Thom Meredith and Alex Ferguson.
"I believe that it’s a fair argument to make that he pioneered the soccer event management procedures that have led to the way U.S. Soccer puts on a show," says longtime soccer media relations executive Jim Trecker. "There wasn’t any budget back then, but Thom is the guy who organized everything from the in-take of the opponent, from meeting El Salvador at the airport and welcoming them properly, all the way down to making sure the boards were properly placed. And that there were tables and lights in a press box. I remember with Thom in 1989 literally carrying folding card tables and folding chairs up to the little auxiliary area at the St. Louis Soccer Park to get outfitted for a World Cup qualifier.
"He’s the first man who I’m aware of who really got international matches in the USA organized in a professional manner. Thom was a major backstage, unsung guy bringing all these elements together."
Thom Meredith, introduced to soccer while a student at Hartwick College, served as PR director for the NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies, Washington Diplomats, Philadelphia Fury and Dallas Tornado in the 1970s.
Meredith grew up in Wallkill, New York, played basketball and ran track in high school. He went Hartwick College, where he became the school's student sports information director, sports director of the college radio station, and reporter for the Oneonta Star. He became enchanted with soccer thanks to Hartwick's national powerhouse team coached by Al Miller.
MEREDITH: I quickly found myself first as a student and then later occasionally on the local commercial station earning a few dollars broadcasting Hartwick games on Oneonta's small AM radio station. That combined with getting to know the two people in town who became life-long mentors and friends and who were among the two off-the-field guys most responsible for the rise of Hartwick as a collegiate power: Miller, who coached the team, and Francisco Marcos, who had graduated from the Wick before I got there -- but who'd stayed in town and was among the first, if not the first, to take teams overseas on foreign tours as a business. He helped Miller recruit players -- was always around the team in those early days. Unbelievable luck for me.
Miller and Marcos were the primary reasons I fell in love with soccer and who helped me understand its "internationalness."
There were also a couple of events during his sophomore year of 1970 that left a lasting impression.
MEREDITH: I was joining my roommates to go to my first college soccer game as a student. It was pouring rain, cold and gray. I saw bunch of guys carrying a bed with a guy in it, from his third-floor dorm room up those steep Hartwick hills, to Elmore Field for that game. Other students had fashioned a tent-like canopy protecting this guy from the elements. He was very sick but didn't want to miss the game. “This is different," I said to myself.
And the Nov. 28, 1970 NCAA Division 1 regional final between Hartwick and visiting Harvard, which Hartwick had lost to in double OT at Harvard the year before. That was a loss that was felt by the entire campus -- students, teachers and townspeople alike. A bunch of guys I'm still friends with nearly 50 years later, Alec Papadakis, Tony Elia, Eddie Austin and Timo Liekoski played in that game for the Wick (with Miller coaching it) and two others, future Cosmos star Shep Messing and then Harvard assistant coach (and later TV broadcaster) Seamus Malin were on the other sideline.
We were up 3-0 at halftime and seemingly cruising, but Harvard was really, really good and steadily got back in it, first 3-1, 3-2 -- then we scored to make it 4-2 and it finished 4-3 with Papadakis playing sweeper and taking a ball off the line as the final whistle blew. I said to myself, "Man, this is a sport I need to be a part of."
Thom Meredith by the Numbers
Meredith worked games in:
30 U.S. states
50+ U.S. cities
And at ...
12 Gold Cups
3 USA-hosted World Cups (men 1994, women 1999 & 2003)
1 World Cup abroad (South Africa 2010, Bloemfontein), Copa America Centenario, Pan American Games, Confederation Cup.
Besides 1977, when he served as Assistant PR Director for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Meredith worked for NASL teams in 1974-1980.
MEREDITH: Whenever one of the small group of followers the game had in those days saw a soccer ball being used as a prop in, say, a car advertisement in a magazine like Time or Sport Illustrated, we’d immediately tear the page out and either Xerox it or -- if our office had one -- fax it to those five other folks who were as amazed as I was to see that ball in that ad in the first place. Today soccer ads and soccer balls are commonplace now, but it’s a fact they were not 35 years ago.
