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WORLD CUP ’94: 17 DAYS and COUNTING : Meola Hoping to Get a Grip : He Still Hasn’t Been Named Starter, but U.S. Chances Likely in his Hands

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sal Rosamilla sighed, realizing he once again would have to come to the defense of his bestfriend since childhood. “I’m sick of the vampire joke, you know, the one that says he’s scared of crosses,” he said, referring to Tony Meola, goalkeeper for the U.S. soccer team.

They are goalkeepers’ worst nightmare. Not vampires. Crossing passes. They come darting in from the corners of the field like stealth bombers, too often, even in heavy traffic, finding their targets--heads-up, wide-eyed strikers who know how to hit ‘em where the goalkeeper isn’t.

A goalkeeper has two choices--wait until he senses where the pass is directed and position himself in front of the net accordingly or take the initiative by charging off his line to intercept the ball. Neither is foolproof against a well-placed cross, but the goalkeeper can be assured of one thing: If he makes the wrong choice, he will be blamed for the ensuing goal.

That, at least, is how a former goalkeeper sees it.

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“I don’t know what people are watching,” said Rosamilla, who played for Columbia University. “Nobody likes to come off their line, but Tony is willing to take a rush and pick off a cross better than anyone who is going to be in the World Cup.

“It’s unbelievable that he’s taking so many hits. Maybe it’s because he was everybody’s poster boy in 1990, and, now that he’s been the king for four or five years, people want to see the king fall.”

It is a much discussed topic among followers of the U.S. national team in Kearny, which is virtually everyone in the community of 35,785 that calls itself “Soccer Town U.S.A.,” why one of their favorite sons, Antonio Michael Meola, is not more appreciated.

They even protest because a commercial that began appearing nationwide Monday, promoting the offensive wizardry of a shoe company’s latest soccer footwear, features Meola allowing one goal after another.

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But another way to look at it is that Meola would not have been asked to star in the commercial if he were not so appreciated. After all, he is the United States’ best-known and highest-paid soccer player, reportedly earning $500,000 a year from contracts with the U.S. national team, a German glove manufacturer and other sponsors.

He has played in more than twice as many full international games--84--as any other U.S. goalkeeper, had shutouts in two of the most important matches in the national team’s history--1-0 against Trinidad and Tobago in 1989, earning the United States its first World Cup berth in 40 years, and 2-0 last summer against England--and is about to be part of his second World Cup.

And he is only 25.

Considering that many goalkeepers do not reach their prime until their mid-30s, he could, if he remains healthy and motivated, play in four or five World Cups, surpass former English goalkeeper Peter Shilton’s record of 125 for the most full international games and become a star in the projected Major League Soccer.

Such greatness was predicted for him while he was growing up across the Hudson River from New York City, where he was a standout for Kearny High School in baseball, basketball and soccer.

The Yankees selected him in the 13th round of the 1987 amateur draft as a center fielder, but his high school baseball coach, Joe Rubbone, said that he would have gone much higher if it had not been apparent to scouts that Meola’s sights were set not on the World Series but the World Cup.

That dream was inherited from his father, Vinnie, who played for Avellino in the Italian professional league’s second division before emigrating to the United States in 1958 and becoming a barber.

Still, Meola played outfield and third base at the University of Virginia for two years before deciding to focus on soccer. Bob Gansler, U.S. coach at the time, called on him at the end of his second year at Virginia, and he spent the next season shuttling back and forth between his college and the national team.

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In a remarkable double, he shut out Trinidad and Tobago at Port of Spain in the United States’ final World Cup qualifying game in 1989, then, less than a week later, led Virginia to the NCAA co-championship in an overtime tie against Santa Clara.

But Meola’s most memorable game was the 2-0 shutout against England in the U.S. Cup last summer, when he made 15 saves. Afterward, English captain David Platt said that the only thing separating Meola from Europe’s goalkeepers was a contract.

