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'People look at that as the best team in the world' | Q&A with Tony Meola
One of the pioneers of bringing American soccer to an international level and establishing the legitimacy of the MLS, Tony Meola is in the pantheon of US soccer history.
A three-sport star as a prep in his home town of Kearny, NJ, Meola spent 12 years representing his country from 1988-2006, played in net for a pair of FIFA World Cups (and was on the roster for another in 2002) and was named the captain of the 1994 team.
His top MLS season came with the Kansas City Wizards in 2000, when he posted a league-record 16 shutouts, earned MVP and Goalkeeper of the Year honors from the league and then helped his team to the MLS Cup Championship over Chicago with another MVP performance.
Meola is in Seattle for the first time this week to watch the hometown Sounders FC take on international powerhouse Chelsea FC (July 18, 6:30 p.m., Century Link Field) in a friendly. He took some time with the Reporter to talk about his time as a National Team player, US Soccer's rebooting of its academy system, playing in the NFL and the local rivalry with the Portland Timbers.
REPORTER: What do you remember about representing the US as part of the National Team?
TONY MEOLA: Certainly how much of an honor it is. That's the pinnacle for most players, they want to get to the National Team. I had the opportunity to do it for al ong time and I can remember every one of those experiences. It's a big thrill, as a kid it was one of my goals. I didn't realize it would turn out the way it did but it was a huge thrill for me.
REPORTER: You were around before and during MLS. Can you talk about growth of the professional game and appeal of US soccer worldwide?
MEOLA: The pool of players now is just so much greater than it was in the past. A coach has so many resources to choose from. There are so many ways to watch things, with all the technology, to see players. None of that stuff existed, or it was hard to find when I was playing. From a growth standpoint, just from the number of players based on the academies and then number of MLS teams is part of the evolution.
REPORTER: What do you think of US Soccer's newest modifications to its academy system?
MEOLA: I think it's a good idea. Luckily, we've been able to attract corporate sponsorship like All-State and without those types of things none of it is possible. Those ideas have been around for a long time. The academy system, if I had one gripe it would be that the kids can't play in high school. I see so many negatives in that, not necessary from a soccer standpoint. Other than that, if you give me or any of my friends the opportunity to play that much a that level at that young an age, I would have jumped on it in a heartbeat. Again, I have some issues with the way they can't play high school, but I'm sure that part will sort itself out, whether its good or bad.
REPORTER: You played in the NFL as a kicker with the New York Jets. What kind of experience was that?
MEOLA: A little bit different, it was boring compared to what I was doing. I waited around all day. I was doing nothing at that time for about six months. We were waiting for MLS to start after the World Cup. It was supposed to start in 1995 and late in that year, they announced it wouldn't start until 1996. It was kind of a period where a lot of us thought we should have gone to Europe if we had known. It was fun and I said I always wanted to do it. I had an opportunity to work with Nick Lowery, it was good to learn from that perspective and learn from a guy who had pretty much seen it all. I thought at that point, it would be something I was interested in doing. I never wanted to say I should have done it when I had the chance.
REPORTER: You were also drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school. Is baseball still something you keep up with?
MEOLA: I played at the University of Virginia and baseball is still a love and a passion of mine. I can't get it out of me. I've got kids that play, so that keeps me involved.
REPORTER: Being a standout in three sports, I'm sure you have some strong feelings on specialization in youth sports.
MEOLA: I'm completely against it. I know there's a time and a place, but there is no number- not 13, 15- there is no set number. I think they should play as many sports as they can. It's good for their bodies, cross training is great. It's what these kids need. I had a conversation recently with a coach telling me there aren't many kids that play two sports. I told him, "There aren't guys like me because of guys like you." He was trying to convince my younger son to stick with baseball and I told him that isn't what he wants and definitely isn't what I want. We agreed to disagree.
REPORTER: What was it like being inducted into the Hall of Fame?
MEOLA: It's a huge honor. I tell everyone it's not really what I played for. It never crossed my mind while I was playing but it's something that happened. I'm indebted to so many people that helped me get there. Until you go through it, sit back and try to write a 10 minute speech and how to get all those people in, I'm sure I missed a bunch. It is something that will stay with me forever and I'l remember that day forever because it was kind of an opportunity to say thank you to so many people- teammates ,coaches, agents, sponsors- you put them all together for one person to benefit and you don't realize it as you're going through it, at least I didn't.
REPORTER: There was a Super Nintendo game with your name on it. Have you shown it to your kids?
MEOLA: I think that was the first soccer video game that came out with someone from US soccer on it. Believe me, I showed my kids three or four years ago and they looked at the box and said they wouldn't buy it. It was cool back then.
REPORTER: How exciting is it for Seattle to host this event and bring an internationally recognized organization to the Pacific Northwest for a match?
MEOLA: I'm in the area with All-State as part of the FanZone prior to what we think will be a good game for the city of Seattle. This is awesome, you're bringing a Champions League team into your city. People look at that as the best team in the world. I think it's really cool at this point of our sport we can bring teams and compete with teams like this and obviously teams want to come here. I've spoken to so many international guys over the years and every one of them wants to come here and play. There are some obstacles, where it may be better suited in New York, but everyone is interested with coming here. Everyone is intrigued with the league, with the level of play. Chelsea will come to Seattle, which may be the only time they are ever here, and I'm sure these fans will give them a good impression. Maybe someday they will want to play here.
REPORTER: What are your impressions of the passion for soccer here from what you've witnessed from afar?
MEOLA: This is the first time I've been here but I've watched it pretty intently from game one. They do a great job here. One of my old roommates is here in the front office, Chris Henderson, I'm looking forward to seeing him and talking to him about it. Before this was all going on, they were here putting at team together and he kept telling me I was never going to believe what was going on. Boy was he right. They do such a great job of supporting this team. I'm looking forward to seeing it live tonight for the fist time. I want to come back sometime to see Seattle and Portland play in both cities, just to watch that rivalry as a fan of the game.