031913_isi_meolatony_mlsbs040206232 Brad Smith/isiphotos.com

Tony Meola Talks U.S. Soccer and Goalkeepers

Former U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola was in Seattle to catch the Sounders-Timbers Cascadia Cup tilt. ASN caught up with him to ask about the national team, its goalkeeping situation, and his future plans.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
March 19, 2013
4:15 PM
SEATTLE—When Tony Meola talks about the United States national team, you listen. The former goalkeeper’s experience, measured tone of voice, and calculated answers simply command attention.

At the same time, try as he might, he cannot mask the passion that lies beneath the surface.

In Seattle, Meola took some time to sit down with American Soccer Now, and rather than convolute his words with multiple transitions and interjections of our own, we figured it was best to let the man speak for himself.

ASN: With your experience, it makes sense to talk about the U.S. national team goalkeeping situation right now. Who do you see stepping in once Tim Howard and Brad Guzan retire?

Meola: Well, Sean Johnson (and) Bill Hamid; those are the guys that I think people are looking at. I would think a guy, depending on how he heals and depending on how he develops for the next four or five years is Ryan Meara in New York. I think those are the guys that probably will occupy the majority of the minutes once Brad and Tim are no longer available. But if somebody asked me today, I would think Tim’s probably got four or five years left, should he stay healthy enough, as does Brad Guzan.

ASN: There seems to be a bit of a talent gap because Howard and Guzan have been the go-to guys for so long. Below them, even with Hamid and Johnson, there is a lot of inexperience and a bit of a talent drop.

Meola: For so many years—really, it was 20 years—three of us occupied the spot. It was hard to develop (others). As good as we may have seemed to have been in that position, it was hard to develop youth guys. It’s the same cycle right now: There’s not a lot of guys getting minutes in goal other than two guys—and one with the major minutes.

So from that standpoint, it’s going to be difficult to develop, and I think that’s why MLS is so important. That’s the position; only one guy can play. We’ve been lucky. We’ve never been in a position where we didn’t have good back-ups, so when you get in a situation like this, I really don’t know that there’s going to be much of a drop off next week.

ASN: With Howard being injured, it looks like Guzan will get the nod against Costa Rica in Denver this week. People seem to be panicking a bit, but I don’t really understand why—he’s in just as good, if not better, form than Howard right now in the English Premier League.

Meola: Yeah. People might argue that, for sure. I agree. I don’t think that there’s much of a drop off. If you miss anything, it would be Tim’s presence before the game (and) at halftime of the game, if things aren’t going so well.

The one thing I like about Brad’s position with the club right now, just like with the national team, he’s fighting for every single point. It means something every week for Brad. Every mistake counts in his position. Of course, they’re looking to stay in the EPL and all that stuff, so he gets the meaning of it right now.

He’s ready. He knew his back-up role was that if there was a drop in form with Tim or if there was an injury, he needed to be ready. So it’s not like he hasn’t been preparing for this. The fact that he’s getting games every week, that’s only going to help.

ASN: You mention the mentality he has to have every week, battling for everything. Does that translate well to World Cup qualifying, especially with the first-game loss and a tough opening schedule?

Meola: It definitely does help him. As far as (the next game) being at home, all you ever talk about in World Cup qualifying: you’ve got to win all your home games, and you’ve got to get some points on the road. So this is a home game they’ve got to win.

With the result in Honduras, for me, with the way the schedule sits, having to go to Mexico four days later, for me it’s a must-win. Then you can go to Mexico and breathe a little bit easier. You don’t want to go to Mexico having to get three points because then you’re going to have some problems.

ASN: Our editor-in-chief, John Godfrey, is a big believer in Dan Kennedy and insists he’s been overlooked. Is he the unsung hero among American goalkeepers, or whom would you put in that category?

Meola: It’s a tough position to be in (for Kennedy), from an age standpoint. He’s as old as Tim, and Brad might be a little bit younger than him. [Editor's note: Howard is 34; Kennedy is 30; Guzan is 28.] He came onto the scene later, so when you look at what we have now and what we have in the future, one guy if anyone in the league has been as good as Dan, it’s been Nick Rimando. So it starts to become a numbers game. I thought if he was going to get a shot, last year was the time he should have gotten a shot. I thought he was outstanding last year, on a team that was miserable, a team that lent no help. As poorly as they finished, it would have been worse without Dan.

So it’s just been a tough situation. Do you bring a guy in that’s that age now, or do you ride out however many years you’ve got left in Tim and Brad Guzan and potentially Nick Rimando and start to develop younger guys behind them? So it’s tricky. He’s in a tough spot, but if they called Dan Kennedy in one day in the near future to the national team, I wouldn’t think they’re crazy. It would be based on the fact that he’s played very well.