Actually, he had one after the 1990 World Cup. He played briefly with both Brighton and Watford in England’s second division, only to discover that he lacked the quickness necessary to play at that level. Upon returning to the United States, he enrolled in a rigorous workout program at a Syosset, N.Y., tennis club to improve his reflexes. Other graduates include Martina Navratilova, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi.

Another improvement in his physical condition was prompted by his marriage last August to his high school girlfriend, Colleen. Once known as “Meat” to his teammates, Meola is leaner than he has been in years because Coleen never includes red meat on the menu when cooking for him at their home near the U.S. team headquarters in Mission Viejo.

Meola, at 6-1, 205, said he is in the best shape of his life.

So that makes it even more frustrating for him to still be wondering about his status as the U.S. team prepares for its June 18 World Cup opener against Switzerland. With only one warm-up game remaining, next Saturday at the Rose Bowl against Mexico, Coach Bora Milutinovic has not announced whether he will start Meola or Brad Friedel against the Swiss.

“I just want a decision to be made,” Meola said recently. “Bora told me, come May, we will know. But, obviously, the plan has changed.

“If I’m going to be the man, I want to be fully ready to play. I would think the team would want the goalkeeper to be ready to play. That’s my only concern, having a guy ready to play in the biggest soccer tournament in the world.

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“I don’t want to get too frustrated because it will take away from, one, my play and, two, the World Cup in general. It’s not affecting my play. In the last four or five matches, I’ve played as well as I can.”

Meola contended last year that he, as team captain, has the support of the other U.S. players, but he now says that he believes they will play equally well in front of him or Friedel. Protecting themselves from the wrath of Milutinovic, the players are noncommittal.

Defender Paul Caligiuri said that the 6-4, 202 Friedel, who played in college at UCLA, is more physically gifted than virtually any other player on the team, but he balanced that by pointing out that Meola has proven himself in big games.

“I don’t think we can go wrong with either one,” he said.

At least for public consumption, that also is Milutinovic’s position.

“I know that the people like to know who is No. 1, but this is not important,” he said. “It is important for both to keep their confidence. Both are good. If we have every position like goalkeeper, we are going to be world champions.”

So Meola waits, his impatience level ebbing and flowing depending on what he has heard or read lately in the media.

He is particularly annoyed when he is described as a big-game player who was forced to work more diligently in practice when Friedel arrived. “Most of the people saying that never even come to practice,” he said.

Or when they say that he cannot handle crosses. “When I got here, that was the biggest asset in my game,” he said. “For two years, I didn’t drop one cross.”

He said that his wife calms him by telling him to focus only on things he can control.

Colleen also has gotten him involved in the acting classes she takes in Hollywood, a craft that he likes so much that he has begun thinking that there might be a career in it for him. Andrew Shue of “Melrose Place,” who played soccer against Meola in high school in New Jersey, has been encouraging him.

“I’ve always been interested in that, but Kearny is not exactly the acting capital of the world,” Meola said. “I didn’t get much information about how to get involved until I came to California. I told everyone I would leave L.A. the day after the World Cup, but--who knows?--there might be something out there for me.”

He, however, is not adept enough at acting yet to hide his feelings from Milutinovic. He said that has not caused a problem between him and the coach.

“It’s like I told him, ‘You wouldn’t want me if I was happy with your decision not to play me in every game,’ ” Meola said. “If I was happy about that, then there would be a problem with me.”

World Cup Player Profile

Name: Antonio Michael Meola.

Born: Feb. 21, 1969, Belleville, N.J.

Height: 6-1.

Weight: 205.

Position: Goalkeeper.

National team debut: June 7, 1988, vs. Ecuador.

Caps: 84.

Little-known fact: Recently admitted to the Screen Actors Guild; his first film, “The Desperate Trail,” is scheduled to open this summer.

Honors: 1986 Parade All-American at Kearny, N.J., High School; 1989 Hermann Trophy winner and Missouri Athletic Club player of the year at University of Virginia; 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup winner; MVP in last summer’s 2-0 victory over England.


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