Tony Meola on the USA style of play quest, youth national team success, and young Americans going abroad

Tony Meola  started in goal for the USA when in 1989 it qualified for the World Cup for first time in 40 years -- and started every game for the USA at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, captaining the team at the latter tournament. His pro career of nearly two decades included Kansas City’s 2000 championship season when he set the MLS season shutout record (17) that still stands. He was a reserve keeper on the 2002 World Cup team. Meola, who served as a Fox color commentator during the 2018 World Cup and co-hosts the SiriusXM radio show “Counter Attack,” has served as assistant coach for various U.S. youth national teams over the last five years.

SOCCER AMERICA: What do you think about U.S. Soccer’s men’s national team coach hiring process?

TONY MEOLA: I said right after we didn’t qualify: I couldn’t understand the narrative of waiting until after the World Cup to hire a coach.

When you look at the numbers -- 32 coaches at the World Cup and half of them were not realistic for the team. Half of the other ones wouldn’t be available. I thought to myself, are we really waiting for six to eight coaches from around the world to choose from?

I think we’ve lost a lot of time. People said, this year’s not important. Of course, it’s important. We just failed to qualify for a World Cup. Everything is important.

[Editor’s note: Former assistant coach Dave Sarachan has been serving as interim coach since the USA’s loss in Trinidad in October of 2017.]

Now, I hear people complaining about how it’s taken so long. Well, we just hired a general manager [Earnie Stewart], and he’s only been on the job since Aug. 1.

With that said, I think we probably are close seeing who the new coach is going to be. Earnie has a profile of what he’s looking for.

SA: What do you think is the right profile?

TONY MEOLA: I’m for an American coach for this particular hiring. Someone who understands and knows this group of players. Maybe at other times or cycles I would have a different answer. But personally I would like to see this group get a coach who understands the young American player mentality. Not a guy who -- It’s OK if he gets fired because he’s going to be on to another job.

SA: Upon hiring Stewart, U.S. Soccer said he is supposed implement a U.S. style of play. What do think about the style of play the USA should pursue?

TONY MEOLA: All of us who aspire to coach and analyze, we all have a style that we like, a style that we would want the team to look like. But I still think your style is a product of your players. We could have a Manchester City style in mind but if we don’t have the players, it’s impossible to play that way.

The style of play goes hand in hand with the players you have.

SA: What has the style of play been for the USA?

TONY MEOLA: I’m not sure we’ve had a style of play, even when we’ve had more successful teams. What was really the style of play? Intangibles. We had guys who were willing to fight for the national team all the time and on the day we had to be better than the opponent.

We’ve always talked about styles of play. For years, we talked about Tahuichi. And then Portugal won a couple youth World Cups, and all of a sudden we were going to use that system. And then Brazil was winning World Cups and we figured we’ll try that, and it didn’t last long. Then it was the German system.

I always thought, why don’t we strive to be a better version of ourselves?

Why couldn’t we take what we did in 1994 and get better at it. Why couldn’t we take 2002 and be a better version of that group, which was solid in every area of the field, very disciplined, can get at you on the counterattack. Technically competent. And I think we’ve spent so much time in this country trying to be somebody that we’re not. I think that has kind of hindered us.

SA: How different were the successful USA teams in how they played, such as your Bora Milutinovic-coached 1994 team that reached the second round of the World Cup, the 2002 team that reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup, and the Bob Bradley-coached team that finished second at the 2009 Confederations Cup after beating Spain?

TONY MEOLA: I don’t think they were terribly different at all. You look at both of those teams most people remember -- 2002 with Bruce Arena and 2009 with Bob Bradley.

They were solid all over the field. Very, very organized. Took pride in defending. Had very good defenders in those two groups. And Eddie Pope, probably the most underrated guy in U.S. Soccer … Carlos Bocanegra.

Get you on the counterattack. Compete physically.

SA: When talking about style of play and attributes of the American player, people, including Stewart, often cite athleticism and aggressiveness, and as Stewart put it, “we are kind of like in your face.” Isn’t athleticism just a starting point? Don’t all soccer-playing nations have good athletes?

TONY MEOLA: They all do. You tell me Croatia is not athletic? Geez, I covered Croatia. I saw them up close. I’m like, Holy Christ!

