Back in the dark ages of US Soccer after the fall of the NASL there were several players who would help pull American soccer out of a multi-decade funk. For all the style and glamour of the original NASL, it didn't directly contribute to national team success. A handful of players that were responsible for that are in town this week to see how different things can be in two decades. Now Chelsea is playing the Seattle Sounders and a majority of the near 60,000 people will be cheering for the local side, not the Champions of Europe.
Here with ESPN is Alexi Lalas. Working for the Sounders is, of course, Kasey Keller. Allstate (who sponsored our ticket giveaway) brought in Tony Meola. There are others here of various eras as well, but it is clear that friendlies pull in eyeballs and sponsorship dollars and national TV.
Fans can meet Tony Meola at the Allstate Fanfest starting at 5PM to the North of CenturyLink Field. Sounder at Heart was able to chat with him for a few minutes this morning on his first visit to Seattle to see a Sounders game in person.
For Meola tonight's match is about many of the same things that it is for you. "Sure, it's preseason, but Chelsea are the European Champions so seeing them should be a treat. With the substitutions in the second half and the atmosphere it should be a fun game. I know that Sounders player Roger Levesque is retiring after the game and that should be special as well."
He knows that the crowd will be large and energetic, while sharing a hope of many around MLS. "It's great to be able to see crowds like this." Meola said. "Maybe some of the people that are here just to see Chelsea discover the Sounders and come to a few games in the future too."
Your ability to meet the former US National Team keeper was arranged by Allstate and their sponsorship of the World Football Challenge. The game has grown in ways that many thought it never would. The money and interest around the sport are helping it grow.
"It's important that we get sponsors like Allstate. They are in their second year with the World Football Challenge and it's good for them and for MLS and US Soccer to get more involved to grow the game." Meola notes. "It's growing from where it was, some teams were struggling, but it's clearly better now. It takes sponsors to get there. Allstate has been a great partner."
A good friend of Meola's is Tab Ramos, he has kids that were involved in the game and his college coach was Bruce Arena. He is still interested in what is happening around development of youth players, and relayed recent conversations with Keller and Lalas and others about how where once the United States was a place that produced keepers it now is seen as capable of producing players at all positions. He credits the Academy system for that success in development.
"There was a time when MLS was hurting the college game because so many players would leave programs early, but now with the Academies it's different, there are options." Meola says. "Some kids will always want to get their education and they can do that. Others can go directly from the Academies to MLS. Even those that do go to school are better players than they were because of the Academy and other youth development programs out there."
Back in the 80s players were discovered from small towns like Lacey or Belleville, often by happenstance. In 20 years players are coming up through a more organized system that is creating better players at every level. That 1990 roster was a largely amateur national team. As the Sounders face Chelsea in a game that they should probably lose, it may be a good moment to remember how far American soccer has advanced in these years.
Tony Meola will be signing autographs starting at 5PM at the Allstate FanFest prior to the game.