Today, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes talking to USMNT legend Tony Meola.
Meola earned 100 caps in his international career and minded the net for the U.S. in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. He was also a part of the 2002 World Cup squad.
In his Major League Soccer career, Meola played the majority of his career for the Kansas City Wizards, helping the team win the MLS Cup in 2000, a year that saw Meola win League MVP, Goalkeeper of the Year and MLS Cup MVP honors.
Meola is in Kansas City ahead of the U.S. final group stage World Cup qualifier as part of Allstate’s “Good Hands FC” program that works with youth goalkeepers.
Meola talked about Sporting KC, the growth of Major League Soccer, the USMNT, Jurgen Klinsmann and even Brad Friedel.
Can you tell me a little about what you’re doing in Kansas City?
“I’m out here around the U.S.-Guatemala World Cup qualifier with Allstate as part of this promotion that we’ve been doing for the last two years around the country. Tonight we will be in a local community here. We’re going to surprise a group of players and be part of a clinic that is also going to be supported by Sporting. At the end, AllState’s nice enough to give the kids brand new gear, a full kit with everything that they need to get through the season and a ticket to tomorrow’s night’s [U.S.-Guatemala] game.”
So you’ve been doing this for the last two years?
“I’ve been doing it for two years around the country and this is the first time I’m getting back to KC, so when this came on the schedule at the beginning of the year—I’ve been looking forward to this trip for awhile.”
This is kind of a homecoming for you, isn’t it?
It sure is—I wish I had more time - it’s great to be back. I just got a nice tour of the stadium, tomorrow I’ll head out, Peter [Vermes] invited me to practice, so I’ll head out to training. And then, tomorrow night enjoy what we hope is going to be a great night.”
The stadium is a little bit different than when you were there?
“Yeah, they did a great job. They put a lot of time, effort and funding into the stadium. They certainly didn’t miss too much that’s for sure.”
So what are your thoughts on how Major League Soccer has changed since your playing days?
“Well, obviously there’s more teams, a lot more travel. With the new rules they definitely have some advantages with designated players, and bringing some of those players into the fold, into the mix, I think it helps the American players and it helps the quality of play. And I think the player pool is bigger than it was back then.”
Did you get to watch the U.S. - Antigua match the other night?
“I did, I watched it on a computer which drives me crazy. I feel like I might as well listen to it on the radio like in the 60’s. First, and most importantly, they [the U.S.] got the result. From there, the quality of play wasn’t great. Antigua and Barbuda, at a point, looked really dangerous and there was a stretch of time in the middle of that game where they almost looked like they were going to take the three points. But, the U.S. got the goal they needed and now they come back knowing exactly what they have to do. A tie, or a win and they go through to the next round and that’s the most important thing. Certainly, it was not a great game for the U.S.”
What are your impressions with Jurgen Klinsmann so far?
“You know, that’s always the question, I hear it all the time. About playing better and the style and for me, I look at things, maybe, in a simple format. What I judge personally is, do you get to the World Cup and then do you get out of the first round. For me, that’s success because those standards have been set. I would think with this group of players, and I would hope that the expectations of the fans, at a minimum, anything short of that is not a success. And I don’t think they [the players] look at it any differently.
Everyone says the style of play—tell me what has changed in the style of play? If he [Klinsmann] said we’re going 3-5-2, well that’s a completely different style, or a straight 4-3-3, or something different, I just don’t see it. I think forget the style of play, let’s worry about getting this team prepared, getting this team clicking on all cylinders on game day and every game day.”
Do you have any predictions for tomorrow?
“It’s a tough game. I do see the U.S. winning the game and scoring a couple of goals. But, Guatemala is dangerous right now. They understand - they win the game they’re going through. And with a tie the two of them can go through. There’s a lot at stake for Guatemala. The U.S. has an advantage—if they lose they can still go through, but then it will depend on Jamaica who hasn’t been kind to the U.S. the last couple of weeks and they’re not going to start now. I think that at some point, this group of guys is just going to have to start rolling over some of these teams.”
You mentioned that qualifying for the World Cup is the goal. You’ve been part of the legacy of this country starting with 1990 with getting us back to being a modern soccer nation.
“Yeah, you look at that and couple it with ‘94 and from that point on, the expectations changed. And that’s good. That’s all positive. Positive from a fan stand point. And with this team they should expect more. They should demand more. You’ve got guys playing all over the world at a high level now. And they [the fans] should expect that this team tomorrow night and going forward—they can get through these games.”
You mentioned the ‘94 team—that meant a lot to my generation—seeing you guys perform on the world stage here in the United States and how much that helped grow the game. It helped make us excited and really proud to be soccer players because we were kind of outcasts at that time in this country. What do you guys, the ’94 guys, see as your role in the development of the game here in the U.S.?
“What we really had there was a group of guys with a lot of desire. And then we had really the first group of guys to play at that stage that American fans could see - Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones, Earnie Stewart, Marcelo Balboa—those recognizable names. We were the first crop of guys that people recognized and had the opportunity to [see]. It was a good era for sure to be part of. But now we need to continue to advance and continue to grow and we’re doing that. The last two away games haven’t been pretty for the U.S., but hopefully we get through this and when the time comes—we’re well on our way to looking like how we all think the group should look.”
I’m sure you saw this. Last week Brad Friedel’s consecutive game streak in the EPL came to an end. I’m sure the American goalkeeper community has some collegiality. I’m wondering if you had any thoughts on that streak coming to an end?
“Yeah, you know it’s crazy. I read Villas-Boas’ rationale and the reasoning. I would have thought by now, he’s [Friedel] established himself to be in a position where he didn’t have to go through that. I thought it was strange that they brought [Hugo] Lloris in at this point and not someone younger. But, they made the decision and Brad will for sure deal with it like he also does—professionally.”
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