Us old guys remember when "Soccer Made in Germany" with Toby Charles was on PBS and we waited all week to watch that lone broadcast of soccer. Now there could be as many as 60 games a weekend on my TV set across about seven different networks. That’s how the game has grown.
Thom Meredith with Lamar Hunt (center) and Brent Musburger.
Meredith worked for Lamar Hunt, the great patron of American soccer who owned the NASL's Dallas Tornado and was also key to the launch of MLS, with FC Dallas, the Columbus Crew and Kansas City. Hunt, who died in 2006, also created World Championship Tennis, which Meredith worked on.
MEREDITH: I've said it many times ... except for Ginger, my wife of 42-plus years, Lamar is the best human being I've ever met. Wicked smart, possessing of a photographic memory, gracious to a fault with a tremendous dry sense of humor, virtually without ego but when he spoke, you listened and learned. He was an honest man. Very seldom did you have the chance to just sit around and chat one-on-one since that wasn't this style, but boy when you did those times were to be treasured and are fond memories for me. He's been gone now for over 10 years but when I see something in a newspaper I find myself saying, "Boy I wish I could share that with Lamar."
Thom Meredith with James Bond actor Roger Moore on the way to a ceremonial racket spin.
Meredith became U.S. Soccer's Director of Communications in 1986 and its Director of Event Operations in 1991, a position he held through 2000, during which he was responsible for the administration, presentation and management of more than 300 U.S. men’s and women’s national team events.
MEREDITH: Hank Steinbrecher as Secretary General and Alan Rothenberg as President were the right guys at the right time in our soccer history when they were U.S. Soccer’s leaders and I worked for them during those explosive U.S. World Cup growth years, although it was very tough sledding back in the day. Hank literally saved my career when he hired me back for my second stint at U.S. Soccer in the 1990s. Alan never told you how to get from A to Z, but expected you to just figure out how to get there. I’d have followed both of them anywhere. We wouldn’t be where we are today without those two guys.
Thom Meredith (far left, red jacket) at the 1999 Women's World Cup final.
During the 18-month buildup to the 1999 Women’s World Cup, U.S. coach Tony DiCicco told Meredith to, every once in a while, create an annoyance for the team -- such as a late bus arrival – so that the players wouldn’t fazed by any real inconveniences that might come their way.
MEREDITH: It was a little secret between me and Tony DiCicco. I’d orchestrate a screw-up on a few occasions. Before the 1999 World Cup final, FIFA's Match Coordinator Hugo Salcedo informed us that, because the third-place game had gone to overtime and PKs, there’d be no time to use the field for a warmup.
Tony thought it was me playing my trick! I swore to him it wasn’t me. One of the players said, "Tony, we got this. We don't need a proper warmup."
They warmed up for the game of their lives literally by kicking practice balls against the dark Rose Bowl tunnel walls. Then they went out and became world champions.
When the USA was awarded the 1994 World Cup
Werner Fricker came back into the room at 1:10 pm by my watch after learning our fate before we did. He was stoned-faced. There was this long awkward silence. I'm thinking, Werner, what the hell happened? Who won? And everyone else in the room was thinking the same thing. His answer, finally, when someone asked him, "The vote was 10-7-2." Someone said: "Werner, who got the (expletive deleted) 10?" His answer was so typical Werner, after he paused again: "the United States of America."Meredith on game balls
• You can make up for a lot of stuff, but if you don't have the balls, it doesn't happen. It was a Mexico game at the L.A. Coliseum in the 1980s. I left the game balls in my hotel room. There was no way to get back to the hotel, with 90,000 fans coming upstream. I found out there was a Mexican sporting goods store near the Coliseum, and was able to buy 10 adidas balls. Never forgot them after that.
