Well before John Harkes and Tony Meola were born, goalkeeper Frank Borghi made history with the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 1950 FIFA World Cup. Yet those three players certainly shared a unique and common bond.
Borghi, who died Monday at the age of 89, backstopped the USA to that stunning 1-0 upset of heavily favored England in Brazil.
Former USA goalkeeper Frank Borghi circa 1989. Photo by Michael Lewis
Some 40 years later, Meola and Harkes played vital roles in helping the Americans to their first World Cup since Borghi and his teammates shocked the world.
During their journey to Italia ’90, both players took advantage of opportunities to meet and talk with Borghi. Harkes got closer when he portrayed the role of USA midfielder Ed McIlvenny in the 2005 movie “The Game of Their Lives,” which recounted the USA’s astounding accomplishment.
Meola met the fellow goalkeeper during a World Cup qualifying match in Borghi’s hometown of St. Louis in 1989, and was impressed with how the National Soccer Hall of Famer comported himself.
“I used to see him quite a bit actually and really enjoyed each time I was able to talk to him,” Meola said. “He was just an upbeat, positive guy. He was excited about where the goalkeepers were going in America and how they were doing. He was certainly the first of the guys who should be on the top of the list when you talk about goalkeepers.”
Meola and Harkes are hosts of Counter Attack on SiriusXM radio.
Harkes said that he is a student of soccer history, so the USA’s past always has intrigued him.
“That group was a special group of players,” Harkes said. “Frank was a special guy. He had a humble, down-to-earth personality. To stay as humble as he was, he was incredible. Walter Bahr, Frank Borghi, these guys I always heard a lot about and their history. He was a massive part of it.”
The 1950 U.S. Men's National Team arrives in Brazil for the World Cup.
For the St. Louis movie scenes, Borghi was around the set a lot, said Harkes, who had an opportunity to talk to him several times (actor Gerard Butler portrayed Borghi in the film).
When someone noted that it was two legends of the game talking together – Harkes and Meola also are members of the National Soccer Hall of Fame – the former midfielder downplayed his role.
“I’m a student [of soccer history],” Harkes said. “I’m a small part of the game. These guys that came before, researching their story was a privilege. When the 1950 team beat England, newspapers thought, when they came back, it was 11-nil. He had a good chuckle about that.”
Meola said that he did not remember talking to Borghi about the 1950 upset much.
“We talked about qualifying for the World Cup and where the game has gone since he played, how excited he was that another U.S. team was in the World Cup back then,” Meola said. “We met over the years at different places. ... Just a good guy to be around and a lot of positive energy.”
Added Harkes: “It was great to have that support.”
Borghi made only nine international appearances during an era when National Team matches were sparse. What might not be known was that Borghi registered a 2-5-2 record, earning two shutouts while surrendering 27 goals. One of those clean sheets was a scoreless draw with Mexico during World Cup qualifying on Sept. 4, 1949, and the other was that historic game in Brazil on June 29, 1950.
Borghi, 25 at the time, and his teammates played the game of their lives that day against what was considered one of the best teams in the world. Joe Gaetjens, who was believed to be executed as a political prisoner in his native Haiti in the 1960s, scored the lone goal in the 37th minute.
“I thought the roof would cave in,” Borghi said years later. “But we had a good chemistry among our club. Five of the guys were from the St. Louis area – [Charles] Colombo, [Gino] Pariani, [Frank] Wallace, Harry Keough and myself. Walter Bahr and [Ed] McIlvenny played together in Philadelphia. Ed and John Souza played together in Fall River, Massachusetts. So the only guy who didn’t play with us was Joe Maca.”
The team’s strategy was simple.
“We played a man-to-man system,” Borghi said. “Bill Jeffrey was our coach. He let the guys coach themselves because he didn’t think we had a chance. … It worked out pretty good.”
Note: The preceding quotes from Frank Borghi came from a 2004 interview.
As long as he maintains a clean bill of health and is available as a starting selection for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, goalkeeper Tim Howard could set some new U.S. Men’s National Team standards at next year’s tournament.
Howard is looking forward to a third World Cup opportunity following his four-game performance at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. He served as Kasey Keller’s backup in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany and did not see game action.
In the previous six World Cups starting with the 1990 tournament, four USA goalkeepers have played in 22 World Cup matches during the modern era: Tony Meola (1990 and 1994), Keller (1998 and 2006), Brad Friedel (1998 and 2002) and Howard (2010).
Among this group, Howard currently holds the best winning percentage (.500) after going 1-1-2 in South Africa. He held a 1.15 goals against average, which is also tops among the modern era goalkeepers.
