It had been a while since Tony Meola had attended a soccer match at Red Bull Arena, just a few blocks away from where he played all the time, the famed Harrison courts.
“We drove by today so I could show my kids,” said Meola, who was at the Red Bulls-NYCFC game Sunday as part of being honored as one of the franchise’s best players over its first 20 years of existence. “They said, ‘We know, Dad.’ I saw younger and older kids there today. That’s where winning meant everything, because if you won, you kept playing.”
Meola was part of the festivities at the Harrison courts in 2011, when Major League Soccer held its All-Star Game at Red Bull Arena. Meola played as part of an elite club that faced the Harrison High School team in a memorable evening.
But here was Meola four years later, coming to a place that didn’t exist when he was a kid growing up in nearby Kearny, when he was on his way to becoming one of the most influential soccer players in United States soccer history, when he was helping Kearny gain the legendary nickname of “Soccertown, USA.”
“When I was growing up in Kearny, I never dreamed that a place like this could have existed,” Meola said in a pregame press conference, as the Red Bulls honored him for his selection to the franchise’s all-time team. “My biggest dream was to pick my father (Vincenzo) up and take him to a game and I’m doing that tonight. I’m really excited about that.”
When Meola left the Red Bulls after his second tour with the franchise was completed in 2006, he left a bitter man. Meola gave his all to the Red Bulls for two seasons (2005 and 2006) and thought he had a chance to be the starting goalkeeper in 2007.
But the Red Bulls thought otherwise and released the then 36-year-old Meola, who then continued his career playing indoor soccer for the New Jersey Ironmen of the Major Indoor Soccer League, where he finished his Hall of Fame career two years later.
It was a career that began as a high school standout at Kearny, continued on to the University of Virginia, where he was named the Hermann Award winner as the top collegiate soccer player in the country as a freshman in 1988, to appearances with the U.S. National Team in the World Cup in 1990 and 1994, caps that made Meola a household name with all soccer aficionados everywhere.
“I’d like to think that I was part of the new era in soccer,” Meola said.
Meola played in England for a bit, then was with the Long Island Rough Riders of the United States Soccer League in 1995, when the idea to form Major League Soccer took root in 1996. Because he was a New Jersey native, Meola was allocated to the old New York/New Jersey MetroStars, which played at the now razed Giants Stadium. When the MLS started, Meola was in goal for the MetroStars and remained there for the first three seasons of the franchise.
“I’ve watched this league grow and after 20 years, we’re in a new era of the MLS,” Meola said. “The league has done some great things. I’m just excited to be a small part of the development of the league. I just remember advice my father gave me. He said for me to keep the ball rolling. I’ve kept it going my whole life.”
Meola was asked about his greatest memory playing for the MetroStars.
“I’d have to say that first night against New England, walking out of the tunnel and there were 45,000 people there,” Meola said. “It was a dream to play for a team in my home state, the home team. That was always my goal, to play where I grew up. I can’t believe that it was 20 years ago already. I remember hearing the sound of the crowd in the tunnel. We were the first ones and to do that at Giants Stadium was incredible.”
Meola was also asked about current U.S. National goalkeeper Tim Howard, who ironically once resided in Kearny when he was playing for the MetroStars.
“I’ve done a lot of Tim Howard stuff over the years,” Meola said. “I knew from Day One that he was going to be a very gooe one. He’s another guy who just keeps it rolling. I’m just happy to be a small part of his development. Every time I see him play, it brings back another memory for me. The memories I have of here are incredible. My biggest regret t was that I never won a championship here.”
Meola did win an MLS Cup championship with the Kansas City Wizards in 2000, a year he was named the MLS league Most Valuable Player. In that year, Meola set an MLS record with an astounding 16 shutouts.
Meola remained with Kansas City through the 2004 season and returned home to play with the MetroStars in 2005. A year later, the team was rebranded as the Red Bulls, so Meola spent a total of five years and a club-record 140 games manning the nets for the franchise. No player has logged more.
Since his retirement, Meola has dabbled in other business ventures. He started a line of apparel, called GK1 that was first strictly for goalkeepers. That business has since been bought out by his partner. He was coaching youth soccer teams in his new hometown of Toms River.
But now, Meola keeps busy doing television and radio broadcasting. He hosts a regular call-in show with fellow Kearny High grad and U.S. National teammate John Harkes on Sirius satellite radio and does commentary for FOX Sports.
“I just stumbled into it,” Meola said. “I don’t know how it happened or what I’m doing. If you remember, when it was over, I took two years off from soccer and never thought I’d come back. I just wanted to be away from the game for a while. Now, I don’t want it to end. To think I’d be doing this after all these years, I wouldn’t want to bet your first penny on it.”
Added Meola, “I’m just happy to be involved in the sport. For me, I get to live out a dream, working all the time with Johnny. We have ex-teammates call up the show while they’re driving to talk to us on the air. Without this, I wouldn’t have the chance to talk to those guys. It’s a lot of fun being with Johnny every day.”
Of course, the third part of the Kearny Hall of Fame trio Tab Ramos is still living in New Jersey, working with his soccer academy after serving the U.S. National Team as an assistant coach in the World Cup last year.
Those three Kearny greats have had a great run – and Meola got a chance to relive some of those memories Sunday when he returned home and was honored inside a shiny multi-million dollar facility just down the block from where he always used to play.
“It really is amazing,” Meola said. “When you think of it all, it really is amazing how this all happened.”
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”