Former U.S. national team goalkeeping legend Tony Meola came through town Wednesday as part of a promotional tour duriing the European Championships organized by Fox Soccer Channel.
Between the national team's recent World Cup quallifiers and Peter Nowak's departure from the Union, there was plenty of fodder for an interview.
Meola is a longtime friend of Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakewicz. Both grew up in nothern New Jersey's famed soccer hotbed, a stretch of land along the Passaic River that runs from Newark to Red Bull Arena to the old silk mills in Paterson.
While Germany and the Netherlands were clashing across the Atlantic, Meola and I turned our attention to domestic affairs. Here's the transcript of our chat, which took place on board FSC's quite swanky charter bus.
You know Nick Sakiewicz pretty well. What’s your view of him, and what kind of relationship do you have with him? There are a lot of people in Philadelphia who don’t know him or his history very well, and obviously he made a very big move this week in dismissing Peter Nowak.
I was here with Nick when Nick first got here [to Philadelphia]. I interviewed for a few jobs [with the Union] with Nick, a couple positions that never came to fruition at the time. At the time they weren’t going with a technical director initially.
I like Nick. He knows this league inside and out, and look what he’s done with building the atmosphere here. Obviously everyone wants results, but it’s still a young team. It’s not easy. Everybody thinks it’s easy. It really isn’t. He’s a soccer guy. I like him because he’s an ex-goalkepeer. I think he’ll be able to straighten the ship for sure.
Has what it takes to win in Major League Soccer changed since your playing days?
I don’t think so. You need to be hot at the right time. First and foremost, you can throw the coaches out the window. They don’t win you games, nor do they lose you games. You’ve got to have the right players.
I was able to win three different tournaments in MLS, and what I realized was that there was a four-year period in which the [Kansas City] Wizards were the most winning soccer team in the league.
We did that with consistency. You look at the lineup the year we won the championship: in 28 games we changed the lineup three times. That was probably due to cards and injuries – I haven’t [fully] checked, but you need consistency.
Of course I follow New York because I live there and I played there, and that was always the problem: consistency. If I built a team, that would be my goal, to have a consistent lineup and a consistent group of guys that buy into the program.
What did you make of Tuesday’s U.S. national team game? A lot of people say the U.S. should have won the game because they are a better team than Guatemala, but you have plenty of experience with the difficulty of road World Cup qualifiers.
I think that the result is a good result. Any time in World Cup qualifying that you can go on the road and get a point, that’s a good result. I understand the critics who say the U.S. are better, and they probably are, but these are not easy places to play. I think if you mapped it out before and said you were going to get a tie there, you’d be happy with it.
I think the concerning thing looking at it from a fan standpoint is that in the last 20 minutes of the last two or three games, they looked tired to me. I don’t know. You can look at that Brazil game and say there was a period before the last 15 minutes where they really took it to Brazil, and looked like they had energy, but they looked a little bit tired at the end of the game.
That’s just looking at it from a couple thousand miles away.
What do you make of Jurgen Klinsmann so far? He has tried to change the national team’s style as we know, and this was his first time in a World Cup qualifier in Central America. He seemed to learn some things from the experience.
I like him and I have always liked him. I had time to sit last week, two weeks ago, in D.C. with some of the players. They like him. The telltale is that it is obvious that the guys are on board with everything he is trying to do. You don’t go out of your way when you’re in those situations if it’s not good, as a player, to tell people how good it really is. You skate by.
So that’s the most important thing. No one from the outside has to like it or believe it, but you’ve got to believe it from the inside, and they seem to.
Talking about some of the larger-scale changes that Klinsmann wants to make to soccer in America, how long do you think that’s going to take, and do you think he has the time?
I don’t know that you can – this is not Europe. We all love the idea that we’re going to make it more like Europe. This is not Europe. Kids go to school, college is really important.
In Europe, by the time you’re in college here, they have the belief that they know whether they’re going to be players or not. That’s just not the system here, and I don’t know that that’s every going to change.
