Season 10: The Fame name game
Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Marcelo Balboa and Fernando Clavijo -- and worked for the fifth new member -- former U.S. Soccer secretary general Hank Steinbrecher.
Meola plans to be in Oneonta, N.Y., with some friends for Sunday night's Hall of Fame dinner. At the moment, he cannot attend Monday's induction due to practice. But between now and then, that could change.
As it turns out, Ramos, Harkes and Balboa each invited Meola to the ceremonies.
"I am excited for them and excited for all those guys that I was a small part of their careers and was involved with them," Meola said. "It's a nice honor to have all them to invite me to this thing. It was a big thrill when I got the letters."
It's also a reminder that a few years have past and he's gotten a little older. Meola's now 36 years old.
"It's scary now," he said.
Ramos and Harkes played for the Kearny Scots in that northern New Jersey town along with Meola.
"My relationship with Tab and John has been well documented all through the years," Meola said. "I started Day One of my national team career was Day One of Marcelo's. We came through the system together. I played so many games with Marcelo. If I had to play a game tomorrow and had to win one game, those three guys would be on the field.
"Those were three guys that wanted to win better than I did."
That was a lot of intensity because over the years we've seen how much of that Meola has brought to the game and how much he has wanted to win.
Ramos, 39, the first player signed by MLS, performed with the MetroStars from 1996 to 2002, played in three World Cups and made 81 international appearances. He endured an injury-plagued career, came out of international retirement in 2000 to help an injury-ridden U.S. side to move on in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
Meola said he most remembered Ramos's "intensity. There never was prior to him and hasn't been a player like Tab since. There's been no one that has had the same qualities as Tab. I think it will be hard to find a guy who dribbled guys like he did for so long. The one thing he really didn't get credit for was his ability to cross the ball ... to exactly where he wanted it all the time, (which) was amazing."
For Meola, Ramos's glory moment came in the U.S.'s stunning 2-0 triumph against England in U.S. Cup '93, which was a dry run for USA '94.
"He took Jeff Agoos' pass down and crossed it to Tom Dooley, who headed it," said Meola, who had a memorable night himself, making nine saves and stopping Ian Wright on a breakaway or two. "Tab crossed it somehow and put a perfect ball into the box. It sums up how (good he was)."
Harkes, 38, was the captain of D.C. United's first two MLS Cup championships. He also was captain of the U.S. national team, played in 90 international matches and in two World Cups.
What impressed Meola the most was Harkes' "leadership, his determination."
Harkes tried out and played with Sheffield Wednesday, getting a foothold in England for U.S. players in the years to come.
"At the time it was just Paul Caligiuri who had really done anything overseas in Germany," Meola said. "[Harkes] went to the forbidden land for America. He opened up the door.
"I hope the guys today who go over to England never forget that John Harkes opened up the door."
His two most memorable moments with Harkes came off the field.
The first occurred on the U.S. team bus outside the stadium in Florence, Italy before the side's first game against Czechoslovakia in the 1990 World Cup. Remember, the U.S. was making its first World Cup appearance in 40 years and the team was stocked with recent college graduates.
"I remember sitting with John," Meola said. "As we pulled into the stadium, the bus couldn't go anymore because all of the fans got in the way of the bus. I just remember looking at John. It was the first time in my life I had ever seen John Harkes speechless.
"My other memory was looking around for 72 hours at every soccer channel in the world trying to find the goal he scored against Peter Shilton."
And, oh yeah, Meola said he found the goal highlights of Harkes' goal against the former England international goalkeeper that earned him England's goal of the year honors in 1990.
While not a member of the Kearny trio, Balboa had the closest working relationship with Meola.
Balboa, 38, participated in three World Cups and performed in 127 international games. He spent all but one season of his seven-year MLS career playing for the Colorado Rapids before retiring in 2002.
"We came up youth teams together all the way to the national team," Meola said. "We were in every single camp together from the start. I just remember he was the first ever solid international center back we ever had. He kind of set the standard for center backs at the national team level.
"Of all the three guys, I had the closest working relationship with Marcelo. We talked back and forth and back and forth. We had to try to be on the same page as much as we could."
Balboa's most memorable moment for Meola? That's easy -- his bicycle kick that barely missed the net in the U.S.'s 2-1 upset of Colombia in the 1994 World Cup.
"I don't know what I was doing on that side, but I had the perfect angle to see that thing. That six inches for Marcelo was probably the difference between millions and millions and dollars," Meola said with a laugh.
Immediately after the near miss, the TV cameras panned Meola, who held his fingers just inches apart to show how close Balboa's shot was.
"Everyone talks about that," Meola said. "That's the response everyone gives me."
He didn't play as long with Clavijo, but Meola certainly has pleasant memories of the midfielder, who had to be one of the oldest players -- 37 -- who ever made a World Cup debut.
Clavijo, 48, coaches the Colorado Rapids, who will play D.C. United in the Hall of Fame game next Monday. A naturalized U.S. citizen from Uruguay, Clavijo never played in MLS. He was a 12-time all-star in the Major Indoor Soccer League with the San Diego Sockers, Los Angeles Lazers and St. Louis Storm and was a standout midfielder with the New York United in the old American Soccer League.
Clavijo's speed was devastating.
"He was the fastest guy we had in the World Cup," Meola said. "I remember Fernando always running just as fast as he had to. He always beat (players) on the field, whether we were in practice or he was playing against (Claudio) Caniggia in Saudi Arabia (at the 1992 FIFA Confederations Cup). He always beat his guy by a step. I asked him: 'Why don't you try to outrun the guy?' He said: 'I only run as fast as I have to.' "
The 1994 World Cup was Clavijo's crowning moment of his career.
"After the Switzerland game, he took over for Cle Kooiman and he was outstanding," Meola said.
Steinbrecher never played for the national team, but the former college soccer coach made his impact by organizing U.S. Soccer after marketing Gatorade for The Quaker Oats Company.
Nicknamed Reverend Hank for his stirring after-dinner speeches, Steinbrecher was secretary general from 1991 to 2000.
"He changed the face of U.S. Soccer," Meola said. "He said we've got to market this thing. He came from Gatorade and he changed the structure of the national team. I think his first game was he was around was the Ireland when we went from 10,000 people to (50,000) people in (Foxboro, Mass.) We scored and won 1-0. That's when he came on and took over the U.S. Cup, and did all that stuff and did an outstanding job."
A 10-year MLS veteran who anchored the Kansas City Wizards' 2000 championship team, Meola has played in 99 international matches and participated in two World Cups. Someday he will stand where the five will be honored on Monday.
But he doesn't plan to be there for quite some time because Meola has no thoughts of retiring at the moment.
"It certainly will be a nice honor, that's for sure," he said. "But that time's not here yet."
Michael Lewis writes about soccer for the New York Daily News and is editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has covered MLS since its inception. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com. Lewis will only answer e-mails and letters that have names or are signed. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.