Everyone always talks about the athletic part. Look at the last four games. Look at France [which the USA tied, 1-1, in a pre-2018 World Cup friendly], were we more athletic than France? We’re not even close.

That doesn’t mean you can’t win. But we keep talking about athletically, athletically. The way to combat athleticism is to keep the ball.

Go back to those U.S. teams. You’re talking about Tab Ramos, Hugo Perez, Claudio Reyna, John O’Brien – guys who could keep the ball as well as anyone we played against.

Where have they all gone? We keep boasting about athleticism, but I don’t even know if we’re winning all the time on the field in that area.

SA: Do you think that it helps if all the youth national teams play with a similar approach, leading into the full national team?

TONY MEOLA: They are now, since Tab Ramos [U.S. Youth Technical Director] has gotten in there [in 2013], they all play the same system.

At the youth national team summit this year in January they brought all the national teams [U-16, U-17, U-18, U-19 and U-20]. Some 150 players. And they showed them a video of what our national teams look like.

And we were just coming off our most successful year in youth national team history.

SA: The USA failing qualify for the 2018 World Cup set off an avalanche of criticism of U.S. Soccer and American soccer. You think there have been things U.S. Soccer is getting right?

TONY MEOLA: I don’t think we need to change much in the youth national team program. I don’t know if anything happening in the youth national team program right now translates to us not qualifying for a World Cup.

Like I said, we just came off our best youth national team year ever. We were one of two nations in the world that got to the quarterfinals of both the U-17 and U-20 World Cups in 2017. The other was England, which won them. It’s not Brazil, it’s not Nigeria, it’s not Ghana – it’s not any of the names you hear all the time.

We’re the only nation that made it to three Concacaf finals [2017 U-20 champs, U-17 runner-up, U-15 runner-up] and now we have the highest ranking in Concacaf among youth national team programs.

I don’t think that part of it is broken. I think we’re doing a pretty good job. Are there things we need to do better? No doubt about it. Scouting and finding players – there’s just not enough guys out there right now in the system.

And I’m very bullish on this young group of players. They’re getting better and better. This will be our strongest group of national team players when this group develops into full pros. When I say full pros – guys who have been doing it for years.

SA: Do you think that U.S. Soccer is tapping all the talent that the diverse American soccer landscape has to offer? Such as in the Latino community?

TONY MEOLA: During the summit at beginning of the year, we sat in a room with all the Technical Advisors, all the scouts, every single night -- everyone brought up the names they saw in specific age groups.

Not one of them ever said, “Oh this guy is a really crafty No. 10. We don’t want him.” As a matter of fact, everyone is looking for those players.

I would say if you sent the soccer world to scout those games, they would come back with the same names. I think we do a really good job of scouting the players who, for lack of a better term, “are in the system.” The ones who we can go see. The ones we know about. The ones in academies. The ones in the other clubs who play against academies.

The ones we get our eyes on, the group of people in that room, there’s probably 50, 60 in that room every night, they do a really good job of recognizing talent. The problem is, we need more people. And we need to get more kids in the system.

That leads to a bigger discussion, about pay-to-play. I just don’t know how you get rid of it. My kids pay to play everything. If they want to learn an instrument, they have to pay to do it. If they want to swim, they gotta pay to do it.

[Editor’s note: The last 20-player U.S. U-17 roster is more than 50% Latino.]

SA: You think some of the criticism of U.S. Soccer is unwarranted?

TONY MEOLA: Everyone pins this on U.S. Soccer. I still don’t think on a daily basis, this is a U.S. Soccer thing. This is local clubs, MLS clubs, non-MLS clubs, the ones that are in the community every single day.

To pin this all on the Federation is ridiculous, to think it’s completely their responsibility. But the Federation does not have enough people, enough technical people, enough scouts.

Bruce Arena talks about it in his book: we need more technical people in the Federation. Hopefully that’s where we’re going.

SA: How do you rate MLS’s role in player development?

TONY MEOLA: I can only speak about Red Bull because they’re in my area, and what they’re doing in Philly [Philadelphia Union]. I think they’re doing a really good job. I think MLS clubs in general do a pretty good job.

