Football, basketball and baseball dominate the sports scene in the United States, while other recreational contests follow suit in popularity. The world has been celebrating the game of soccer for decades, but for years in America, the football game the nations around the globe adores, it was just a blink on the radar.
Now, soccer is quietly becoming relevant in the states, and thanks to a trailblazer in Hall of Famer Tony Meola, who joined Allstate Insurance in their “Goods Hands F.C.” Clinic Surprise event, the world’s football game is finally being embraced and celebrated in America.
“Well, I don’t know whether it was a big part or a small part (his impact), I guess that’s for the other guys, other men and women (media and fans) to decide, but I was a part of it for sure,” said Meola, humbly in an one-on-one conversation. “I took pride in promoting the game at every angle of my entire career. I never forgot the fact that we had two jobs as players. One was to play the game and the other was to promote the game.
“I continue to promote the game every single day,” he continued. “I have an avenue to do that on the radio now (“Counter Attack” on Sirius XM Ch. 94, host with Hall of Famer John Harkes 5-7 pm ET). But had I not have that vehicle, I would have done that anyway. It’s important to me that guys after us can continue to promote the game, continue to feel it’s necessary to teach our beautiful game to youngsters.
“So, all those things are important to me and it always will.”
Meola was immortalized into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2012. But do not say that Meola retired as he never made that announcement clear. However, what is cleared, Meola enjoyed his journey as a protector of the goal and would not have changed much.
“I joke with people when they ask me, and I ask did I ever really retire (laughter),” said Meola. “I say tell me which press release you saw stated I retired (laughter). No, I’m a big fan of the (New York) Yankees. So, I’m going on the Bernie Williams’ retirement plan because nobody will know if you retired, just in case (laughter).
“Since the Hall of Fame, my entire career, in general, I really couldn’t ask for anything more,” he added. “Having being a part of three World Cups, one MLS Championship, a collegiate champion (University of Virginia), it’s been (pause) again, I couldn’t ask for anything more and I, certainly…if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change very much, that’s for sure.”
Meola has been in partnership with Allstate Insurance for the past three years as they surprised selected underprivileged soccer squads during their practice session to give the players a soccer coaching clinic.
The New Jersey native would hosted a practice, and after the session, the Hall of Famer provides the young athletes with gear and uniforms. To cap the surprise event, tickets to a major soccer match are given the kids.
The team that was on Meola and Allstates’ targeted in Washington D.C. was the Alexandria Storm, which is a U-18 club that is associated with the Alexandria Soccer Association (ASA). Due to the lack of funds, the Storm struggled to compete on a high level against others teams in the league, who has the equipment and resources.
After the practice and gear giving Saturday, the Storm witnessed a match between the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team and Germany at RFK Stadium on June 2, the U.S. defeated the second-ranked Germany squad 4-3.
The legendary goalkeeper relishes this privileged opportunity each time.
“I’m in the third year sponsorship with Allstate and we do a whole bunch of things in the communities and around big events, and in this case, the U.S./Germany game,” said Meola. “We get out in Alexandria, surprising another team as we barge in on their practice. When it’s all said and done, the teams leave with full uniforms for the entire season, soccer balls, everything they need for protection and ultimately give tickets to the game.
“If it wasn’t for Allstate, probably, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to these games,” he continued. “It’s fun and exciting to be a part of. I love to see the smiles on the kids’ faces.”
Spanning 12 years of play, Meola’s 100 international caps, awarded caps (like a medal or trophy) given to players who represented their country in Association Football, and 32 shutouts are accomplishment that ranks second all-time among American goalkeepers.
Not bad for a – basketball player.
When asked what special techniques he used to developed his skills, Meola credits his soccer success to his basketball playing days.
“It’s funny you mention that because I was a basketball player,” said Meola. “I still think that was the best thing I did for my career by playing basketball all through high school. The biggest part of my game was playing in the air. It was the part I took the most pride in. I believe that correlated really well to times spent on the basketball court for so many years.
“You know, I was never going to be a basketball player, but the time I spent really helped me,” he continued. “So, everybody’s got different ways of doing things. There’s no question about it. That was one of mine.”
Soccer has come a long way from rarely being viewed in America to events witnessed at least once a day – thanks to the increased televised sports networks.
After battling through a period when soccer was irrelevant in America, the ponytail bandit helped paved the way for many great American goalkeepers such as Tim Howard (Everton – Barclay’s Premier League), Kevin Hartman (FC Dallas), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake) and Bill Hamid (D.C. United) to name a few.
Meola outstandingly mastered the game of soccer through the limited basis that was provided, and his best friend.
“You know, I look at it a lot harder back in the day because we didn’t have a lot of avenues to watch the game (soccer),” said Meola. “We were in a time when it was very difficult to see the games, other than Saturdays, to watch the games. We did see the World Cup. So, studying was not regularly available to us and we had to make our own way in that regard. I took every opportunity I could to watch the game, learn about the game, learn about the players and techniques.
“Me and my best friend used to go out into the field, and he was also a goalkeeper, and we would go into the field and tried to emulate what we saw,” he added. “We didn’t know if we were doing it right thing or the wrong thing (laughter). “I didn’t think it mattered at the end of the day because we were having fun doing it, and along the way, we learned enough. I learned to be successful for a period of time in the game.”
It’s safe to say that Meola was a world-class athlete, and was not afraid to try anything out – even the NFL. However, the trailblazing goalkeeper was appreciative that soccer was his refuge.
“I think it was something (the NFL) I probably could have struck around in for a while,” said Meola. “But to be completely fair (paused) I signed with the (New York) Jets and I was there to Week 6 or 8 of that season (1994 NFL season) and I joked with people or I have joked with people saying that was the most boring job I ever could have had.
“I couldn’t wait to get back on the soccer field and dive around,” he continued. “The fact that those kickers worked, at least back then it’s probably changed a little now, but worked not very long during the season and wasn’t really a part of the practices. I was lucky, I had Pete Carroll (now head coach of the Seattle Seahawks) as my coach. He would let me go catch balls with the receivers just to kill time for the rest of the day (laughter).
“Yeah, again, a boring job and I appreciate what they (NFL kickers) do,” he added. “They are unbelievable at what they do, but it just wasn’t for me.”
Meola sincerely loves the game of soccer and with the emergence of the sport through video games, sports networks, satellite radio and, honestly, the increase number of foreigners who are becoming United States citizenships, the football game shared around the world is finally being embraced in America.
What a dream come true for a legendary trailblazer, who did not have a lot of avenues to learn soccer, to see his sport grow, and with the sponsorship of Allstate Insurance, Meola can still be hands on in growing soccer and spread his solid advice among the future stars from this country.
“I don’t care what level you are playing, you got to enjoy what you are doing,” said Meola with sincerity. “Sports, in this case soccer, gives us the opportunity to go out and enjoy ourselves, being with friends oftentimes. You forget some of the things going on in your life just for an hour or two. It doesn’t manner if you are a youth player or a national team player, everyone loves to free their mind a bit and play a game.
“This is a great game for kids to play for so many different reasons,” he continued. “But enjoy yourself and you will succeed on every level. You hear it all the time, once the moment you stop enjoying something, that when they will stop doing. I feel that way and hope kids feel that way around the country and I hope they continue to grow the sport.”