Tony Meola: “We were young. At least I was too naive to be nervous. You didn’t understand why you would be nervous about a game. I am more nervous thinking about it these days when I was back then, I can tell you that.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
On the night prior to the most important game of his young national team career on Nov. 18, 1989, young Tony Meola couldn’t sleep.
It wasn’t his nerves, but the party going on near the Trinidad Hilton in Port of Spain, where the team was staying.
Trinidad & Tobago fans — soccer and non-supporters — were celebrating the Soca Warriors going to the 1990 World Cup.
Except there was one slight problem: Trinidad had not qualified yet. It still had to play the United States and record at least a draw to book its ticket.
The noise was bad enough that U.S. team officials “came around with ear plugs for everybody because we couldn’t sleep the night before the game,” Meola said.
The hotel also was known as the upside-down Hilton. The first floor was the top and travelers were checked in on the third floor. To get to the 10th floor you had to go down and not up.
On Sunday, Nov. 19, 1989, soccer in the USA was turned upside down. With 20-year-old Tony Meola backstopping the USA, the Americans broke a 40-year drought and qualified for their first World Cup since 1950 with a 1-0 triumph over the Soca Warriors.
“I just remember being excited about the game,” Meola said in a 2016 interview. “We were young. At least I was too naive to be nervous. You didn’t understand why you would be nervous about a game. I am more nervous thinking about it these days when I was back then, I can tell you that.”
Many USA soccer fans, observers and even members of the media were nervous about the future of American soccer. First of all, there was a lot of talk and rumors about FIFA pulling the 1994 World Cup it had awarded to the country in 1988 especially in the wake of the team not qualifying for Italia ’90.
Entering that game this version of the U.S. team was not exactly a scoring juggernaut, home or away. In fact, the Americans tallied but once in their last three matches. They needed a win to advance, Trinidad only a tie.
“The most amazing part of that four-game period that if you go back and look at it, had we given up a goal in any of those games we wouldn’t have gone to the World Cup,” Meola said. “It would have changed any of those results. We were lucky and determined. We had a good group of guys.”
That group of guys was a young team, averaging 23.2 years per player. Paul Krumpe was the oldest in the Starting XI at 26 while Meola was the youngest at 20. The team that performed at the World Cup, one of the youngest in the competition’s history, was about the same age.
At the time, Meola was considered mature for his age and could handle the pressure. If he wasn’t he wouldn’t have been on the team.
Well beyond his age, Meola had plenty of personal soccer challenges that fall. Not only was he attending the University of Virginia, he was the starting goalkeeper of the NCAA Division I powerhouse. Only three months prior, he was given his first international cap by U.S. head coach Bob Gansler in the Marlboro Cup, an international tournament at Giants Stadium.
“It was difficult to balancing school,” said Meola, remembering when the Americans played El Salvador in the penultimate qualifier in St. Louis Nov. 5.
“The guys are studying video tape as was I and was going back to my room and studying school,” he added. “None of it was easy, that’s for sure. I was lucky that Bruce Arena [Virginia coach] was around.”
There were some perks, though.
“When I got back to school, the best part of going back, we joked about it now with my teammates, I always had the most per diem,” Meola said. “it was $25 a day back then.”
Which went a long, long way in 1989, especially when you lived in a house with five other students.
“So when I went back to school and being a week on the road, you went back with $150 in your pocket, you definitely were the guy buying all the groceries.”
Several days prior to the match, the USA arrived at Port of Spain airport, where the team was greeted by thousands of fans.
“They made us wait on the airplane,” Meola said. “We were the last ones off. Security came on and the whole nine yards. We got off the plane and we were greeted by like thousands of fans and they made us parade right past to get off the airplane.”
It wasn’t just at the airport. It was everywhere.
“They were partying in the streets. They were already celebrating,” Meola said. “I remember driving [in], all the people were were spray-painting their house, their car. Everything was red. It was just an amazing atmosphere, In a lot of ways with the all the big rivalries, the U.S. and Mexico, we probably didn’t see that atmosphere like that, still today. They know the next game was coming. Back then, it was treated as the last game.”
On game day the excitement and euphoria did not abate. Hasely Crawford Stadium opened up its gates to fans six hours prior to kick off. Those spectators were entertained by Calypso singers who sang about going on the road to Italy — Italia ’90 — the World Cup.
Even the U.S. team bus got into a traffic snarl at the stadium.
“For whatever reason the bus driver couldn’t get through and we stopped,” Meola said.
About 100 yards short of where the players were to be dropped off.
“It was complete mayhem from that point on,” he said. “It felt it took us an hour to get into the stadium, which was probably only a couple of minutes, but it felt like an hour.
“People were shaking the bus and security guards are trying to get the people back. It was complete mayhem.”
The USA finally got to its locker room and the game kicked off. The stadium, not surprisingly, was a sea of red.
It was an even game as both sides attacked.
The Americans dodged a bullet in the 29th minute when center back John Doyle tripped Philbert Jones in the penalty area, but Argentine referee Juan Carlos Loustau did not whistle a foul or a penalty kick.
“That today, I cannot see them not calling a penalty kick. That was six yards in front of me,” Meola said with chuckle. “I can still hear it. Not calling a PK there was the biggest break we got. Back then its probably a borderline call. Today, it’s 100 percent a penalty kick. We found a way the rest of the game.”
Paul Caligiuri, playing central midfield for the only time in his U.S. international career, found a way to score two minutes later.
After John Harkes was upended by Brian Williams at midfield, midfielder Tab Ramos took a free kick that a teammate nudged back to him. Ramos, now coach of the Houston Dynamo, found an open Caligiuri in the middle of the field. Caligiuri ran past one defender before launching a left-footed shot from 25 yards that found the upper right corner of the net for a 1-0 USA advantage.
Meola, who wore a white cap in the second half to keep out the sun from his eyes, said he it was “exciting.”
“I also remember a thought going through my head: all we have to do is pitch another shutout and we’re in,” he said. “That’s all I could think about: shutout, shutout. shutout.”
The Americans endured. Meola stopped everything sent his way over the next hour to record his fourth shutout in as many qualifiers before the final whistle had sounded.
The USA had won.
The USA had qualified for the World Cup.
Forty years of walking in the international soccer desert was over.
“I was numb. I didn’t know what to do,” Meola said. “We were a bunch of kids running around like we were 10 again. I didn’t really know how to react. I just kind of with all my teammates I followed along. David Vanole [back-up goalkeeper] tackled me first. I was numb.”
In 2016, Meola had an opportunity to watch the game for the first time on ESPN Classics about two in the morning. He started watching in the 20th minute.
“It was strange because I was remembering every single play, every call and every feeling I had in the game,” he said. “It was really strange. I always think about, people write about it, how much further out it gets I don’t know how much people believe it but I still think that game still changed soccer in this country in ways that may never be expressed in money or in sponsorships. It changed the whole face on how we talked [about it]. Up until that point, the thought of getting to the World Cup was non-existent. It was just a pipe dream and now we’re expected to get to the World Cup all the time without fail.”