SA: Do you think MLS clubs give enough opportunities to young players?

TONY MEOLA: That’s a different conversation. It’s probably, no. And the more mechanisms that come into play, the more they’re geared to foreign players coming into the league. I think the league needs foreign players, and I think we have some really good ones, but I don’t want to see that at the expense of every young American. People wonder why the Weston McKennies go overseas.

With these kids who want to go abroad -- I don’t know how much MLS clubs can do about it. There’s something about these kids watching TV and wanting to be in the Champions League and wanting to be in the EPL and the Bundesliga.

Some kids just have a dream. There’s no dollar value on that, right? You can’t say, here’s money to stay in MLS when the guy's dream is to play somewhere else.

And part of the allure for foreign clubs is they can get these American kids for free.

SA: MLS clubs have invested a lot in youth programs and many are taking their reserve teams, such as playing in the USL, seriously, to create a pathway similar to what it’s like with foreign clubs …

TONY MEOLA: No doubt. But it’s still hard to compare. The kids look at the Bundesliga to get to Bayern, Dortmund or the EPL.

Working with youth national teams for four and a half years, it’s all the kids talk about. You listen to their conversations, their goal is, “When I’m 18, I want to go to Europe.”

I ask all the time, “Is MLS a path?” It could be, but once you sign a contract in MLS it’s pretty hard to get out. And they get it. They’re not dumb kids anymore. We were naïve back in the day. We had to figure it out all on our own.

But these kids have it figured out and they see their friends [go abroad].

When I was with the U-18s, 10 days in camp and that’s all they talk about – what’s it like over there? How can I get over there? Do you have an agent? That’s all they’re talking about.

Todd Beane: The USA has an opportunity to astound the world with a new brand of soccer
Andres Cantor on the U.S. national teams of the past, the next coach and countries U.S. should (or shouldn't) emulate
Ian Barker on a U.S. style of play, producing No. 10s, and coaching schools in the USA
Hugo Perez on style of play: 'The USA has the players to play possession-oriented, offensive soccer'
Landon Donovan on a U.S. style of play, what worked in the past, and who should coach the USA
Nico Romeijn and Ryan Mooney on U.S. Soccer coaching education: the Federation's intentions and its capabilities and capacity

24 comments about "Tony Meola on the USA style of play quest, youth national team success, and young Americans going abroad".
  1. Ginger Peeler, October 3, 2018 at 9:53 a.m.

    Well, Meola has surprised me. I’ve never really forgiven him for throwing soccer aside in order to gain his avowed life long fantasy to be an NFL kicker. Yet, he made some good points and I appreciate his input. Especially pointing out that the “pay to play” for soccer is not just a soccer thing, but is prevalent in ALL of our youth sports!  We are a Democratic Republic, but our base is capitalism, not the socialism of so many other countries. With capitalism, the point is to make a profit. Sometimes, that means profit first, people second. So, MLS hires and brings in recognized good foreign players for the box office, leaving little room, nor money, for our own developing kids. I agree with Tony that we need more “feet on the ground” with folks searching the bushes for more of those talented kids that we know are out there  ... right now. Bring back Hugo Perez! He had a hand in the training of a lot of our young players who’re practicing their craft in Europe right now!!!  Hugo has worked on all sides; he’s got the contacts.  He was brought up in the system! He knows what’s involved from the youth side AND from the professional side and he knows what’s needed! He’s coached many of the boys’ national youth teams and worked as an assistant coach for the men’s national team. What the heck. Hire him!

  2. Ginger Peeler, October 3, 2018 at 10:02 a.m.

    P.S.  I really do like this series of interviews regarding our men’s national team with opinions on coaches, player styles, the future of US Soccer, etc, that Mike Woitalla has been bringing us. My heartfelt thanks, Mike!!!

  3. R2 Dad, October 3, 2018 at 11:34 a.m.

    "but once you sign a contract in MLS it’s pretty hard to get out." This gets to the Captive mentality of Garber/MLS/USL. The kids coming up see this and want to avoid it at all costs. The current system leads to the top players leaving before 18 (if they can), resulting in many of our promising youth players stuck in the US. Leaving players defeat the purpose of the Captive process which is to horde US players to slowly improve the player pool over several decades.
    If MLS teams that suck, like the SJ Earthquakes, start playing their kids as FC Dallas has, this can be turned around. Use-them-or-lose-them should be the required policy for our youth players trapped in MLS. USL1/2/3/4 is just purgatory.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, October 3, 2018 at 12:22 p.m.

