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Tony Meola talks USA-Mexico and the changing US National Team

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Today, former U.S. Men's National Team goalkeeper Tony Meola spoke with me about Wednesday's big USA-Mexico battle, surprising coaching changes in the U.S. Men's National Team, the unresolved backline, and his work with sponsor Allstate.

Meola represented the USA in three FIFA World Cups (1990, 1994 and 2002), recorded 31 shutouts in 100 caps, won MLS MVP, Goalkeeper of the Year and MLS Cup MVP in 2000, and was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2012. Meola now owns Gk 1 Sports goalkeeper apparel and equipment, co-hosts soccer radio show on Sirius/XM Radio, “Counter Attack” (Ch. 94) and works with U.S. Soccer sponsor Allstate presenting Good Hands FC clinics around the country, now at the USA-Mexico game, where fans can meet him in the Allstate Fan Zone.

Interview with Tony Meola

LE: Klinsmann just made some surprising changes to his coaching staff, adding his former coach Berti Vogts as Special Advisor for the World Cup and replacing assistant coach Martin Vasquez with U.S. Soccer youth technical director and U-20 coach Tab Ramos. What do you make of these changes?

Meola: I’m excited for Tab. I was with Tab this weekend, we were together scouting the Under-15s and I know he’s excited about the opportunity. It comes at a weird time, but shows me that Jurgen Klinsmann may be a better leader even than I thought he was. These changes at this time are not normal and can potentially affect the team if you make decisions more personal. I Klinsmann he had a great relationship with Martin and it sounds like he’s going to continue to work in US Soccer, but he did it because it was best for the team and that shows very good leadership to me.

Tab has been with the team since Jurgen’s first trip and he’s been at 90% of the camps, but unfortunately due to his U-20 duties he’s not able to go to all the camps. I’ve spoken to a lot of players and every person has nothing but the utmost respect for Tab and what he’s done and what he’s doing right now as a coach with the youth national teams. I have a little more insight because I know him personally and I’ve seen him work since 2004. This is what he wanted to do – he wanted to coach and he buried himself in it. I’m just getting into it now with him as his assistant on the U-20 team and I love watching him work and I love his dedication. They can really learn from his experiences.

LE: And how about Berti? What will his role be?

Meola: He’ll be drawing up a plan of training sessions between now and the World Cup and also scouting. It started with Germany and Jurgen has been trying to get him to be part of what he’s been doing for a while now. I don’t think this is the first conversation they’ve had, it’s something that’s been in the works for a while and he might be there for a long time. [Vogts will also continue as manager of Azerbaijan's National Team, previously coached Scotland and Nigeria and won the 1996 European championship as coach of Germany.]

LE: Puebla unexpectedly refused to release DaMarcus Beasley and Michael Orozco for the Mexico-USA game, who Klinsmann had rostered. Was this an administrative error on the part of U.S. Soccer or is there something else behind Puebla’s late decision?

Meola: There’s no error on US Soccer’s part - there’s an error on Puebla’s part because though it’s not on an international date, every other Mexican team is releasing Mexican players. I don’t know if the US or any of the club teams would ever engage in something like this. It’s a sad game, is what it is. It’s against the sporting nature of the honorary agreement. How many other Mexican teams were affected by this game by having to let players go? And they all did, but somehow Puebla decided to turn two American players down from leaving. They have every right to do it, it’s not a FIFA date, so they have every right to do it. But it might turn out to be a good thing because Jurgen will have another opportunity to test out an other left back in this game and see if someone can offer something else in that position.

LE: What do you think now is the best US backline for this game?

Meola: That’s the big question. It’s going to come down to who’s playing well at this time. In seven World Cups that we’ve been in contention, it’s the first time we don’t have a real tight grasp of who’s in the back four. We don’t have a grasp of who our centerbacks are, our outside backs, there’s still combinations going on and all the time there’s more guys in a battle for one position. That’s something we have to figure out.

LE: Seth Sinovic was called up for his first camp in January. What do you think of his potential as left back for the team?

