If there's one position this country has done totally right in a soccer sense, it's been goalkeeper. The easy explanation has been that Americans are used to playing with their hands, but the evidence shows it's been much more than that. Unlike in many other nations, our keepers are true athletes who wear the gloves with some distinction.
Not convinced? A roll call from the last 20 years or so easily will dissuade any doubters. Tony Meola, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard. Add in secondary goalies such as Brad Guzan and Marcus Hahnemann, who haven't cracked the main National Team equation but have starred in at the club level England, and you're in the money.
I had the chance to speak with Meola over the phone recently, and he definitely was as interesting as he was polite. I don't think you could have that hardscrabble North Jersey upbringing that he, Johhny Harkes, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna had without retaining a sense of how far the sport has come in this country over 20 years.
"It comes down to the fact that we played the game every day," Meola told me. "That's what made us so good. I was at the recent pick-up game when Harkesy and that crew revisited our northern New Jersey streets ahead of the MLS vs. Manchester United game in Harrison. We would never go home ... we always tried to find soccer."
I know what the guy is talking about. There's a similar culture here, right now, in southern New Jersey. If you go to the open fields of Pleasantville, Atlantic City and Ventnor, you always can find Hispanic boys with a ball at their feet. And, in Kearny in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the second-generation boys from Europe who organized the "footy."
"Man, you couldn't last more than one game if you weren't good enough," said Meola, who will meet-and-greet with fans while representing Allstate insurance at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia tonight ahead of the U.S.-Mexico friendly (9 p.m., ESPN2 and Univision). "If you lost, you made your way to the sideline and sat for a while."
The U.S., after a 40-year absence, qualified for the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. The official film from that competition features Meola's father crying in the stands as his son starts and plays a stellar role in a 1-0 loss to Italy. The ante was raised even further when Meola and his teammates advanced to the second round of the 1994 FIFA World Cup on home soil.
With the advertising men of Madison Avenue calling, the easy-on-the-eyes Meola found the world was his oyster. He was all over the late-night talk shows, and his prowess on goalkeeping punts even landed him a tryout with the NFL's New York Jets. This guy owned the spotlight, but there was something about his nature that pulled him back.
"I never took up the game of soccer to be a part of any of that," Meola said during the phone interview. "If anyone thinks that, then I did something wrong. I only stepped out on the field for one reason, and that was to win games. I was lucky enough to lift the MLS Cup with Kansas City, and I'll treasure that experience forever."
Whether he wants to admit it or not, Meola was a break-out star who transcended soccer. After his Jets adventure, there were dabblings with roles on Broadway and movie scripts that were offered. It reminds me of the way current U.S. women's keeper Hope Solo has seen her great looks and considerable talent almost be eclipsed by her commercial potential.
There's a very fine line to walk there, but I think the years away from the game have given Meola a great perspective. "People keep asking me when I'm going to formally announce my retirement, so I can become eligible for the (U.S. Soccer) Hall of Fame," he told me. "If anyone thinks that's what I'm about, then I must have done something wrong."
I'll always remember Meola fondly, mostly because he drove the U.S. resurgence in soccer at a time (as a student in high school and college for me) when the sport was making initial inroads on the country's radar. If you were a soccer fan ... and, believe me, there weren't many of us back then ... it was a glorious time to be associated with it all.
I'll also remember Meola punting the ball for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars high into the raindrops at a first-leg MLS playoff against the New England Revolution at the old Meadowlands a few years back. The ball seemed to reach the stratosphere, but considering the source of the kick that's not all that surprising.