Kearny legend Meola earns U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame berth

Photo by Jim Hague/ The local triumvirate of soccer Hall of Famers, namely from left, Tony Meola, John Harkes and Tab Ramos, got together last summer for the Legends game at the Harrison Courts. Meola joined his two former teammates as members of the U.S. National Hall of Fame last week.

By Jim Hague

Tony Meola knew that his name appeared on the ballot for the United States National Soccer Hall of Fame for the first time this year, but the Kearny native didn’t give it much thought.

“To be honest, I never really thought about it,” Meola said. “I was in the car last week and talking with my son and he said, `Dad, what happens if you don’t get in?’ I told him that it doesn’t change anything. I asked him, `Why do you play soccer?’ He said, `I love it and it’s fun.’ I said, ‘Well, I loved playing it and it was fun.’ I thought that if I didn’t make it (the Hall of Fame), it wouldn’t have changed anything. It’s not something I thought about when I was playing. I just played because I loved soccer and it was fun.”

However, Meola started to think about the induction process.

“Once I found out I was nominated, I knew how difficult it is to get in,” Meola said. “I know that some guys don’t get in. It shows just how hard it is.”

As it turned out, it wasn’t difficult at all, as Meola gained entrance into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame last week in his very first try.

The former Kearny High great, who was the goalkeeper on three U.S. National World Cup soccer teams, received better than 90 percent of the vote from the hundreds of voters (sportswriters, contributors and current Hall of Fame members) to gain entrance.

“It’s a huge thrill,” Meola said. “Since it came out today (Wednesday), it’s been a huge weight off my shoulders, because I only let a few people know. When I got the call last week, I was just floored by it. I never thought this was possible.”

Meola joins fellow Kearny greats and former World Cup teammates John Harkes and Tab Ramos as members of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Both Harkes and Ramos gained induction in 2005.

Meola was not eligible for induction until this year because he was still actively playing professional soccer three years ago, the latest with the New Jersey Ironmen in the Major Indoor Soccer League.

Photo by Jim Hague/ The newest member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, Kearny native Tony Meola (left), gets together with former MetroStars teammate Mike Petke (right).

Meola, who ironically was a forward during his senior year at Kearny and scored a then-record 32 goals in a season, was the member of three U.S. World Cup teams, serving as the team’s top goalkeeper in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, then as a reserve in 2002. He earned 100 caps for Team USA and had 37 wins, including 32 shutouts. Meola was also a standout in the Major League Soccer, winning the MLS Cup and league MVP with the Kansas City Wizards in 2000, but he had two tours of duty with the old MetroStars and later the New York Red Bulls.

“I sent out letters to all my teammates and friends who were close to me, thanking them for helping get this honor,” Meola said. “I’m so honored by it all.”

Incredibly, Meola was not even a soccer player when he first started in organized sports.

“Baseball was my first love and I loved playing the game,” Meola said of the sport that he also excelled at during his days at Kearny High.

Meola also played football and was a member of the Kearny Generals youth program before he turned to soccer as an adolescent.

“But no question, I owe it all to soccer,” Meola said. “I wouldn’t have accomplished anything without soccer, without my parents continuing to take me places to play. Soccer got me ready for the rest of my life.”

Kearny High School athletic director John Millar was overjoyed to hear his former pupil was elected to the Hall of Fame. Millar was the long-time head soccer coach at Kearny High and coached both Hall of Famers Harkes and Meola during their high school days.

“It’s just unbelievable to have two Hall of Famers, both who played on the same team,” Millar said. “They were able to take their careers to another level. It’s just a remarkable thing. We’ve had a lot of good soccer people in history come through Kearny. These are just two of them. For me, it was a thrill to see them play, watch them grow up and become fine young men. It’s good to know that I had some part in their growing up. It’s a great honor for Tony, his family, for people locally who still love him.”

Meola said that it was special that he gained induction with former World Cup teammate Claudio Reyna, a native of New Jersey like Meola.

“I was Claudio’s captain in his first World Cup and he was my captain in my last,” Meola said. “No question, he’s my fellow teammate, my fellow Cavalier (both attended the University of Virginia) and fellow New Jerseyan. He’s a class guy and I respect him a lot. I have nothing but respect for Claudio, both on and off the field.”

Meola doesn’t know when the official induction ceremonies will take place. When Harkes and Ramos were inducted in 2005, the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame had a headquarters in Oneonta, N.Y., but that location closed its doors two years ago.

“It’s still a great thing that we’re all going to be in together,” Meola said of his long-time friends and teammates Harkes and Ramos. “Harkesy can’t do all the bragging anymore, because I’m now going to join them. It’s pretty fitting that we’re all in.”

Everyone knew that this day would come, that Meola just had to wait his turn to gain his rightful place with the other two greats who helped to give Kearny the well-deserved moniker as “Soccertown, USA.”

When Meola gets fitted for his red jacket later this year, symbolic of being a member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, then it will become official.

“I look good in red,” Meola laughed. “At least, I think I do.”

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