    Great insights from Meola. The most important insight I think was about athleticism and that the US has not been as athletic as some of the best nations.

    "The way to combat athleticism is to keep the ball. 

    Go back to those U.S. teams. You’re talking about Tab Ramos, Hugo Perez, Claudio Reyna, John O’Brien – guys who could keep the ball as well as anyone we played against."

  5. Bob Ashpole, October 3, 2018 at 12:24 p.m.

    Having trouble managing the comments. R2 Dad, I think you have good insights, but are more pessimistic than I am.

  6. R2 Dad replied, October 3, 2018 at 1:46 p.m.

    Bob, I'm pessimistic because I see these kids every day--hipanic kids that don't have "access". Off the top of my head I know three 02/03s, two strikers and one 10, who aren't going to play DA, maybe they go to college, but what they really need is a challenging training environment to get to the next level--TODAY. They don't have that, and I don't know how these players with excellent skills/abilities get a leg up other than Alianza. MLS/USL is a very long-term project that is doing nothing for our kids RIGHT NOW, and I hate watching our country write off these kids because we don't have the systems in place to help them.

  7. frank schoon, October 3, 2018 at 1:30 p.m.

    Decent interview, again, I wish there were follow up questions about style and what it entails, getting more into the nitty gritty, nuts and bolts. I do agree that style goes hand in hand with the players you have . For example "Total Soccer" was never a concept initself. It wasn't that Michels read a book on how to play "total soccer". It just came about by the selection of players he had with Ajax and was also able to carry apply it to the Dutch team WC'74 of which there were only 6 Ajax players on it. What I'm saying is that style can be maintianed even though with different players as long they are technically, mentally capable. Once we have chosen a style than it becomes a  question of maintenance by picking from a large player pool. The next step is of course is to maintain a capable selection from the player pool, which are trained to play according to this style...
    Where have all the players gone who were capable of controlling a ball, is a good question Tony posed. Bad player development and no Style. It's that simple and US soccer has not taken advantage and further build upon from these players he mentioned like Ramos, Perez, Reyna, O'brian or for that matter Valderama, Etcheverry. Ajax with their history of great players have a history, a drawing board, to study from or for that matter Holland can learn from their previous stars. There are kids in holland ,wingers, who study Robben and try to blend their own play with that of Robben's or other great players. In a way Holland soccer has over the years, metaphorically speaking build a Roll a Dex that can be used in building and learning from previous stars and players.
    So to answer Tony's question of where have all these players gone who could control a ball, the answer is STYLE. If we kept a style than we would have begun our own Roll a Dex, because our future would build upon from the past.....

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, October 3, 2018 at 2:36 p.m.

    One of the things I think most fans miss is that when Earnie Stewart talked about style of play he expressly equated that phrase with principles of play. Principles of play is a concept easier to understand how it can be consistent from team to team and competition to competition. "Style of play" and "formations" are distractors from what is important. 

    I have always admired "total soccer" for the Dutch principles of play that it represents. To me "total soccer" is a term with several levels. It is not just about players interchanging positions, but also about playing defensively while attacking. Defense and offense are not separate pieces of the game. This is the biggest criticism I have of the US view of the game. They don't follow Dutch principles. Even the Dutch have never uniformly followed Dutch priniciples. To me Dutch principles of play represent a view of what good soccer is and not simply what Dutch soccer is. I think good soccer is the same all over, but I think this "Dutch style" expression of what good soccer is, is the best description I have seen in 40 years of looking.

  9. frank schoon replied, October 3, 2018 at 5:57 p.m.

    Bob ,that's true. It is all about the principles and that is what Cruyff states has been watered down or not followed. For example, No square passes which we see all the time, and pass from the right back to the wing straight up the flank would get you benched during the Ajax glory days, but today that pass is made all the time. Without the principles you can't play good soccer. 
    Cruyff once described Zlatan Ibrahimovic as young star for Ajax in this way, " He has great technique for a bad soccer player "footballer" and bad technique for good player". There is a lot of food for thought in that statement.... 

