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Apr 11, 2006

Set to reach a milestone

CARY, North Carolina -- Asking a player to remember a game that took place nearly 18 years ago is never easy, but Tony Meola has a vivid memory of his first game in a U.S. national team uniform. A 19-year-old college player at the time, Meola was understandably nervous, and after a not-so-memorable performance, he couldn't help but wonder if he'd get another chance with the national team.

"I took the guy down for the PK against Ecuador and we lost 1-0," Meola said. "That's what I remember. I was getting screamed at by everybody so I thought, hey, they're not inviting me back."

It took a year, but Meola did receive another invite, earning a shutout in his second appearance (a victory against Peru at Giants Stadium on June 4, 1989). Another year later, he was starting for the United States in the 1990 World Cup against Italy in Rome (a 1-0 loss). Suddenly the career that began so inauspiciously was on the fast track to becoming the most storied goalkeeping career in U.S. national team history.

From that first cap almost 18 years ago to the 100th cap he will earn Tuesday night against Jamaica, Meola has been the type of goalkeeper capable of changing a generation. Before there was Brad Friedel starring in the World Cup and in Europe, there was Meola. Before Tim Howard left New Jersey to enjoy a dream season with Manchester United, there was Meola. Before Kasey Keller put his stamp on the national team record book, there was Meola, one of the figureheads of the golden generation of American soccer, a standard bearer who helped inspire countless young players with his skill and unquestioned confidence.

"I started out watching him and looking up to him ... Tony Meola was the best goalkeeper in the world for most of us," said national team defender Eddie Pope. "I remember being ecstatic the first time I got to play with him, so being a part of his 100th cap is special.

"All the guys have talked about it, and it kind of gives you goose bumps to talk about it. As much as he's meant to U.S. soccer, it's amazing."

U.S. coach Bruce Arena had originally planned to give Meola his 100th cap two years ago in a World Cup qualifier against Grenada, but that idea was scrapped after then-Colorado Rapids coach Tim Hankinson chose not to release Pablo Mastroeni until after Colorado's midweek match with the Kansas City Wizards. So, for the KC-Colorado match, Arena decided to send back the three Wizards players he had called up (Meola, Josh Wolff and Kerry Zavagnin).

Meola seemed very likely to have another chance at his 100th before an Achilles tendon injury threatened his playing career.

"A year and a half ago, I was told I was never going to play again, so to be on the soccer field, for me, is just a big thrill," Meola said. "I was told that I would just be lucky to play with my kids one day, and now I'm playing my 100th game for the national team. I'm the most fortunate guy in the world to be in this position."

Even before the injury, it looked like Meola might not get a chance at his 100th cap because of his insistence that any call-up be based on merit and not just as part of a ceremony.

"I told Bruce that I'd rather live with 99 [caps] that I earned than a 100th that you gave me as a gift," Meola said. "I think I've fought my way back into this position for him to at least take a look at me, so I feel good about it."

Meola returns to the national team closer to the form that helped him earn his first 99 caps. He has been solid in goal for the New York Red Bulls, having fully recovered from last year's Achilles tendon surgery. His recent form made it possible for Arena, Meola's college coach at Virginia, to honor Meola the way he wanted to two years ago.

"Tony is one of the players that did a fantastic job in bringing respectability to our national team as well as playing a very important role with MLS," Arena said. "Anytime we have an opportunity to recognize their achievements when they get close to the 100 caps, we have to do it, and certainly that's going to be the case here."

Meola appears to be a long shot for a fourth World Cup, with the U.S. national team's top three goalkeepers -- Kasey Keller, Tim Howard and Marcus Hahnemann -- all playing in Europe. But Meola could be considered if Arena decides he needs a veteran presence on the roster.

"There's a possibility," said Arena, who wouldn't comment on just how good Meola's chances are of making the World Cup roster. "I don't want to answer that. We'll see how he does tomorrow."

Meola isn't just here for the ceremony. He is focused and eager to record his 38th national team victory and 33rd career shutout. He knows how lucky he is to be back and appreciates the ride he's been on these past two decades.

"When you're a kid and all you dream about is playing for the national team and playing in a World Cup," Meola said, "100 [caps] is like a pipe dream. It's been 18 years since the first game I played, and it sounds kind of old, but I'm happy to be a part of it."

Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPNsoccernet and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.