Like many other former MetroStars, Tony Meola had to go elsewhere to win a Major League Soccer championship, but when it comes to memories, it’s not the hardware that comes to mind.
“My best memory has to be night one, the first (home game) against New England,” Meola recalled prior to Sunday night’s Red Bulls game against New York City FC, when he was honored as one of the 20 best players in franchise history. “Maybe not the result or the way it all went (a 1-0 loss on a late own goal), but the memory of walking out. I’d like to say there were 45,000 people that night (actually, 46,826). The dream of playing in my home state for my home team, that was kind of always the goal.
“I’m sure there are certain games and certain moments maybe that trumped it, but that memory, I can’t believe it’s 20 years ago that we walked out of Giants Stadium because I can remember the feeling and I can remember the sound in the tunnel and all of that stuff. That has to be it because we were the first ones to do it. We had already had an away game but that was the first home game and there was just something special about at Giants Stadium, and now it involved into Red Bull Arena. I’m guessing that every time these guys walk out of this tunnel, win, lose or draw, they get that same feeling.”
Meola, the local kid from Kearny, played goalkeeper for the MetroStars from 1996-98 before being traded to the Kansas City Wizards, where he played six years before returning to the MetroStars in 2005 to finish out the final two years of a stellar 11-year career.
His MetroStars career included 125 games and 25 shutouts, the latter a record Luis Robles tied Sunday night with the 2-0 victory over NYCFC. But it was at Kansas City where Meola won his championship. In 2000, the Wizards finished 16-7-9 to win the Supporters’ Shield, then went on to capture MLS Cup with a 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire. Meola earned league MVP and Goalkeeper of the Year honors and finished with a league-record 16 shutouts.
“I don’t know what to say. I’m just happy I get to see everyone,” Meola said. “I’m honored that the fans recognized my effort. My biggest regret is not ever having won a championship here but the memories are incredible. It’s such a great honor. I had this dream to pick my father up and go to a game, but today is the first time I got to do that, so It’s really, really cool.
“I like to think I was there in the beginning of a new era, qualifying for a World Cup in ’90 and watching this league grow. I thought it would get here, I just didn’t know when, but we saw that after 20 years we are now in a new era in Major League Soccer. This year, for whatever reason, is just a little more special than the rest of them. They’ve done some great things and things like this stadium are part of the development. We’ve seen it now all around the country. I’m just excited to have been a small part of it.”
Meola said Walter Bahr, one of the stars of the U.S. national team in 1950 that beat England in the group stage of the World Cup, told him something early in his career that he carries with him to this day.
“Walter Bahr, when I made the Under-19 World Cup, he had this saying, ‘Keep the ball rolling,’ and I’ve taken that with me my entire life. Hopefully the guys now, they go under the same premise, they just keep the ball rolling.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a historian when it comes to soccer. I go back and love seeing all the old guys and love seeing the guys that tried to qualify for World Cups before me and played on the Cosmos, the team I grew up watching, and played locally here, guys that represented the national team. We’re all kind of a just a small piece to the puzzle.”
Meola also helped guide the career of Tim Howard in the early days of the MetroStars. Meola was the veteran starter and Howard the teenage backup.
“Tim is a guy we knew from day one, but if you asked me then what he was like I would have told you the guy’s got a future,” Meola said. “He’s another guy, especially in the goalkeeping position, who kept the ball rolling, who kept it moving along. And they’ll be another guy after him somewhere along the line. I’m just happy I was a small part of his development.
“Every time I see him play I think, I was there in the beginning with him. I got to see this greatness start from the beginning.”
Now 46, Meola is still involved in soccer. He and childhood friend John Harkes do a radio show on siriusXM. While Meola says he stays neutral, he loves what the current Red Bulls are doing.
“I love the plan. I talk about it on the radio all the time,” Meola said. “They’re building something. In the past, I don’t know if it was building or putting band aids on it sometimes. Now they’re building for the future. Look, they want to win, every guy in the locker room wants to win, but these guys have a plan and it’s pretty laid out. You look at some of their signings, they’re pretty shrewd signings. The way they’ve done business has been really, really good. My guess is if they wanted to go buy and spend some of the multimillions, they could still do that. But maybe it doesn’t fit into the plan.
“I’ve looked at MLS coaching jobs before and spoken to people. For me, it was all about a plan. If you don’t have a plan for four or five years you might not last four or five years. That’s the nature of the game, but they’ve got a plan here and it’s working right now. We’re seeing it in the short term, but I have a feeling, looking at the age of the roster, looking at some of the guys that they brought in, it’ll be around for a while.
“Does it translate into a championship? You never know because you’ve got to play, but you want to be competitive all the time. You want to go out every single night and know we have a chance to win.”
Actually, that was the feeling players got every time they looked back and saw Meola in goal.