• After the 1999 Women's World Cup final, I got one of the game balls, but realized it wasn't the one that Brandi Chastain scored with on the penalty kick. I went to find the referee. It was a very hot day. She was in the small referee's room in the Rose Bowl and she was laying on the floor, in the fetal position, with her head on a bag of ice. I asked her if I could trade the ball I had with the ball from the penalty kick. The others were just part of the game, the 10 of them. Referees, to keep track of balls after making sure they check them for air pressure, would number them 1 to 10. The one that Brandi hit was the No. 6, same as Brandi's number, which is how we knew it was the one. The ref said sure, take it. I went to the postgame party, got all players to sign it, and sent it to the Hall of Fame. They had it on display that week.Speaking of Brandi
One of only two times that I rode the team bus -- both at the Rose Bowl, because that place was impossible to get out of. After the USA won the 1999 Women's World Cup final, we're driving along and see a bunch of kids. The players start telling us to stop the bus, so they could sign autographs through the windows. When we're about to start driving again, I see a girl running away with a pair of shoes. I ask, "Whose shoes are those!?" Brandi says they were hers and she gave them to the girl. "You gave away the shoes you scored the penalty kick with!?" Brandi says, "I wasn't going to wear them again."Field markings
• As hard as it is to believe, but it did happen at least half a dozen times that I remember -- that our national teams played on a field that wasn't marked correctly or was lacking something integral Laws of the Games-wise. But that always went unnoticed for either most or all of the game. One example, goal nets with holes in them. Another: Our women's team played Finland in late 1999 and the stadium guy who promised he had corner flags didn’t. We tried making four emergency flags out of broom handles 30 minutes before kickoff. We started the game and played almost the entire first half before anyone noticed. It wasn't until a 80-yard long Finnish clearance to our defensive third in the first minute of first-half stoppage time that everyone in the stadium could hear that booming coach's voice of Tony DiCicco: "Hey, hey, where are the corner flags!?" Then a little quieter but not much, “Hey Thom, you forgot corner flags." Didn’t forget, just didn’t have them. We had proper corner flags installed for the second half.
• The U.S. men played Russia at the old Seattle Kingdome in January 1994 before 43,000 fans and a national TV audience. It wasn't until about 60 minutes before the game that I realized the penalty areas were painted -- yes, painted directly on that concrete-hard Kingdome turf field -- incorrectly and were marked at 16 yards, not 18 yards by 44 yards.
Time to go see the referee, who spoke English well and was from another Concacaf country. I took ownership of the mistake but told him there was no time to change the 16 to 18 since the new paint wouldn't dry and we couldn't delay kickoff because of TV. It took me about five minutes to convince him and he did finally come around to my way of thinking that only he and I would ever know about the mis-marked penalty areas. I wasn't telling anyone and neither should he. Plus, I told him it was my experience that players and coaches would not notice. (They really never did and no one did that day either, trust me.). The game started on time, we drew 1-1. Our goal was scored by Alexi Lalas. You'll have to ask Alexi why he was wearing white shoes that day.
Thom Meredith with Marcelo Balboa
Visit by Robin Williams
We’re at the postgame meal for our men's national team on July 4, 1994. We've just lost to Brazil 1-0 in the round of 16 and no one knew the condition of Tab Ramos, who was seriously injured and hospitalized after getting elbowed to his temple by Leonardo. The dream gone, their World Cup run over, the team was downcast to say the least, and waiting to hear word on Ramos. I'm playing the sergeant-at-arms role and guarding the closed meal-room door. Soon, I see a short stocky guy with a young boy standing against the wall opposite the room door. It's Robin Williams with his son.
They’re just standing there loitering-like. Brazenly I said: "Robin, would you and Zak like to meet the team?" "Could we?" was his sheepish, kind of self-conscious reply.
I've always been a fan of his, but I believe that day was Robin Williams’ best ever performance. Once inside, without anyone’s assistance he went around the room and called out each player (reserves included) by name. If that wasn't amazing enough, Williams and John Harkes and Eric Wynalda then started a little back and forth comic riff with Robin. As I remember it: Williams could immediately sense the dark mood in the room and took it upon himself to do something about it. Just some spontaneous funny accents and comments that grew -- and in two minutes the entire room was laughing hysterically. The tone of that room magically flipped 180 degrees from morose to uncontrolled laughter and smiles -- such was the power of Robin Williams.
