Q&A With Jacksonville Armada FC Head Coach And Technical Director Tony Meola

The former U.S. international discusses his first year as a head coach, building the roster, and more
Jack Bell (@JackBell} | Feb 1, 2016

Tony Meola, who most recently shared a Sirius XM microphone on "Counter Attack" with the former U.S. national team captain John Harkes and had to also step back from the camera at Fox Sports, is back on the soccer field as the new coach of the Jacksonville Armada FC.

As the club prepares for its second year in the North American Soccer League, Meola took time out from a busy schedule that includes building a roster and conducting his first preseason camp (which began on Jan. 18) as a head coach to speak with Jack Bell of

Bell: Will the club train locally or go on the road during the preseason?

Meola: We’re staying in Jacksonville. One advantage of being in Florida is that there are a lot of teams around. There’s Orlando City, and we will play some other MLS teams behind closed doors. A couple of college teams, too. We have games against Philadelphia, Orlando, and the Red Bulls. We’ll also try to establish a home and home with Orlando year after year.

Bell: Tell us about some of your early impressions.

Meola: I made the right choice. The organization and the people in the organization are great. [Owner] Mark [Frisch] is a guy who treats people very well, that’s clear. They’ve done a great job in the community, not only people in front office, but also the players in the offseason have kept the ball rolling, so to speak. I like what I see. I hope we can build on what they’ve done off the field and get it right on the field.

I had been talking with two other groups this offseason. As I was sitting with my wife halfway through one of the other possibilities, this process started picking up. It just kind of felt right. When it just feels right it is. I still had to talk to the guys at Sirius and Fox.

Bell: You’re part of a group of guys who played for the U.S. in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, and then in MLS. Some went on to careers on the sideline but most, like you and John Harkes recently, ended up on the media side of things while more recent players, guys like Jason Kreis, have found their way into management. Do you ever ponder that?

Meola: Well there was [Frank] Yallop, Dominic [Kinnear] and [Peter] Vermes. But it’s kind of strange you don’t see a lot of my guys on the sideline. A lot of the players from my generation are in the media. They’re not out of the game. I’m hoping to use some of those resources, call some of my ex-teammates, taking a book out of what a lot of guys in baseball do, which is rely on their network. I might try to get them to come down, it would be good for players and the organization. I’ve spoken about that with our players because it’s important to use all the resources that you have, and to bring in guys with the knowledge. The players on the team are over the moon that these guys would even think about something like that. But why aren’t more in coaching? I don’t know the answer, it’s kind of strange. There are a lot of smart guys out there.

Bell: With this being your first job as a head coach, are you at all concerned about finding your sealegs?

Meola: I’ve been on a sideline for 25 years. My biggest problem for the last five years was that everyone wanted me to be a goalkeeper coach. For 25 years I’ve been marching the sideline in youth soccer and with the U-20s at a high level. I didn’t want to be a goalkeeper coach. I broke into the national team program with Tab [Ramos, coach of the U.S. U-20 team]. He convinced me to do it, but I think it took two years for me to agree. Then people said, “You’re good at this.”

I would sit back and think about all the things I’ve done all my life. If I’m not good at this I’m going to be in trouble. That’s where my desire to be a head coach grew from. I’ve had some calls recently, but none of the offers were attractive. People still called me to be a goalkeeper coach. The reason I didn’t want to do that is because I know how difficult it is, especially at my age. I don’t know how much my body can take. It is completely different, it’s physical work. I didn’t know if could offer everything that doing the job would entail.

Bell: What appealed to you the most about taking the job?

Meola: It really was Jacksonville and the organization that appealed to me. It’s a great group of people. They are only getting ready for their second year in the NASL, but they do it right, they already do it better than most of teams that I was on when I was playing in MLS. They know how to treat people. We just had a player in who we ended up announcing [Pekka Lagerblom].  He’s from Europe. We flew him in, put him up, and showed him around. We wanted to make sure he was comfortable. We showed him where he’s going to live, the training facilities, we went to an Orlando Magic game because he’s an NBA fan. I don’t know if other teams let you do those things. It’s important. Sitting with a guy you’ve scouted, it’s different sitting across the table and finding out about him. We were able to do that for two days. It makes a difference.

Bell: What are the qualities you look for in a player?

Meola: We look at their soccer IQ. There are boxes to check off. At the top of the scale, we want leaders – leaders and winners. One thing about last year that stuck out is that the Armada FC didn’t win on the road [0W-3D-12L]. Not once. For me that’s about character. I think that on the road sometimes you have to win ugly. Maybe the game doesn’t go your way early on and you have to find a different way to get a result. But you need leaders. That’s why we brought in a guy like [Richie] Ryan [from Ottawa Fury FC]. A guy like Danny Barrow gives us a different dimension. There’s a pattern to the guys we’ve signed and will sign – being a good player is one thing, but are you a good guy for the team and someone your teammates can lean on. Everyone’s great when you’re going well, but what are you like when things are not going well.

Bell: I think people might naturally think that you, as a former goalkeeper, would be more inclined to play a conservative, defensive style. Is that true?

Meola: I say this all the time – I want to play in the attacking half of the field, but not just throw people forward. I want my team to be organized, that’s what I’ve done my whole life – organize teams from behind. If I had to choose between attacking or defense, I’d say I’m an attacking coach. I want my guys to be aggressive in certain areas of the field.

I hate saying that, because then you go out and get shut out and people will say, “Hey, I thought you were an attacking coach.” Look at the 2000 team in Kansas City [when Meola was the MLS’s Most Valuable Player and Goalkeeper of the Year as the Wizards went on to win the league title, a game in which he was the Man of the Match in the final]. All the talk was about the shutouts in KC [a league-leading 16]. Everyone forgets we were one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. We literally never worked on defense, we just had good defenders and I thought I was a good ‘keeper. We rarely worked on defense because we were so busy attacking. That’s why we were successful.

Bell: As the coach and technical director, you have basically remade Jacksonville’s roster. Was that a challenge?

Meola: Keep in mind I’ve been looking for players for the last few months as I was getting into job mode. I was working here before the official announcement for about three weeks. Before that I was in the mode of scouting players. On the media side, I was covering two leagues so I was inherently scouting already. It all kind of fell into place. I had ideas already if I got an NASL job about the guys I’d go after. Some didn’t pan out, some panned out better than I had thought.

The hard part is being the technical director and dealing with contracts, timing, P1 visas, learning all that stuff. I have an assistant technical director in Nathan Walter, who’s great at organizing these things and has a lot of contacts. My phone blows up all day. I thought it would stop after the first week, but it seems that everyone has a player for me. I brought in Jimmy Rooney, who’s super in tune with national team players. He’s been a huge help.

Bell: Where do you think the NASL fits into soccer’s overall scheme of things?

Meola: I know the league. As a whole, I think the NASL needs to do a better job in the Open Cup and get more of a national footprint. I don’t get too involved in comparing MLS and the NASL. I didn’t when I was on the radio, but I get it. The reality is I’m working for the Jacksonville Armada FC. That’s my No. 1 priority. My job is to make us the best team in the NASL right now.

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