ASN: Goalkeepers develop later in their careers. You have players like Kennedy, and then you have players who came through the youth national teams like Zac MacMath. He made the jump to MLS and struggled in the professional game. How do you balance the need to develop that youth but also the need to reward guys who develop later?

Meola: For national team purposes, it’s very odd to have guys develop late and then bring them into the national team. I don’t know of any examples, to be honest, that I can think of off the top of my head. I’m sure there are some. But a kid like Zac, that’s always going to happen, where you’ve got a kid that performed at the youth level, and you get to the professional level, and you don’t know how they’re going to react. The one thing that I will give Philadelphia credit for—they’ve stuck with Zac. And it seems like they’re going to ride it out and let him develop. That’s not easy to do for a team. That’s very difficult for coaches to feel that way.

I try to put myself in their shoes. If it was me, how would I react? I would like to think that I could see the potential, especially in a goalkeeper, to say "This is our guy of the future." But those coaches are hoping they get to the future with those guys.

ASN: Ryan Meara and Tally Hall are both young guys on the cusp of the national team who just can’t break in because of the experienced players in front of them right now. Is there anybody else you would throw on that list?

Meola: Tally Hall we saw in camp in January. I think those are the three younger guys—Tally Hall, Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid—that you’re going to see as the next crop. I would think, over the next couple years, they would rotate. One of those guys potentially, if it’s not Nick Rimando, could be part of the World Cup roster, assuming we get there. From an experience standpoint, that would be great.

ASN: You’ve got some experience in the World Cup. The one game that really sticks out to me is the game in 1994 against Romania. What do you remember from your World Cup experience that translates well to what the current group is going through?

Meola: Personally, the one thing I learned from that game, I took with me the rest of my career, and I talked about it for years. I made a mistake; I cheated on a ball and got beat near post. I made a mistake, and then I had probably my best game in the World Cup from that point on. So I was able to bounce back and play the rest of the game and played really well.

And I thought I was playing well up until that point as well. It was just a choice I made. I was dead either way; we were basically three-on-none in the box. But I was able to play, so I took that with me the rest of my career. It’s a position where you’ve got to have a really short memory, and you’ve just got to play. There’s nothing you can do about what happened. You can only do something about what’s about to happen.

From that standpoint, we were able to get through. I think we needed, if I’m not mistaken, Mexico to tie Italy in D.C. for us to get through. That’s what happened. At that point, I remember we were either going to play Brazil, or we were going to play Germany in the next round, depending on that game. Because of the score, goal differential and all that stuff, we played Brazil instead of Germany. What I learned is that anything can happen. We certainly weren’t favorites in that group, with Colombia, who was favored by most to be in the final four of the World Cup.

We’ve got players who are capable. What happened in Honduras, I’m still a little bit surprised, because I didn’t think Honduras was a great team. I looked at our team and said we should be much better than them, but you’ve still got to play the game.

ASN: Do you think it boils down to coaching? Jurgen Klinsmann has been playing those three defensive midfielders, leaving the U.S. with little width. In my view, when he plays a 4-3-3, that’s when the team starts doing well.

Meola: That’s a very German style. Your outside backs attacking is very German. For me personally when I coach, and if I get the opportunity to coach at this level, I’m not a fan of two defensive midfielders. I just think you set a tone (of) a very deep, defensive posture. We’ve used, as you said, three in games. Then we do struggle out wide, and we put guys like Eddie Johnson out wide who I think, when you’ve got a guy like him, you’ve got to get him as close to the goal as possible. He’s a goal scorer. I think a lot of touches for him are wasted on the left side of the field, when I’d rather see him moving around in the box and really making things difficult.

He and Jozy (Altidore) would be a handful together. I don’t know anyone in CONCACAF, sans Mexico, who could really defend those two together. But those are choices that Jurgen makes.

When Bob Bradley got fired, I said (it). I’ll say it forever. I said it about Bob Bradley, who is a very good friend. All these guys are judged on one thing: Do they get to the World Cup? That’s how they’re judged, so at the end of the day for me, that will be the judgment from everybody.

ASN: Finally, for you personally, what’s next? You mentioned coaching. Is that something you’re looking to get into?

Meola: Yeah, eventually, I’d like to coach. I was close on a couple of occasions, but we’ll see what happens. I currently coach (youth soccer), but I’ve got so many things going on now with radio—it takes an awful lot of time and preparation, to be honest, I didn’t really know prior to getting into it, (although) it’s fun. But down the road, that’s something I’d like to do.

If you can’t get enough of Meola talking American soccer, listen to his show on Sirius XM Radio with John Harkes, Counter Attack, weekdays from 5 to 7 p.m. Eastern.

Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter.

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