Here is where Howard stands among the other three goalkeepers in the following World Cup categories:
- 1. Tony Meola 7/7
- 2. Brad Friedel 6/6
- 3. Kasey Keller 5/5
- 4. Tim Howard 4/4
- 1. Brad Friedel 2
- 2. (tie) Tim Howard and Tony Meola 1
- 4. Kasey Keller 0
- 1. (tie) Brad Friedel and Tim Howard 1
- 3. (tie) Kasey Keller and Tony Meola 0
Goals against average:
- 1. Tim Howard (1.15, 5 GA in 390 min.)
- 2. Brad Friedel (1.33, 8 GA in 540 min.)
- 3. Tony Meola (1.71, 12 GA in 630 min.)
- 4. Kasey Keller (2.00, 10 GA in 450 min.)
- 1. Tim Howard (.500, 1-1-2)
- 2. Brad Friedel (.417, 2-3-1)
- 3. Tony Meola (.214, 1-5-1)
- 4. Kasey Keller (.100, 0-4-1)
How appropriate that the 1994 FIFA World Cup Draw was held in Las Vegas – the gambling, glitz, glamour and betting capital of the world.
One of the more promising side stories was the press conference two days before the draw that introduced the formation of a new, 12-team professional league – Major League Soccer, the first national professional first division in the United States since the original North American Soccer League went out of business after the 1984 season.
“We believe the time has never been more right for a professional league to succeed,” former U.S. Soccer president Alan Rothenberg said. “The level of participation in soccer in this country has been growing by leaps and bounds. We have proved in organizing the World Cup that we can convert participants into spectators. I have no doubt a league like this will be successful.”
The new league also got the approval of FIFA, which had been urging U.S. Soccer to form a league since it awarded the World Cup to the USA in 1988.
“FIFA was very pleased to receive the excellent report from Major League Soccer,” current FIFA president Sepp Blatter said. “We are optimistic about the future of soccer in the United States.”
After singer James Brown provided the musical entertainment, the proceedings began.
Comedian Robin Williams did his best singlehandedly – literally – to liven up the event. He put a white surgical glove on his right hand before he picked a ball out of a bowl.
Williams commented on the huge, colorful electronic board that listed the six groups and the 24 teams. “Look! The world’s largest Keno board,” he said.
Through a taped message, President Clinton welcomed the world and an international TV audience estimated at 500 million. Then an array of celebrities and athletes – actor Jeff Bridges, women’s soccer legend Michelle Akers, actress/model Carol Alt, pop artist Peter Max, race car driver Mario Andretti and Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton helped put the World Cup schedule together.
By the time the dust settled, the U.S was scheduled to play Switzerland on June 18 at the Pontiac Silverdome in the first World Cup match to be held indoors; Colombia, considered to be one of the best teams on the planet at the time, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on June 22; and Romania in the same venue on June 26.
“Colombia has beaten the United States twice, 1-0 and 2-1,” said then-U.S. head coach Bora Milutinovic. “It’s time for the United States to beat Colombia.”
Added team captain and goalkeeper Tony Meola at the time: “I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t move on. We’ll have to fight, but we would have to fight in any group.”
But the U.S. Soccer officials were more than a little concerned. Colombia at the time was considered one of the best teams in the world. Up to then, no host team had failed to reach the second round.
“A draw’s a draw,” said longtime U.S. Soccer Secretary General Hank Steinbrecher. “At any rate, Blatter says that the draw really doesn’t matter and you’ve got to play the best teams anyway. We predicted we would lose to Colombia, tie Switzerland and beat Romania. That was the thinking at the time. What happens? We beat Colombia, lose to Romania and tie Switzerland. So the lesson I learned from that? Blatter may be right. The draw really doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s going to happen on the field.”
- Michael Lewis
One of the most successful and recognizable figures to don red, white and blue, U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola had a storied career that spanned three decades, three FIFA World Cups and immense achievement for both the U.S. National Team and Major League Soccer.
Meola’s 32 shutouts and 100 international caps both rank second all-time among U.S. goalkeepers through his 12 years representing the USA from 1988-2006. The Kearny, N.J., native broke onto the scene in 1989 and had immediate success on the U.S. National Team, posting a 4-0-2 record in his first six starts.
The USA’s starting goalkeeper in the 1990 and 1994 FIFA World Cups, Meola served as the captain of the team in 1994. A member of the 2002 World Cup roster, he’s one of only a handful of U.S. players to be part of three World Cups.
One of the top MLS goalkeepers, Meola’s league career was highlighted by a 2000 campaign with the Kansas City Wizards where he posted a league-record 16 shutouts, was named MLS MVP, MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and MLS Cup MVP as Kansas City defeated the Chicago Fire for the championship.
Meola was a two-time, first-team All-American at the University of Virginia, winning the Hermann Trophy following his freshman season and the MAC Award after his sophomore season.
Outside of the soccer realm, Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees drafted Meola out of high school and he lettered in baseball at Virginia. He also briefly played in the NFL, spending 11 weeks on the New York Jets roster as a placekicker.
Date of Birth
Feb 21, 1969