Exclusive interview

1994 Veterans Meola & Harkes see huge opportunity in 2026

United 2026's triumph was an enormous achivement for American soccer. To help understand what the World Cup's return to the United States means, Brian Sciaretta spoke with fellow New Jersey natives and 1994 World Cup veterans John Harkes and Tony Meola about the opportunity. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
June 13, 2018
2:00 PM
IN ONE OF the biggest and important days in the history of American soccer, FIFA announced that World Cup is returning to the United States in 2026 as part of a joint bid with Mexico and Canada.

To put it into perspective, ASN spoke with two of the figureheads from the 1994 U.S. World Cup team to discuss what that tournament meant to the growth of the game in the United States and what 2026 could do moving forward.

John Harkes was the captain of the U.S. team in 1994 and was the first American player to have a prominent career in Europe where he played for Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, and West Ham United. In 1996, the midfielder moved to DC United for the inaugural season of MLS and with DC, he won the league’s first two MLS Cups. He finished his national team career with 90 caps, six goals, and to World Cups.

Tony Meola was the iconic goalkeeper of that U.S. team and, like Harkes, was also on the 1990 World Cup team. Following the 1994 World Cup, Meola would become an important player in the early days of MLS before retiring from the outdoor game in 2006. He finished his career with 100 caps for the U.S. team and is currently in Russia as a lead commentator for Fox Sport’s World Cup broadcast coverage.

Both Meola and Harkes are natives of New Jersey and were teammates at Kearny High School and at the University of Virginia under Bruce Arena. They also played together on two World Cup teams for the United States.

BRIAN SCIARETTA for ASN: The 1994 World Cup grew the sport so much in the United States. What was it like back then and what do you think it will be for the players in 2026? What did it mean for you and do you think it can have the same level of cultural impact?

JOHN HARKES: I think it affected soccer as a whole. It was pretty special. We got to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years in 1990. The timing of it was impeccable. It was phenomenal for us to host it. It was kind of waking up a nation in saying "hey, we got back to the World Cup in 1990 and look at us now in 1994, we're hosting." From that perspective of growing the sport and putting on the map, it was huge. As you know, if wasn't on TV back then, it wasn't happening. For it to be across all networks with corporate sponsors and resources such as our stadiums, it was amazing. And we were setting new goals for everything within the World Cup. I still think it stands at the record for most ticket sales.

You fast forward to where we are now. It is taking us a really long time to get over the fact that we're not in this World Cup in Russia. We look forward to the 2019 Women's World Cup but we're always looking for something that will lift our country again. This is the best news possible.

From a marketing perspective, I think it will continue with the growth of soccer. From an influential point of view with the way this tournament will be hosted with the three joint nations transforms World Cups and takes us to a new level. When you look at it from the point of view of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, it's very innovative with this approach to make sure we get it and are not disappointed like we were with 2022.

For me this is a high-profile, massive tournament and the exposure it gets now is more than what it was 1994. In 1994, some of us were unknowns - regardless of the fact that I've already played in one league cup win at Wembley and beat Manchester United. I think a lot of people were like: is our team any good? There was a lot of pressure on us from a player perspective. But from a cerebral perspective, we were just growing the game and trying to get into every market we could so our dream could come true and that maybe someday we could have a professional league in our country to establish that for future generations.

TONY MEOLA: For the most part it put me on the map personally. I know it put a bunch of other players on the soccer map too - not only here but around the world. We were playing at a time when there was no social media and there was no arguing about who was good. If the newspaper said you were good, you were pretty much good (laughs).

We came a long way in the sport over just a few weeks in the U.S. were we held the World Cup. And we didn't have the footing in the sport that it has right now. Eight years from now, the sport is going to grow even if we didn't have a World Cup. Now I can't even imagine what it will be after eight years of anticipation.

The only bad part about this announcement is that it is eight years away. I am really, really looking forward to seeing what we can do this time around. There is part of me that understands what these guys will have going into it because I know the feeling and I know what it is like. It was such an important time in my career.

In a lot of ways I am jealous of these guys - some of whom we don't even know, that are going to be the next superstars. But I am really, really thrilled for them. I hope, in some way, I am part of it. I can't imagine what is going to be like in the U.S. in eight years.

ASN: Back in 1994, soccer was in a far inferior place. There was no top flight outdoor soccer league and watching European games on television, at least live, was rare. In terms of media, there was Soccer America but not much else. Now MLS is not just alive but expanding. Kids are playing the sport in much higher numbers, and European games are omnipresent on television. How much of this growth to attribute to a chain of events that originated in 1994?

HARKES: I certainly do. I think that from an influential point of view, you're setting a precedent. There was a lot of criticism when we hosted it. We didn't have a high standard professional league. There were a lot of leagues going on in the U.S. - whether it be indoor like the MISL or the American Soccer League, or whatever. But it was nowhere near the growth we see today or the healthy league that is MLS or the women's league, the NWSL. We're talking about potential game changers here back in 1994 that really attributed to a lot of success throughout the World Cup tournaments thereafter.