But I think the idea to make it more a part of the culture is great. We’ve seen it grow from zero to 60 now over my career, and I think we’re going in the right direction.
There has been some discussion recently about what the goalkeeping situation will be for the U.S. national team after Tim Howard, especially in light of the under-23 national team’s failure to qualify for the Olympics. Who do you think is coming next? Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson have had their moments, but both have also struggled.
They’re young. I read everything after the Olympic qualifiers about Sean Johnson, and they didn’t lose the game or get knocked out of the Olympics on one play. There were 180 minutes prior to that where they could have taken care of business.
They seem to be the two guys. Of course, Brad Guzan might get a couple of years when Tim’s done. It seemed liked for years, as much as it was a luxury, we had myself, Brad [Friedel], Jurgen Sommer and Kasey [Keller]. Tim was always 10 years behind us in age. We took up all the playing time from people, and occupied 15 to 16 years of playing time.
Now, with Major League Soccer, it makes it a little bit easier because these guys are playing every week. At some point, when Tim is done, you’re going to have to go through growing pains with someone. Hamid and Johnson seem to be the two most possible guys.
You may be wondering why I haven't written any personal analysis yet of Nowak's departure. There are a few reasons for this.
First and foremost is that I think the state of the team is, and has been, self-evident. The tactics show it, the results show it, and the reactions from players (both past and present) show it.
I have no interest in lingering over the past at this point. The Peter Nowak era is spoken for and over with. If you want to spend time reflecting, read the report on Nowak's dismissal from by Kerith Gabriel, and the columns by John Smallwood and Marc Narducci.
More importantly, the Union do not have much time to ponder the meaning of what has happened, whether they are interested in doing so or not. John Hackworth has to get this team on the right track in a hurry, and not just because a very potent D.C. United team is coming to PPL Park on Saturday. There is a lot of work to do.
The second reason is that when I heard Meola talk about consistency, I felt he said exactly what I would have written.
We can talk plenty about the Union's lack of goalscoring, and the trading of popular players (and whether you think popularity is a fair standard by which to judge a player's value to a team).
But I think we can all agree that one of the things which most annoyed fans and objective viewers alike about Nowak was his constant changing of the starting lineup.
(Call it an educated guess that Nowak's players didn't like all that changing very much either.)
It's one thing for a team to make use of its depth to be competitive in every game; it's another to demonstrably affect individual and collective momentum by excessive rotation.
The best teams in Major League Soccer are very often the most consistent. That was the case with D.C. United in Meola's playing days; and it's the case with Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders now. Even fans of other MLS teams know about the core players on those rosters, such as C.J. Sapong, Osvaldo Alonso and Javier Morales.
John Hackworth is a pretty sharp tactician, and he knows how to deploy talent when he's got it. As the head coach of the United States Under-17 national team from 2004 to 2007, Hackworth oversaw squads that reached the quarterfinals of the World Championships in 2005 and the Round of 16 in 2007.
Among the players on those teams were plenty of names you've heard of. The 2005 roster included Jozy Altidore, Omar Gonzalez, and Gabriel and Michael Farfan; the 2007 roster included Zac MacMath, Brek Shea and Sheanon Williams. Those of you who've kept a close eye on MLS and college soccer in recent years will likely recognize other players.
So Hackworth gets a healthy dose of benefit of the doubt from me regarding on-the-field matters. That said, I can't resist wondering just a bit about a lineup I'd like to see Saturday night against D.C. United:
UPDATE: I forgot that Lionard Pajoy is suspended from Saturday's game. I still think this lineup would work well in general, though. For this weekend, let's assume Michael Farfan replaces Pajoy's spot on the field.
That's a pretty fluid XI that I think does a good job of balancing attack and defense, and has plenty of creativity and flexibility.
As for substitutions, there are also plenty of options. You only get three in a game, of course, but here's a formation of possible substitutes at just about all the positions on the field:
What's your view of Hackworth, and what lineup do you want to see Saturday night? As ever, I hope you'll have your say in the comments.