  10. frank schoon, October 3, 2018 at 2:01 p.m.

    Tony mentioned a summit of all scouts, trainers and Technical who have a good job in picking the better player in the system. They may be the better players and no doubt that's not difficult to do picking the better players. I would like to see the Ajax technical, brain trust come over here and look at these so-called better players and see what their opinions are. The difference is that the Ajax technical brain trust, consists of former greats who know exactly what to look into. Here is the difference, the Ajax Technical brain trust, can see right away, the inner, finer details, what these better players need to improve upon. We don't have that expertise,here, for example who is going teach Pulisic how to improve his game...That's is the problem, here, we don't have the coaches/trainers/ developers with great playing backround to further improve our players and that is why we send them to Europe.  And this is why the kids all talk about wanting to play in Europe. This is why the USSF needs to bring over some of that expertise, here. 

  11. Philip Carragher replied, October 4, 2018 at 12:07 p.m.

    I'd like to know some specific technicals beyond "first touch", "control in tight spaces", etc., that advanced coaches look at when judging a player. One I can share comes from a Brazilian coach who focuses on how quickly a player picks up his/her head after receiving a pass.

  12. frank schoon replied, October 4, 2018 at 1:20 p.m.

    Philip, he should not have to pick up his head. Receiving the ball should be a sixth sense. Your head should be up for the blind spot between bottom view and your receiving foot on no more than a foot or two, thus obviating to have your head down...
    The moment he receives the ball, is he positioned in order to receive it on his furthest foot away from the opponent.
    His far arm near the opponent should be used as a shield.
    Does he take a step towards the ball to receive instead of standing still.
    Does he push the ball into a open space to give himself time to look for his next pass or dribble
    When receiving the ball stationary does he employ the inside or bottom of the foot, for if he receives it with inside of the foot he would need to take another step (movement)
    Does he receive the ball in manner so that he doesn't effect the tempo of the game, not slowing it down.
    When passing the ball to a flank player ,does he pass it to the front of back foot and does pass in manner to allow the flank an option his next move....
    As the ball comes to him is he looking for the 3rd man off the ball.
    Through his positioning of his body in anticipation for the pass, is it to receive or is it to make a one touch pass to another station, in other words does he think a step ahead.
    By his body position to receive does he take into account to increase the tempo of the game.
    How are his one-touches or passes as far as timing as related to the next person he will pass to.
    Does he pass in a manner that allows his teammate the touches on the ball to control it.
    Does he pass to in order that allows his teammate continuity of play to continue.
    Does his passes have enough velocity or speed.
    Is he able to pass the ball with back spin while on the run(dribble) 
    Does he pass only in the direction of his dribble
    Does he telegraph his passes ,not only as far as direction, but also when.
    Is he able to make a short one-touch pass that drops about 4meters behind his immediate opponent.
    How 'bout a 30-40 meter diagonal ball on the run that is able to drop right in of the upcoming teammate on the run.
    How 'bout a pass to a teammate that always ahead a couple meters just hard enough to time it without able having to slow but right in run of things.
    Does he have an eye for a long pass as well as short when waiting to receive the ball. Many players tend to view the in only a 15meter circle.
    As a #6 for example, how is his body positioned and with which foot does he receive the ball from the right back or left back in a manner he can increase the tempo of the game.

    This are some of the aspects you need to aware of , there are more, but at least this can give you a start....

  13. frank schoon replied, October 4, 2018 at 1:32 p.m.

    Philip, I left out a word 'fewest" .Does he pass to a teammate in a manner his teammate allows the fewest touches on the ball in order to control it or allows the fewest touches to get it to the next station.
    Does he pass a ball to solve a problem or to shift the problem to his next teammate...

  14. Kevin Leahy, October 4, 2018 at 7:02 a.m.

    Youth players don't necessarily translate to the MNT. I believe in Hugo Perez and his vision on players. It is easy to see talent but, part of identifying players is recognizing the intangibles. Would a Gerd Mueller make it through the process in this climate? You can't be afraid to give the young players a chance. Part of the success of the '02 team was the combination of experience and youth. Donovan and Beasley @ 20 years old with speed to burn made the team formidable with O'Brien and others. There isn't an easy path but, skill developement is the biggest thing. The first touch of most American players doesn't compare with the top ten teams in the world.