With us not competing in this World Cup. It was such a shock to the nation. But this is the best news possible. I don’t think it could get any bigger than having the opportunity to stage the world's crown event. This is the jewel. This is going to help us take the game to a whole new level again in this country. And maybe even solidify it that much more - whether it be from a professional standpoint, or a global connecting standpoint, and also from an inclusivity from Mexico and Canada. I think the potential is endless.

MEOLA: We wouldn't be where we are. Remember, the foundation money that helped start Major League Soccer. Without that, certainly the league isn't where it is. It gave players an opportunity to play at home. There are so many factors from the 1994 World Cup that helped grow the game to where it is today. We're starting at such a different level now. In 1994, so many of the fans were new to the game and of course you had all the fans traveling to the U.S.

I am here in Russia and I've been tweeting out pictures of the streets the past few days. The only thing I could think of is that this is going to be us in eight years. These are going to be our streets. These are going to be the same people who will make that trip to and help continue to build a soccer culture in our country.

There are so many things to look forward to. I am bullish on the youth national teams and I am already in my head picking a team to play for 2026.

We had a discussion and I am with the people at Fox, and you can imagine the relief and excitement and all the emotions from the people who are going to broadcast the World Cup. A bunch of us were sitting around and thinking that in eight years from now, we're probably going to have three or four Christian Pulisic's and Christian might not even be the best player on the team. He might be at his peak too. That would be really good if that were the case.

ASN: The success of the 1994 World Cup for American Soccer wasn’t just attributable to what happened during that month-long tournament but what happened afterward. The momentum from that tournament lasted. So many new fans were created who stayed with the sport. MLS started and survived. Some of the promising players playing now were born and began developing in the years after 1994. If the 1994 World Cup did that much for American soccer in the years after the tournament, what could the 2026 World Cup lead to in the subsequent years?

HARKES: Hopefully we qualify for 2022. That would be a good start (laughs). By 2026, hopefully we've reestablished ourselves as a nation that can compete and do well. But that could be the one moment that solidifies the professionalism of the game in this country where it is a go-to nation.

I've been saying for years, look at the growth of the USL, the fastest growing league in the world right now. That's fantastic to say. The division two and maybe even with the division three that they're starting up right now in USL with Jake Edwards the president and Alec Papadakis doing a great job growing the game, I think maybe you get to a point where promotion/relegation is a realistic conversation to have. Now the ownership groups are strong and the business stream is there. From a financial standpoint, maybe that is something that makes sense - that we're stable enough to do something like that. Then you're creating more competition and excitement within the leagues and you're connecting them. And we've been having this, but there is such a disconnect at every level. So maybe that is something to look forward to.

MEOLA: I think about the springboard that 1994 gave our sport. If we get half of that after 2026, I can't imagine where our sport will be - and keep in mind, we still have eight years of growing before the World Cup. Now this gives us an extra sense of excitement. There are so many factors that play into the sport growing.

ASN: The United States and Mexico have obviously hosted this tournament before, but this will be the first time Canada has hosted the World Cup. The Canadian national team has struggled for most of the past few decades. Do you see any parallels as to 2026 being able to do for Canada what 1994 did for the United States?

HARKES: I think this is huge for Canada. It's a first time situation for them where they can say they have an opportunity to stage the biggest event. That is such a positive thing in what it can do for a nation. In terms of growth, they can possibly experience what we did in 1994.

But even more so, I think the game has grown dramatically up in Canada right now because they're starting a league of their own right now. You add that to the Canadian teams in MLS, there could be great strength across that nation, across many markets. And then what happens there from what you know is that from a business model it becomes a viable business model for many ownership groups looking to make an investment.

The next six to eight years are going to be extremely important for Canada in terms of the way they set up their structure for success. If they could qualify for 2022, that would be amazing. Then you can see the parallels when we made it in 1990 and then hosted four years ago. I wish then nothing but the best. I think they can grow a lot from it.

MEOLA: I've said for years but I am surprised that they haven't been part of the Hex on a consistent basis - qualifying is a separate story. We're going to have seven spots and they haven't decided yet exactly how they're going to allocate Mexico, Canada, or the United States and if all will get automatic bids.

I hope that with the United States and Mexico being established, this is the boost that Canada needs to get to a point where they are a competing nation in CONCACAF all the time. It still blows my mind that they have had the players that they've had and they still haven been able to compete in CONCACAF. I hope this is the kick in the backside to spend resources and make sure that their national team players continue to grow.

ASN: Soccer in the United States has seen a ton of growth since 1994 and announcements like 2026 are the next link of the chain. When you see such an important step like winning the bid, how much pride do you take being part of the generation that ushered in the modern era of American soccer?

HARKES: We're a small part of the puzzle. We compete and we are fortunate as athletes to get the chance to represent our country. You're always humbled by that but you take a certain responsibility with that and pride, for sure. We're a small piece and it's a big business. But be able to share in that moment as a player from an emotional standpoint is massive. I am very fortunate in my career to be part of that. I am very lucky.

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