Tony Meola Exclusive: Former Star Talks MLS, USMNT and Life After Tim Howard

John D. Halloran@JohnDHalloranContributor IIAugust 4, 2014

4 Jun 1994:  Tony Meola of the USA stands on the field during a game against Mexico at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.  The USA won the game 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello  /Allsport
Al Bello/Getty Images

In his United States men's national team career, which spanned nearly two decades, Tony Meola earned 100 caps for the Americans and represented the team in three World Cups.

These days, in addition to his work as a commentator and as a coach with the U.S. youth national team setup, Meola works with Allstate to promote youth soccer in underserved communities.

This week, as part of that work, he's in Portland where Major League Soccer will be hosting its All-Star game against Bayern Munich on Wednesday. While there, Meola and Allstate will surprise a local youth team and supply the team with new uniforms, warm-ups, bags, balls and tickets to the All-Star game.

"Basically, we outfit an entire team," Meola told Bleacher Report. "And, in the end, we give them tickets to the [All-Star] game. The fact that they get to go to these big events...that's the coolest part for me."

For the All-Star game itself, Meola expects a wide-open game—the type he wouldn't want to be in the net for.

"From a goalkeeper's standpoint, they're not always fun," Meola said laughing. "[It's] always an open game, always a lot of goals, it seems, in the All-Star game. Guys are willing to take risks a little bit more than they would with their club teams. Because of that, it always makes for a lot of fun."

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Jul 23, 2014; Pasadena, CA, USA; (Editors note: caption correction) Manchester United midfielder Reece James (41) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Los Angeles Galaxy during the second half at Rose Bowl. Manchester United defeated Los Angeles Ga

Still, Meola doesn't think anyone should read too much into the result of the game, whatever it is.

He said: "I read a lot about the LA Galaxy losing to Manchester United, but there are other instances where [MLS] beat Chelsea. I don't think we can get too caught up in that stuff. I know the mentality of the players. They look at it as a period of time off."

Win or lose, Meola sees MLS as a league on the rise, in his estimation on par with the English Championship.

"We can compete with [any other league]," Meola said. "There's so many different variables. I would say the [English] Championship is fair, maybe the bottom of the EPL."

He added: "For me, the important thing is we're improving, we continue to bring better players in and our American players continue to get better...I think we're taking all the right steps and we're really focusing now on youth development."

The former American net minder also thinks that MLS is making the right decision in bringing so many Americans back home.

He said: "It started with Clint [Dempsey] a year ago, and then [Michael] Bradley and now DaMarcus Beasley. Maybe Jermaine Jones or [Sacha] Kljestan or [Mix] Diskerud [are next]. I like the idea that we're bringing those guys back. If we bring back the American players, that in and of itself, makes the league better."

Aug 3, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Dynamo defender DaMarcus Beasley (21) chases the ball during the first half against D.C. United at BBVA Compass Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

He also thinks that many foreigners don't appreciate how difficult it really is to play in MLS.

He said: "You see it all the time. All the foreign players I played with that came here and weren't as successful as they thought they would be—they talked about the travel, the heat—all the things they don't have to deal with on a weekly basis [in Europe].

"In New York, they couldn't believe you'd have to fly across the country and have to play a game the next day in L.A. after flying for five-and-a-half hours."

Talking about the U.S. men's national team, Meola hasn't seen the same change in style in play that many attest to but simply more of the same.

"I don't think the style of the national team has changed," Meola said, conceding the U.S. still looks to defend and counter. But for Meola, that's a good thing.

"I still think you need to be good to counterattack well. We see teams all the time [that do it]. Look at Holland in the World Cup, look at Costa Rica. I like that style of play. It opens up the game. It creates space."

Meola also credited the 2014 U.S. World Cup team for showing the same grit that has made the U.S. successful in past World Cups: "What this team did was show a spirit and energy and togetherness—a willingness to fight that galvanized so many fans around the country."

But Meola recognizes that trips to the round of 16 in the World Cup aren't unique for the U.S. anymore. Speaking of the 2002 U.S. World Cup team, of which Meola was a part, he said, "That's our barometer. We've made it to a quarterfinal in the modern era. That's got to be our standard.

"Even in 2002, we didn't have an easy draw. We had a Portugal team that people thought was going to go to the semifinals of that World Cup, we played the host country [South Korea] which is never easy and had to play our rivals [Mexico]."

He continued: "I think it's really important that we find ourselves in the next two World Cups getting to the quarterfinals."

July 11, 2014; Santa Clara, CA, USA; D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid (28) claps during the first half against the San Jose Earthquakes at Buck Shaw Stadium. D.C. United defeated San Jose Earthquakes 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

As a former international goalkeeper, Meola also has a unique perspective on the future of the U.S. goalkeeper pool, especially if current No. 1 Tim Howard retires. Meola thinks that, beyond Brad Guzan, there are a number of good candidates.

"The guys we're talking about are [Bill] Hamid, Sean Johnson, guys like that," he said.

"Cody Cropper, who plays with Southampton, is part of the next group. Santi [Castano], the young kid for the Red Bulls who I helped with the U-20s, has a future. Ethan Horvath, who plays with Molde, is also another young kid with a bright future. There are a lot of guys that are all at the same level.

"We all feel good with Guzan. [The U.S.] has been pretty lucky for years [at goalkeeper]. I would have felt confident [in the World Cup] with Nick Rimando."

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