preventing them, Meola seeks to reach identity goal

June 15, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

The soccer publicity machine is rife with references that cross generations and hemispheres.

There are Desert Peles and Maradona wannabes, but please don't go calling Tony Meola the Yankee Lev Yashin or the American Gordon Banks. The U.S. goalie wants to carve a niche all his own.

"When I was a kid, I never ran around imitating this player or that player," Meola said. "It was never, 'Look at me, I'm Pele.' I'm Meola. I wanted to make a name for myself."

Meola is an original. How many other soccer stars were drafted by the New York Yankees and have gotten movie parts? The U.S. training facility in Mission Viejo, Calif., isn't the best place for a soccer player to become rich and famous, but Meola has cultivated his image into annual earnings in the vicinity of $500,000.

His visibility could soar in the coming weeks, as the United States tries to make the most of the home-field edge in the 15th World Cup. The U.S. team was strengthened by several European-based players in late May, but Meola is as important as any player on the 22-man roster.

The United States' competition in Group A is Switzerland, Colombia and Romania, and all three have superb forwards who will be attacking an American team that has shown indecisiveness in the back.

U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic has spent the past three years experimenting with formations, and he refuses to indicate what he'll throw at Switzerland Saturday in Pontiac, Mich. Whether or not the United States uses the five-man defense preferred by Meola, the overwhelming favorite to start in the goal, he is considerably better prepared than he was for his first World Cup.

With 85 caps -- the international soccer term for games played -- Meola is regarded as a veteran, but he's all of 25, still a young age in a position in which the best often don't mature until their 30s.

Meola was five months past his 21st birthday and eight months past taking Virginia to a share of the NCAA championship when he was made the U.S. starter for the 1990 World Cup. A week before the 1989 collegiate championship, he blanked host Trinidad & Tobago, 1-0, in the match that clinched the World Cup berth, but the jump from college to Italy was a bit much.

The Americans opened with a 5-1 loss to Czechoslovakia that followed a sleepless night for Meola.

"It was our first World Cup and some of us were 21 years old," Meola said. "We were very naive in our approach, to think that we were going to press from minute No. 1 and keep it up all game."

After the Czech game, the United States had respectable one-goal losses to Italy and Austria. "Every other game in Italy had a feeling-out period for 20 minutes, in which nothing happened," he said.

Meola is wiser and fitter. Thanks to dietary changes encouraged by his wife and his dedication to conditioning, the nickname of Butterball he grew up with in Kearny, N.J., seems incongruous. He's never been in better shape, and his mental condition, hindered by Milutinovic's refusal to disclose a lineup, got a boost when Meola was named team captain.

More than the field players, goalies need game action to stay sharp, and Meola probably would have been better served if he had been able to make more of a go of it in England's Second Division in 1991 and 1992. His technique has improved, but Meola said he still relies a great deal on his athleticism, which made him a 13th-round selection in the amateur baseball draft in 1987.

"I used to do everything just on athletic ability," Meola said. "I still don't have the greatest technique in the world, but I'm learning."

And what of his acting career?

"It's one of my ambitions," Meola said. "I did a Western over Christmas. 'The Desperate Trail.' It was a small budget, $3 million. You don't know anybody in it."

Soccer fans do.

APPEARANCE LEADERS

The all-time player appearance leaders for the U.S. National team:

Player .. .. .. .. .. Games .. .. Years

Bruce Murray .. .. .. 93 .. .. .. 1985-93

Marcelo Balboa ... .. 90 .. .. .. 1988- present

Tony Meola . .. .. .. 85 .. .. .. 1988- present

Desmond Armstrong ... 84 .. .. .. 1987-94

Paul Caligiuri ... .. 83 .. .. .. 1984- present

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