Meola set to get his 100th cap against Jamaica

April 10, 2006

CARY, N.C. -- Tony Meola remembers nearly everything about his first game with the U.S. national team, most of all his worries that he might not get a second one.

As a 19-year-old goalkeeper in 1988, he gave up the only goal on a penalty kick in a 1-0 loss to Ecuador. That wasn't the worst part -- he took down a player driving to the net, setting up the goal.

"I was getting screamed at by everybody," Meola said Monday, laughing. "I thought, 'They're not inviting me back.' "

Little did he know. Now 37 with gray hair beginning to appear, Meola will make the 100th international appearance Tuesday night in an exhibition game against Jamaica. It's the final one before coach Bruce Arena chooses his 23-man World Cup roster.

Meola will become the ninth U.S. player -- and the first goalkeeper -- to reach 100 caps -- soccer's term for international appearances. The starter at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, and the No. 3 goalkeeper four years ago, he hasn't played for the national team since May 16, 2002.

"It's just a number, but it's special," teammate Landon Donovan said. "There's not a lot of people in this country or in the world that have hit 100, so he's been around a long time. He deserves it."

At this point, Meola simply feels fortunate to be able to take the field. About 18 months ago, he tore an Achilles tendon. Doctors originally told him he might not play again.

He was released by the Kansas City Wizards, the team he led to the MLS championship during his MVP season in 2000, before he re-signed with his original franchise -- the MetroStars, now called the New York Red Bulls.

Meola was 6-5-4 in 15 starts last season and showed his still has the talent to be a top goalkeeper.

"I'm the most fortunate guy in the world to be in this position," he said. "I had my faith that I would be back here, and I wouldn't have to listen to the people who told me I was finished."

Now that he's healthy, it was the perfect chance for Arena to get Meola his milestone.

"Many of these players did a fantastic job in bringing respectability to our national team, as well as playing a very important role with MLS," said Arena, Meola's coach at the University of Virginia. "I think anytime we have an opportunity to recognize their achievements, when they get close to these 100 caps, we have to do it."

Getting there certainly is an honor for Meola -- he's second to current No. 1 goalkeeper Kasey Keller in career victories (37) and shutouts (32) -- but he isn't approaching this game any differently than the first 99.

And while making the team as one of Keller's backups might not be likely -- Tim Howard and Marcus Hahnemann are likely to get those spots -- Meola at least wants to make the decision difficult for Arena.

"I want to be part of something big again with the national team," Meola said. "I fought back this far, there's no reason not to keep going."

His chances?

"It's a possibility," Arena said. When pressed, he added, "I don't want to answer that. We'll see how he does."

Either way, Meola is comfortable with his legacy. He's one of the most recognizable faces in the history of the sport in the United States, and he even signed as a free agent with the New York Jets after the 1994 World Cup and had a brief acting stint, appearing off-Broadway in "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding."

The football experiment didn't work, but that's OK. He made his name in futbol.

"I love that I've been part of the growth, and I know it was a small part, but every bit mattered in our sport," Meola said. "I love the game."


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press