“I’ve always been a No9, but I’m trapped in a goalkeeper’s body!” USA goalkeeping legend Tony Meola told FIFA.com. “As much organising and shouting as I did in my playing days, I’m an attacker at heart. And I’ll be an attacking coach. I was deprived of the fun of it, of getting forward, being stuck between the posts my whole life.”
A member of US Soccer’s Hall of Fame, Meola, now 47, has taken his sweet time getting into the coaching game. "I was asked five different times to be a goalkeeper coach," said Meola, who begins his head-coaching brief with Jacksonville Armada this weekend in the North American Soccer League (NASL), USA’s second professional tier. "But once you get cast in the mold of goalkeeper coach it’s hard to break out of it. You have to rack your brain to think of ex-keepers who became big-time managers in the world."
Meola is a man of many opinions and a colourful attitude. He is as vocal and confident today as he was in his playing days. Back then he lead from the back for USA at three FIFA World Cups™, most notably in 1990 – a return to the world stage for USA after 40 years away – and 1994, when the Americans hosted and were under heavy pressure to achieve on home soil. He played with a succession of MLS clubs over a decade in the then-burgeoning US top-flight. And his desire not to be trapped in the rigid white lines of the goal-box and penalty area after his playing career is just the most recent step in an uneasy relationship with a traditionally lonesome position.
There is one American goalkeeper of note who did become a successful manager: Bruce Arena. And the current LA Galaxy boss and former USA chief played a crucial role in Meola’s arrival in Jacksonville, in the sun-drenched state of Florida. “Bruce was the last guy I talked to before I decided to take the job,” he said of his former coach at university and national team level, a gruff and blunt man known for not mincing words.
Arena did not beat around the bush. “He told me I’d be crazy not to take this job," Meola chuckled. “It was just Bruce being Bruce and, suddenly it all made sense to me.”
The road to head-coach has been a winding one for the bulky goalkeeper, who played three games on the field for the then-Kansas City Wizards and scored as many goals as he kept clean sheets in his secondary school career. Meola made his first of 100 caps in 1988. From then to now, football in the United States has gone through huge changes in organisation and popularity, in style and in international standing. But being from that old school meant he had to hustle when his playing days ended. “The kids today have things put on a platter for them,” he said without bitterness, just honest and forthcoming information from a man who knows what he is talking about.
Meola started a sportswear brand, his own line of goalkeeper gloves. He tried out for the NFL’s Jets as a placekicker and played semi-pro indoor soccer. His voice and personality lit up radio and TV. “Things just kind of snowballed," Meola said. "I never had a plan after the game. TV and radio made sense for me, but I always had a dream to coach.”
Building from scratch
It will not be easy to turn his Armada into attacking dynamos. They finished dead last in the previous season, scoring precious few goals in the bargain. His brief at the club, where he is also Technical Director, is to make a dramatic turnaround. And he has been given the freedom to build the kind of team he wants.
“The best part has been bringing in the guys,” Meola said, a spark in in his voice going back to his days in a locker-room beside legends of the American game – men like John Harkes and Tab Ramos, who is still a close personal friend. “All the guys like each other, I know people say that doesn’t matter. But I think it does. I want everyone bonded. You have to love each other to play with each other.”
A goalkeeper? A striker trapped in crossed white lines at the back of the field? A pundit? A hustler? A story-teller. He may be all those things, but Tony Meola is a winner first and foremost. And that attitude, that of a proud pioneer of the game in the States, bleeds through at every turn. “I always played for trophies,” he said.
“I won trophies in High School and in College. In MLS and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Trophies are the one thing no one can ever take away from you,” said Meola, free at last and able to see the whole field from a new perspective. “Some people will like the way you play and some won’t, but no one can take your trophies. I want my players to be hungry for that."