  15. Wooden Ships replied, October 4, 2018 at 8:14 a.m.

    Kevin, I would go as far to say that even in CONCACAF our first touch, by comparison has us wearing clogs. 

  16. frank schoon replied, October 4, 2018 at 9:43 a.m.

    Ships ,that goal by Quaresma was repeated  3x, different angles. He scored with the outside of his rightfoot, facing the near post...
    Besiktas vs Kayserispor 2-0 GOALS/HIGHLIGHTS 29/09/2018 - YouTube from 1:42-1:47.
    At 1:47 shows the best...

  17. Wooden Ships replied, October 4, 2018 at 11:52 p.m.

    Thanks Frank, that was what it sort of looked  like. Again, for some reason it wasn’t a clear video stream. He’s a quality player, would be neat to see him here.

  18. frank schoon replied, October 5, 2018 at 9:39 a.m.

    Ships, Quaresma would be excellent for the MLS, especially for the fans.
    Tonight at Univ.of Maryland will be held our 50th anniversary NCAA "68 Championship celebration..... where has all the time gone Ships, I can't  believe it. What is so interesting that Maryland is playing Michigan State tonight, the team we played in '68 for the Championship. What is even more interesting is that I gave personal training to two players who will be facing each other tonight...small world.....

  19. Wooden Ships replied, October 5, 2018 at 5:06 p.m.

    Damn shame is that the closer to the end the faster the time goes. One of the more fascinating Sociology sessions/concepts conferences I attended in Minnesota in the early 80’s was, the sociology of time. Congrats on the 50th today and enjoy yourself at the reunion. Very special gathering indeed.

  20. frank schoon replied, October 6, 2018 at 8:22 a.m.

    Ships, that sounds very interesting 'sociology of time",I'll find something to read about that. Last night was the first night I watched a college game in person instead of on TV. Everything looks so predictable, you know exactly what's going to happen. It is the pattern of play that is continually repeated over and over again. I watch games on You tube from 50-40 years ago and you can't tell what a player will do. But today you not only can tell what a player will do but also the pattern of play. Most of the patterns continually repeats itself, the passes go backwards to the centerbacks, passes from centerbacks to a back standing still, or long pass up front or a pass from a back to a #6 center halfback who switches field to open flank player on the other side. Never did a cross coming from near the end line, it seems like the last 20yards to the end are foreboden territory. Lots of unsuccessful attempts passes to an outside back who ends up passing it backwards, rarely forwards....This is not good. You don''t you to soccer just work on these and you'll be fine...This is not good. Also it seems the defensive touches the ball the most.Too many square balls and backpasses....I'm so glad watching an almost 40year old Zlatan out there for he makes watching the game still enjoyable.

  21. Bob Ashpole replied, October 6, 2018 at 10:05 p.m.

    I hate pattern passing drills.

  22. frank schoon replied, October 7, 2018 at 10:55 a.m.

    Bob,  soccer has become  all about obvious patterns enhanced by lack of individuaism ,lack of technical ability based on current training methods,  leaving players with little confidence on the ball, something you can't ascribe to Zlatan.

  23. beautiful game, October 6, 2018 at 11:06 a.m.

    IMHO, the talent discovery process should begin at the national U-8 level. There needs to be a distinctive pipeline to identify talented youth players through a scouting info system of coach to area league coordinator to state officials to USSF. A data base bank needs to follow these players to U-14 level for the purpose of monitoring player progress and storing info on reasons why certain players drop out of the sport. This type of system will be able to identify the positives and negatives of our current failures and help eliminate the parts of the broken process.   

  24. Nick Gabris, October 7, 2018 at 12:09 p.m.

    I have watched and admired his play, coaching style, being able to relate to the young players all these years. Tab Ramos who played and has been in the system all these years, knows and has coached all the up and coming young players and has been successful, should be the next MNT coach.
    With all do respect to Tony M. please give up the announcing gig, it is not working for you (or me), very bland, no emotion, monotone, sorry but have to mute.  

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications