Tony Meola: Young players are more sophisticated than ever

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the USA hosting the 1994 World Cup – a good time to check in with Tony Meola, who started every game in goal for the USA as it reached the second round of a World Cup for the first time since 1930. Meola, who also helped the USA end its 40-year World Cup drought by qualifying for the Italia ‘90, is heavily involved in youth soccer.

By Mike Woitalla

Tony Meola stills spends plenty of time with his 1994 World Cup teammates.

He co-hosts the SiriusXM radio show “Counter Attack” with John Harkes, a fellow Kearny, N.J. product. He has assisted Tab Ramos -- another New Jersey childhood friend -- with the men’s U-20 national team -- and is assisting Hugo Perez with the U.S. U-15 boys.

Meola finishes the radio show at 7 p.m. and by 7:07 he’s on the field coaching New Jersey youth soccer. Up until last year, he had been coaching his son with the Berkeley SA U-16s and he’s still coaching his daughter’s Toms River FC U-14s.

SOCCER AMERICA: How long have you been coaching youth soccer?

TONY MEOLA: I always coached while I was playing. In Kansas City I coached at Blue Valley SC. I really enjoy trying to instill a passion for the game and seeing the kids improve.

SA: I understand your oldest (of three children) is headed to your alma mater Virginia to play baseball …

TONY MEOLA: It just kills me that he’s given up soccer! But it’s a good decision for him.

SA: You played soccer and baseball at UVA …

TONY MEOLA: Right. But times have changed. He played high school soccer last year but this year he has to focus on baseball. UVA is now a top baseball school and this is the time for him where getting drafted is also an issue. So he’s concentrating on baseball. But it’s really tough not to see him play soccer anymore. He’s a Division I-level left-sided player.

SOCCER AMERICA: You’re still coaching your daughter. Any big difference between coaching boys and girls?

TONY MEOLA: The difference between boys and girls -- there’s not a whole lot of difference. But it seems like at the early ages, the boys are hungrier. With the girls, it takes a little bit more time to get them more serious about the game, studying the game, going to games.

The one thing I try and do with all the teams is give them the passion for the game, whether it’s watching it instead of playing a video game on a Saturday morning or going to see a local professional team.

I tell kids all the time that’s how I learned and I think that’s one of the ways you can learn, by engulfing yourself into it.

It’s not for everyone. Some just want to be rec players and I get it. And that makes senses too. That’s also good.

SA: So how do you encourage them to get “study” the game?

TONY MEOLA: When I started coaching my daughter’s team, their team name was something like the Thrill. I said, “We gotta change it to the name of a team that’s in Europe or South America. You guys figure out which one.”

We took a vote. They all asked what teams I watched when I was a kid, so we ended up coming to Milan.

So everyone had to come back with a fact about AC Milan. Each training session early on, I picked girls to give me a fact about AC Milan. They talked about European championships, winning Serie A, about players like Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard … They never knew any of that stuff.

So over the years I ask, does anyone know where Milan is in the standings, anyone see a Milan game last weekend?

And I’d get, “I didn’t see Milan play, but I saw Barcelona play.”

It wasn’t because I wanted them to know everything about Milan, it was just a way to connect them to the soccer world.

SA: Can you compare the youth national program now to when you were a part of it?

TONY MEOLA: My last camp was with the U-15 national team in L.A. Preparation is completely different. The way we schedule out practices … The thought that goes into everything they do comes from Tab [U.S. Soccer’s Youth Technical Director] and trickles down to all the teams. Whether it’s Hugo Perez or Tony Lepore with the U-14s or Richie Williams with the U-17s.

The monitoring of their bodies. Their complete workload everyday. Making sure they don’t exceed workload throughout the week so that when we get to game time they’re optimally ready. Monitoring their diet every minute of the day.

When we put training together, there still things we do now that are the same we did back in 1990. There’s some stuff we didn’t do. I think that would be in any sport, anywhere. You probably don’t work on a typewriter anymore.

The coaches who are working with the national team are constantly looking for the next best thing. "Are we doing it right?" translates to every single drill we do and how we do it, and how long we do it.

I’m not sure it was so thought out back then. It was great back then. And it was probably cutting edge back then. Now it needs to continue to be cutting edge.

SA: For sure, the youth club scene has exploded since you were a kid. Any thoughts on the current youth soccer landscape?

TONY MEOLA: There are a lot of clubs that are great. And other clubs maybe less so. That’s something the parent and the kid have to figure out on their own. “Am I getting what I’m getting what I’m paying for?”

But it’s youth sports, and there are some people you can never please, no matter what you do. You really got to look at the process all the time.

One thing I do know, when I see the young kids -- the pools are a lot bigger and the players are a lot more sophisticated and more knowledgeable than they used to be at the younger ages.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at Woitalla refs youth soccer in Northern California and coaches at East Bay United/Bay Oaks.)

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4 comments about "Tony Meola: Young players are more sophisticated than ever".
  1. BJ Genovese, April 18, 2014 at 8:19 p.m.

    Hey Tony, what are the odds that a kid can still be identified for the age groups of u15/16/17? It seems like you have to be from a ussda to get to a tc these days. My Son is from Redding and we drive to the closest club which is 2 1/2 hours from us. We cant make the trek to a DA. He went to five TC a couple of years back but has not been asked back. He was a very very diminutive player but has grown since then and we would like to see him get one more shot. Is the current ID system to only keep track of kids in a ussda or do you think they are still keeping track of kids in the data base that are not attending DA's or being picked up by foreign clubs. Just wondering because he was in PDP and ID2 with many kids that are already on the national team and when he was with them for all of these programs he was very very small but very snappy and technical with the ball. So it seems like he should be at least called back to the TC's once every couple of years just to see how he is coming along. Am I on the right track?

  2. Kent James, April 18, 2014 at 8:26 p.m.

    Tony's emphasis on connecting kids to the larger game is vital. I know growing up in the 1970s, I was essentially unable to watch soccer(Toby Charles/Soccer Made in Germany on PBS excepted), so our games were the blind leading the blind. I did have quite good coaches for the time, since they emphasized a passing game instead of kick and run, but soccer is a game of pattern recognition, and if you don't see the patterns, it's much more difficult to create them on your own. Being able to read the game is best developed by watching high level games. Just getting kids to identify with professional teams, as Tony suggests, is a great entre into getting them hooked. And players that love the game will be the ones who practice on their own, live with a ball, and develop fully as players.

  3. Kent James, April 18, 2014 at 8:31 p.m.

    The soccer scene has greatly improved since Tony was a youth player. I moved to a relatively weak soccer area in the early 1990s, and my kids faced some criticism for their soccer jerseys ("sissy sport", etc.). But as they grew older, the school culture changed and became much more accepting. Now even non-soccer players will sport Barcelona jersey's, and even know what Barcelona is. I think a lot of credit goes Tony and his generation (Harkes, Ramos, etc.) for helping capture the attention and respect of a lot of Americans who knew diddly about the game before the US began participating regularly in the WC. So thanks for what you did for soccer in the US. I"ll even forgive your post-soccer foray into professional football...

  4. feliks fuksman, April 19, 2014 at 1:10 a.m.

    I also agree that it is very important for youth players who want to excel, to watch soccer games.

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