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U.S. Could Reach Its Goal if he Protects It

“So, what are the latest odds?” Tony Meola asked.

Czechoslovakia, by 1 1/2 goals.

“One and a half goals! Geez! I hope they don’t score half a goal off me,” Meola said.

And it’s 600 to 1 against the United States winning the World Cup.

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“That’s not fair,” Meola said.

“What would be fair?” somebody asked.

“Oh, maybe 580 to 1,” Meola said.

And it’s one to three against the U.S. even scoring.

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“One to three we don’t score!”

Yeah. Sorry, Tone.

“I’ll take it,” he said. “I would definitely take that if I were you!”

So would his father, a New Jersey barber who played soccer in Italy when he was about Tony’s age. So would his mother, who still prays before the statue of the Madonna on her front lawn in Kearny, N.J. And so would his grandmother, who still makes her home in Avellino, just above the ankle of Italy’s boot, but had no idea until recently that her grandson would be coming to her country for one of the world’s most prominent sporting events as the starting goalkeeper for the United States.

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They’ll keep their hands folded and fingers crossed. He won’t be able to.

He is Antonio Michael Meola, he is 21 years old, and he’s got the whole World Cup in his hands.

The fate of the United States rests ultimately with Tony Meola--particularly with how he plays today, against the Czechs, in the first and possibly most morale-influencing of the three games the Americans will play. One mistake by Meola could cost his country advancement to the next round. One goal allowed could be one goal too many, shortening the stay of a soccer team that took 40 years to get here.

“I wouldn’t make this out to be some ‘Miracle on Ice’ kind of deal,” Meola said.

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Fair enough. Yet, imagine what the reaction might be back home in the Stati Uniti if the youngest team in the World Cup field--average age, 23--positioned itself in front of this mere pup of a goalkeeper,somebody 19 years younger than England’s, and beat the odds. Beat or tied Czechoslovakia. Gave the Italians a game to remember in Rome. Beat or tied Austria to reach the second round. Imagine it.

Not an Olympic hockey gold medal, maybe, but a moment to capture America’s imagination, nonetheless.

Imagine putting an entire sport on the map of your country, four years before it plays host to that sport’s showcase event for the first time. Imagine being a boy of Italian heritage, fluent in the native tongue, able to fulfill a lifelong ambition by getting offered a professional contract to come back and play with the best.

“I can,” Meola said. “I can.”

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His coach, Bob Gansler, refers to it as: “The challenge of our sporting lives.” Gansler has no idea if his players are up to this challenge. But he has faith in Tony Meola.

It took months to find the right man to put in goal. For a while, the choice appeared to be David Vanole, the surfer from Manhattan Beach who kept the Americans steady during their World Cup qualifying rounds. Then Vanolne fell out of Gansler’s good graces and the coach attempted to prod better play from Meola by bringing in Kasey Keller, whose presence did more to distract Meola than to motivate him.

Ever since Meola was reunited with the 225-pound, panda-playful Vanole, however, his attitude and his game have brightened considerably. They are roommates now. Vanole keeps Meola on his toes, challenges him to the karate video game that occupies so much of the players’ spare time at their training camp near Pisa, argues surfing vs. skiing, rhythm-and-blues vs. Springsteen and U-2, anything else he can think of.

“I was always kind of a clown,” Vanole said. “I’m the rah-rah guy, loud and obnoxious. The coach might not have liked me because of that, but that was before he got to know me. Now he kind of eggs me on to do more.”

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Vanole is there to support Meola--however and whenever he needs it.

The coaches know Meola has the necessary cool. Gansler, trying and failing to detect stage fright in Meola, finally came to a conclusion. “Hey,” he said, “this kid’s got ice water.”

And, as a big day in the life of American soccer approached, there was no indication anything had changed. Meola looked cool, his shaggy hair cascading down his neck. Meola sounded cool, laughing at the long odds, kiddingly asking a sportswriter to get a bet down for him.

“I saw where the odds on us winning the World Cup were 600 to 1 or something,” Meola said. “Hey, pretty encouraging.”

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Uh, not really, Tone.

“No, the odds have probably gone down,” he said. “OK, OK, I’m kidding. We’re the serious underdogs. How can you possibly put the odds any lower on us when we’ve never won anything in soccer, ever?

“But let me tell you something. This team has already surprised a few people. This team has already been more successful than any American team ever has. Don’t put anything past this team.

“The heart of our team is our defense. I don’t know too many teams in the world that can score two goals against us. If we’re going to win, we’re going to win with defense. I want to see us win this first game 1-0, and I won’t be satisfied with anything less.”

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No?

“No!” Meola said. “Well, OK, unless maybe it’s 2 to 1.”

Bet on this:

He’d even take 2 to 1 1/2.

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