Jeff Bradley: Tony Meola on the path to MLS 3.0 and the youth team that "made soccer fun again"

Tony Meola in 2004

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As part of his recurring series of interviews on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.

This week, Bradley spends some time with goalkeeper Tony Meola, who earned 100 caps and was part of US World Cup teams in 1990, 1994 and 2002, was a starter in 11 MLS seasons with the MetroStars, Kansas City Wizards and New York Red Bulls and was named league and MLS Cup MVP in 2000. Meola, now 44, played his final MLS games for the Red Bulls in 2006, although he never declared that he had "retired" and played indoor soccer until 2008.

He was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 2012 and resides in New Jersey with his wife, Colleen, and their three children, Jonathan, Kiley and Aidan. Meola is part of US youth technical director Tab Ramos' technical staff and also co-hosts Counter Attack with fellow former US international John Harkes on Sirius XM radio.


BRADLEY: I know it was a couple of years ago, but it’s been a while since we’ve spoken, so congratulations on the Hall of Fame. What was that whole experience like?

MEOLA: It was such a neat experience for me and my family. For my kids, it was nice for them to see a little bit of what their dad did before they were born and a little after that. The Hall of Fame did such a great job of making it a special day. It’s not necessarily what I was playing for. It’s one of those things I never thought about; it wasn’t a goal. It was always day to day, trying to win something. So when it ends up that way, it’s pretty special.

BRADLEY: In baseball, it’s always a big deal what hat a player is shown wearing on his plaque. I know you don’t have to choose a team, but if you did, what MLS team would you have wanted to be shown on your plaque? The MetroStars/Red Bulls or Kansas City?

Tony Meola played for his home-state MetroStars from 1996-98.

(USA Today Sports Images)

MEOLA: I’d want to go in with a US jersey. It’s hard to pick a team. I have so many fond memories of playing for both teams. We won an MLS Cup in Kansas City, but I’m a New Jersey kid at heart and enjoyed playing there, too. I’m glad I didn’t have to choose.

BRADLEY: So what is it like to turn on the TV these days and watch MLS games? Do you feel a sense of pride, knowing it was your generation of players who got it all going?

MEOLA: I think it’s great. I look at the level. I look at the fact that a lot of guys now are making a great living. There are guys I played with who are now successful coaches, successful TV commentators, presidents, technical directors. We always said it would evolve when the guys who played in the league moved into prominent positions, and that’s happened. I think my generation has made its biggest impact at the youth and academy level.

BRADLEY: Now, most fans know you do a radio show with John Harkes on Sirius XM radio, but what else is going on with you these days? I hear you're back on the field?

Meola with former teammates John Harkes and Tab Ramos during All-Star Week in 2011. Today Meola workes with Harkes on Sirius XM radio and Ramos with US youth national teams.

(Getty Images)

MEOLA: I’m working with Tab Ramos on the U-20 staff. I’m also going now with the U-14 national team. I’m leaving next week for Italy with the [US Club Soccer] id2 program, which will identify players in that group. I’ll be scouting. Then I’ll come back and go with the U-14s to the StubHub Center for training. Then I’ll see where Tab sends me next. I’m not sure.

BRADLEY: What’s it been like reuniting with an old teammate like Tab?

MEOLA: I’ve been reading about what a great job Tab’s been doing, and it doesn’t surprise me. He’s always had that coaching mentality since he started his club in New Jersey a lot of years ago. It’s just fun to work with a guy like him. And, of course, I’ve known him for a long time, and it’s so nice to see a guy who’s given so much, who has so much to offer, working with kids. Right now, it’s the level he wants to work at, and he knows he can make a big impact.

BRADLEY: Has this whet your appetite? Do you see yourself in coaching long-term?

MEOLA: I want to be on the technical side of things. After I was done playing, I took a couple of years to get away from the game, except for coaching on the youth side, so I could spend time with my kids. Now, I’ve been coaching youth soccer for about 20 years, and now I know, at some point, I want to move on and coach at the highest levels. It’s a lot of fun, and I can’t think of a more challenging, more fulfilling way, after playing, to fill my days. For now, I am really enjoying working with Tab. The Under-20s are a great group. They’re pros, they’re hungry for the information you can pass on. And now, moving to the 14s, my expectation is that I’ll be with kids who are sponges every day, with eyes wide open.

BRADLEY: So, you’re not just working with goalkeepers?

Meola and Preki were part of the inaugural class of Sporting Legends honored at Sporting Park last summer.

(USA Today Sports Images)

MEOLA: No. In Tab’s system, I’m doing scouting reports, training breakdowns, training schedules. I’m working with goalkeepers, but that’s not my sole responsibility.

Tony Meola took the New Jersey Ironmen indoor soccer team to the 2007 MISL playoffs.

(USA Today Sports Images)

BRADLEY: You mentioned your youth soccer work, which was largely under the radar, but I know because you coached my son Tyler. So, of course, I also know you’ve got a boy, Jonathan, who’s chosen baseball over soccer. How are you dealing with that?

MEOLA: Yeah, he has, and he’s lucky enough to be headed to the University of Virginia to play in the fall of 2015. He loves soccer, and I loved coaching him and the kids in his age group. It’s a choice he made on his own, and it will kill me that I won’t get to see him play soccer beyond high school, because I’ve enjoyed watching him. But I appreciate the decision. He asked me about playing two sports in college, and I tell him it’s not 1988 anymore [when Meola played baseball and soccer at UVa]. It’s a whole different ballgame.

I’ve got my daughter Kiley, who’s a U-14 player I’ve been able to coach, which has been great. But it was that first group I coached, with your son, at U-11, that got me back in the game. At the time, I was done with soccer and I wasn’t going back. What had happened at the end in New York, I felt I really didn’t want to be a part of the sport anymore, but that group of kids … I thanked them in my Hall of Fame speech, because they really brought me back to the game. That team made soccer fun for me again. And I owe a lot to them for doing that.

BRADLEY: As I recall, you didn’t want to use the word “retire” at the end of your MLS career. You still thought you had some game left, right?

MEOLA: Yeah, definitely. It wasn’t a great ending for me, sitting on the bench for a playoff game in D.C. in 2006. I still think about it today, to be completely honest. But it was that group of 11-year old kids who made soccer fun again. If that group didn’t come along, I don’t know what I would be doing right now.