March 15, legendary National Hall of Fame and U.S. World Cup goalkeeper Tony Meola spoke with me about Major League Soccer's team rivalries and about the USA's hard road ahead in the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers.
Former U.S. Men's National Team (USMNT) keeper Meola represented the USA in three FIFA World Cups, recorded 31 shutouts in 100 caps and in 2000, won MLS MVP, Goalkeeper of the Year and MLS Cup MVP. He now owns Gk 1 Sports goalkeeper apparel and equipment and works with MLS sponsor Allstate presenting their Good Hands FC clinics around the country.
Right now, Meola is out in Seattle with his Allstate Good Hands clinic for the famous Cascadia rivalry game between long-time foes Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. Last night, he went out into the community and surprised local team Seattle United with a free clinic and at the end of the night, Allstate outfitted those players with brand new uniforms, sweatsuits and supplies they need for the rest of the year - as well as tickets for today's match. Today, Meola patrols the fan zone outside the stadium signing autographs and enjoying the great atmosphere.
On MLS rivalries
LE: Why did you choose the Seattle-Portland game as the site for the Allstate Good Hands event this weekend ?
Meola: This rivalry here in the Cascadia region started prior to both these teams being part of Major League Soccer and it’s grown into a huge spectacle, really a model for what we should want out of these rivalries. When I was talking with Allstate about where we should be this weekend, I said, “This is the place we’ve got to be.”
LE: Given the long history and close proximity of the Cascadia teams, how can this rivalry be replicated by other teams with more distance and little history between them?
Meola: The way the kids grow up with different competitive teams and the way the college system is now, they see and know enough of each other. It can happen in other places, but this is unique because these two teams have had this rivalry going way before MLS. Seattle came in first to the League and shortly after that, was Portland. One thing you can’t replicate is years of history that these two teams have had. When they came into the League they didn’t even change their names, whereas in other instances teams changed their names, new organizations, new ownerships. But here it’s been pretty established for a while, so when we looked at the games this weekend, this was the one we wanted to come to.
LE: A few of this weekend’s MLS rivalries seem manufactured. For teams lower in the table, fans often go to games because they want to see the opposing team’s great players and quality play, so there's no real rivalry.
Meola: It probably is a little bit fabricated, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t exploit the fact that there’s rivalries between D.C. and New York, a rivalry between Sporting KC and Chicago dating back to two Open Cup finals and a final in 2000, where we beat Chicago in the finals. Certainly the rivalry between Montreal and Toronto doesn’t have a huge history, but you’re trying to build something there. Columbus and San Jose have probably had the biggest rivalry, and Real and Colorado – that’s another decent rivalry. Philly and New England maybe is a little fabricated, but based on geography makes sense and of course, Seattle-Portland and Dallas-Houston is a clear rivalry there. And Chivas and LA, it might be sort of one-sided, but they fight for space in LA all the time. So I think there’s more rivalries than not.
LE: If the Cosmos get their proposed stadium on Long Island, will the Cosmos be a rival of the Red Bulls?
Meola: I don’t think so. Maybe based on geography, but I’m sure the rivalry will be more for the Cosmos than it would be for Red Bulls. If the Cosmos won the Open Cup over Red Bulls one year, there might be some. But at some point there’s got to be playing on the field and there’s got to be some history in the game where one beat the other in order to have true rivalries.
On USMNT's looming World Cup Qualifiers
LE: Tim Howard’s injuries and other injuries will affect the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico. What are your thoughts on how this affects qualifying?
Meola: Tim’s presence on the field is what they’ll miss the most. Brad Guzan is ready physically and mentally to do the job, but they’ve looked to Tim Howard for so many years to get the job done, but that’s past now. Brad Guzan is a back-up with the national team but playing full time and extremely well with his EPL team Aston Villa. I think he’s going to be fine, I don’t think they’ll be a drop-off at all. The one thing you’ll lose is Tim’s leadership on the field, but Brad’s been in this position for quite some time and as the back-up goalkeeper, when it’s your turn, whether it’s form or through injury – we hate to see Tim hurt – but Tim will be the first one to tell you that now Brad’s going to get the job done. In a lot of ways, it could almost be sort of a rallying cry for the U.S. team.
As far as the back line, that’s been the question mark for the last six months. Who should it be and who’s it going to be? That’s been the biggest question everybody’s had for quite some time. That needs to be sorted out and unfortunately there’s not a lot of time and the World Cup Qualifiers is not the time to experiment. That’s what we saw a few weeks ago and they need to get that part right for sure.
LE: What are you anticipating for results versus Costa Rica and Mexico, given the first 2-1 loss to Honduras?
Meola: As early as it is in the qualifying, I still look at the Costa Rica game as a must-win. When the calendar came out and you looked at Mexico on the 26th, I don’t know how many people had that as the game they thought that they were going to win. Should you not win that game, I don’t know if that’s the end of the world, but unfortunately if you’d have taken care of business and won against Costa Rica, you’d still have three games and only three points. Not getting any points in the first game was a bit of a setback, but now that’s over with, you’ve got to deal with what you’ve got moving forward.