We're hosting qualifying for the 2008 Olympics in Florida. The USA ties Cuba, 1-1, and a Cuban player gets red-carded, so he's suspended for the next game. The Cuban squad gets back to the hotel. They're walking toward the elevator, and seven of of them run past the elevator, and out of the hotel, where cars are waiting for them. I had to go the Cuban team's head of delegation and explain to him that they, according to tournament rules, can't replace the players. Which means that, with the suspended red-carded player, they'll only have 10 eligible players for the next game. We go back and forth in my bad Spanish and his broken English for a while. And then he puts his arm around my shoulder, and says in perfect English, "Fidel won a war with eight, I can play with 10."
We’ve been friends for over a decade now, after our first meeting during an early Manchester United U.S. tour. Our first one-on-one contact was when he knocked on my door unannounced and invited me for a pre-dawn tea on the third day of that first Man United tour I worked. We've spent much more time during our friendship talking about American history -- you can't stump him on American Civil War trivia -- and world politics and events than we do football. I'm still shocked that he asked me for my cell phone number days after that first tea and then gave me his in the visiting coaches locker room at Toyota Park in Chicago.
I first met Pele while working as the PR Director for the NASL Diplomats in Pele’s first big Cosmos game in 1975 after he arrived. We got clobbered 9-2. Pele scored twice but we drew 35,620 to RFK Stadium. Since then, I worked about a dozen special events with Pele over the years. Among my biggest professional thrills was to have Pele asking me to join him for dinner, one-on-one, in a Miami hotel restaurant. I saw Pele again at the 2014 NSCAA Convention in Philadelphia after a break of about eight years -- and without prompting, that man who’s literally met millions, remembered my name. I felt 7 feet tall.
Leo Messi and John Wooden
I spent more than 30 days with FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi during their U.S. tours. Watching Barcelona train at UCLA on one simply gorgeous day, I found myself answering very astute questions about Barca and Messi by an old man sitting next to me. It was Coach John Wooden!
Watching Barcelona train in San Francisco, about halfway through practice, Messi scored this goal that I don’t have the capacity to describe in any language. All his teammates just stopped. Frozen, they started applauding him on the training field. Had never seen that before, or since. At another practice, a similar situation, but even earlier in the training session. Messi beat about six players from midfield to the edge of the 18 and somehow scored. Coach Pep Guardiola blew his whistle and simply said: "We’re done. Practice over."A delicate geopolitical situation
U.S. Soccer invited Iran to the USA for a national team game in January of 2000 -- despite the fact that the USA and Iran had not had diplomatic relations since 1980. I could only utilize a U.S. diplomatic office in a country that had diplomatic relations with both Iran and the USA. Frankfurt, Germany, was the best choice because the Frankfurt airport was close to the U.S. Embassy.
I met the Iranians in the airport’s international transit lounge early in the morning and collected their 30 passports to take to the embassy, have them reviewed and stamped, and then returned to the Frankfurt airport within a few hours -- before their connection left Frankfurt for Chicago at 2 p.m.
With some great German soccer federation help -- I got the validated passports back to the airport with time to spare. But 15 minutes before departure I was paged by name to the Lufthansa flight departure desk where I was told there was a snafu and unless someone came up with $13,000 U.S. dollars, a dozen members of this team wouldn’t be flying to the U.S.
The Iranians didn’t have the money. I couldn’t call anyone at U.S. Soccer. And my U.S. Soccer Federation company credit card had a $5,000 limit on it. I wasn’t 100% sure I would be reimbursed by U.S. Soccer, but pulled out my own personal card since I carried a higher balance on that card, and plunked it down.
I did get the money reimbursed in time to pay my bill on time. U.S. Soccer made a good profit on the games. [The USA tied Iran, 1-1, in Pasadena in front of 50,000 and Mexico beat Iran, 2-1, in Oakland before 34,000 fans]. And to this day the beautiful hand-woven prayer rug the Iranian delegation gave me as a gift after the games is one of my most prized possessions.