Meola: Not ready right now. The January camp is an opportunity to see guys and I think he earned that call-up and I think he’ll earn some call-ups in the future, it’s going to be a matter of how he develops. I can see it happening. But outside backs for Kansas City play a very different way than you can play with the National Team, so I’m sure there will be a bit of adjustment that way. But after this World Cup, if there’s one open position, one that we’ve really got to figure out, it's probably left back, so everyone will have the opportunity to play the position and battle for it.

LE: All of the MLS teams were eliminated in the away leg of the CONCACAF Champions League. What's your take on that?

Meola: All three of them had chances, right? In LA’s case they should have been up more than a goal and they had the ability to be up more than a goal. San Jose had to battle back in that one, that was always going to be a tough one, but I thought LA had the best chance playing Tijuana. What are they going to change? One thing I’ve said for a couple years is that I’d like to see the tournament be a little later in the year. It’s not an excuse by any stretch, we need to get better – period, but I think it’s a huge disadvantage with that tournament coming after you’ve played only one regular season game. You can play all the preseason games you want, but they just don’t match up.

LE: As a coach you must work with lots of kids from Mexico. What’s their take on soccer in the U.S.?

Meola: I work with all types of kids. We have a couple on the U-15 National Team of Mexican descent and they can’t wait to play for the U.S. Mexico are our opposing rivals and we’ve got to do better than them. That’s always the goal – to be better than Mexico. And they feel the same pride and sense of determination. I know kids who play in the United States and are of Mexican descent, and they root for Mexico and can’t wait to play for Mexico. That’s fine as well and that’s what builds this great rivalry and makes it what it is.

LE: How many events and clinics do you do for Allstate a year?

Meola: We’ve been doing eight clinics a year with Allstate all over the country. Allstate also does some with the Mexican national team, but I don’t do those, they get Mexican players to do that. But I do the U.S. team, and MLS All-Star and the MLS Cup final as well.

The surprise clinic is tonight actually and we’ll leave the kids and coaching staff with more gear than they know what to do with at the end of the day. That’s a really neat couple minutes when they get all that stuff. Then we bring them to the game tomorrow and I get to do a 'meet and greet' with friends, fans and family, and that’s always fun to meet the people who used to root for you, scream at you and everyone has a great story. Then we enjoy the soccer game and hopefully beat our rival again.

LE: Allstate provides the tickets for the kids in the clinic, right?

Meola: Yeah. I always ask before the clinic, 'Who’s going to the game?' and in four years, only one kid has ever raised his hand. But at the end when they find out they’re going, they couldn’t be any happier.

LE: Speculatively, what are the implications of the NCAA court decision, which allows Northwestern players to unionize as professionals, for soccer development in the US?

Meola: I don’t have a clear enough grasp on it, but our sport is so different. Our kids can leave any time they want and they can go to Europe. They don’t have to stay a certain amount of time in college and they always have the opportunity to go make money. We live under different rules in our sport. We see it all the time. We’ve got four kids on the U-15 roster that are now overseas or in Mexico playing and decided to bypass all of that. We’re like no other sport in that regard.

I’ve been on the road now for 13 days straight coaching all day and all night and I just read about that. It’s interesting and it could change the dynamics for sure.

LE: David Beckham recently advocated removing the salary cap. What’s your feeling on that?

Meola: From a playing standpoint, of course everybody loves that, but when David Beckham sits down and sees the way the business is run he might have a different feeling on it. Every athlete wants that and I think eventually that will happen, but it’s going to be a matter of making the decision that’s best for the sport. If the owners think that’s best for the sport then I’m sure they’ll do it. I hear the promotion-relegation battle all the time and I love promotion, but I don’t know if it’s best for the sport because what about the teams in Europe that are being buried right now financially because they can’t stay in their books when they get relegated? They operate with a $65 million balloon payment and we’re not at that level yet, we’re not there.

Allstate Fan Zone
Wednesday, April 2
4:00 – 8:00 p.m. MT (Allstate Fan Zone open to fans)
5:30 – 6:15 p.m. MT (Meola autograph session at Allstate Fan Zone)
6:30 – 7:45 p.m. MT (Martín “El Pulpo” Zúñiga autograph session at Allstate Fan Zone)

WHERE: University of Phoenix Stadium
1 Cardinals Dr.
Glendale, AZ 85305
West Preferred Lot

FOLLOW LE EISENMENGER ON TWITTER.

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