily thing; it never turns off. The minute you do, there is someone behind you who is willing to do the work, if you are not. Soccer is not like most youth sports.
Diane Scavuzzo: How has player development changed?
Tony Meola: There has been a lot of evolution in youth soccer, and we understand that the best way to fill our national team rosters is to get our youth players better. The last ten years I’ve spent a lot of time with the national youth team programs. I have enjoyed working with the U19s, which is our future Olympic team.
Diane Scavuzzo: What has been the impact of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system and the rise of the MLS Academies?
Tony Meola: I was just with the U15 National Team, and I do not know the exact number but approximately 10 percent of the players train in an MLS Academy.
The US Development Academy program gives us the most opportunity to see the most players in the least amount of time. If we didn’t have the Academy program, we would be scattering around all the time looking to identify players.
Diane Scavuzzo: What about players who are not with a U.S. Development Academy team?
Tony Meola: I am still a big believer that if you are good enough, we will know about you.
It makes it a bit more difficult for kids to be seen, as there are only nine Technical Advisers. In a country that is so big and hard to cover, our program continues to build, but it is just going to take time to get everyone on the same page.
Every club recommends players to us for the youth national teams, but often coaches do not realize it doesn’t work out as they do not always understand the level required.
Diane Scavuzzo: What do you see as the future for soccer in American?
Tony Meola: The future looks very bright. We are strong at the youth level. The U17, U15 and U14 National Youth Teams are as strong as anyone in the world.
Diane Scavuzzo: What challenges do you see as the USA competes against other nations around the world?
Tony Meola: Our guys are in college when players in other parts of the world are signing pro contacts and playing in lower leagues. Those players are gaining real experience, not just playing for three months in college.
Diane Scavuzzo: You have been working with Allstate to sponsor soccer events around the country. What has this been like?
Tony Meola: This is our fourth year of sponsorship with Allstate, and they are great. Allstate sponsors several soccer events during the year. This week we were out in the community and we surprised a local team in the Phoenix area. We held a little clinic, and Allstate provided all sorts of great soccer equipment for the club coaches to help run their team in the right manner.
Diane Scavuzzo: What are some of the important changes you have seen in youth soccer in America?
Tony Meola: One of the most important changes in soccer in America is the emphasis on the education of coaches. I would also say the fact that our TV screens are filled with great soccer action.
I like listening to the kids talk today. All the players talk about their favorite international pro players and who they follow. When I was young, we didn’t have that opportunity. Soccer wasn’t on TV all the time. My favorite player when I was young was Dino Zoff, the winning goal keeper for Italy in the 1982 World Cup. He was 40 years old when he won a World Cup.
Diane Scavuzzo: Who is your favorite professional international team?
Tony Meola: I am of Italian descent and grew up an AC Milan fan. My dad was a Napoli man and we enjoyed that rivalry.
Meola grew up well-versed in the beautiful game – his father, Vincenzo Meola played for Italian second division club Avellino prior to moving to the United States – but he also played more traditional American sports. He was the captain of his high school basketball team, attended the University of Virginia on a baseball/soccer scholarship, and once tried out for placekicker with the New York Jets. But it was on the pitch where he made his greatest contributions to the sports world, participating in three World Cups and setting goalkeeping marks in Major League Soccer (MLS). In 2012 those contributions were fully recognized when Meola was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Photo Credit: TAYLOR