Meola's parents were Maria Meola, a homemaker, and Vincent Meola, a professional soccer player and barber. They came to the United States from Avellino, Italy, where Meola's father had played for a second division soccer club. Meola and his older brother grew up in Kearny, New Jersey, alongside immigrants from Italy, Scotland, Ireland, and other European countries. Soccer was the favorite sport in the area and as soon as Meola could stand up, he began kicking a soccer ball.
Meola's first coach did not consider him to be a good player. "He just stuck me in goal because he thought I was fat and couldn't run," Meola said. "None of the kids ever wanted to go in goal because they wouldn't get to run around. But I liked being the team's last defense." By the time Meola was a senior at Kearny High School, he had developed into an accomplished athlete. At six feet, one inch tall, and 205 pounds, he played both baseball and soccer. He played briefly in the New York Yankees minor league system in the early 1980s, but his prime ambition was to be a soccer player. In 1987 Meola got his first experience playing in a World Cup environment, when he starred for the United States in the U-20 Junior World Cup in Chile.
His success in high school earned him a soccer/baseball scholarship to the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, and he entered the university in the fall of 1987. In 1989 he won the Missouri Athletic Club Player of the Year award for leading the UVA Cavaliers to their first National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) soccer championship. In 1988 and 1989 he had 17 shutouts in 33 college games and allowed only 11 goals in 2,922 minutes. He was awarded the Hermann Trophy in 1988 and was named as a first-team All-American in both 1988 and 1989. In the same period he was also a two-year letter winner in baseball.
The offer of a spot on the 1990 World Cup team prompted Meola to drop out of UVA in his sophomore year. He started in four World Cup qualifying games, including a 1–0 victory in Trinidad and Tobago. The result was that the U.S. team qualified for their first World Cup selection in forty years. Meola played every minute of all three World Cup games in Italy. In the interim Meola played for two professional teams in England. He started with the Brighton Football Club, gaining the attention of the pop star Elton John, who owned a competing professional soccer team. John bought his contract, and Meola began playing for the Watford team.
In the United States, Meola had practiced with Team USA since 1992 and had eighty-five caps in international competition. In 1993 he married Colleen Silvers, his high school sweetheart; the couple had two children. In the 1994 World Cup, Meola was again selected as the U.S. goalie. By then he had more than ninety-eight caps in international competition, more than any other goalie in U.S. history, and he was the logical choice to be honored as the team captain. The United States tied Switzerland in their first game, and then went on to a 2–1 victory over Colombia when Colombia's star player Andres Escobar accidentally kicked the ball into his own net. The United States advanced to the second round after beating Colombia, but lost in the quarterfinal to Brazil, the eventual world champions, 1–0 in the seventy-fourth minute of play. For an inexperienced team, the U.S. players made a respectable showing.
Off-season and off-Broadway, Meola costarred in the 1995 show Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding for eight weeks. He also played drums in the band Mushmouth. In 1996 Meola received the Thurman Munson Award for his efforts in helping children's charities. That same year he signed with Major League Soccer (MLS) and joined the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. He was named the MetroStars Bic Tough Defender of the Year and led the league with nine shutouts. He finished the season as Soccer America 's top-rated goalkeeper. By 1998 Meola was recognized as one of the top MLS goalkeepers and became a three-time MLS All-Star. He finished the 1998 season first in both minutes played (2,790) and goals saved (164).
In 1998 Meola moved to the Kansas City Wizards and became one of the most recognizable U.S. soccer players, acting as a spokesperson for such companies as Buick, Adidas, Champs Sport, and The Wiz. His formidable statistics as an MLS player from 1996 to 2001 included: four-time All-Star; first in all-time shutouts (37); leader in goalkeeper charts for minutes played (11,675), games played (130), saves (620), and catch/punches (431); tied for third all-time in wins (56) and fourth all-time in save percentage (.737); played the most consecutive minutes in MLS history (8,083); most saves in one game (15); and longest shutout streak (681 minutes). Because of his achievements, Meola has become one of the most recognizable faces in U.S. soccer history.
An authorized biography of Meola is Mark Stewart, Tony Meola (1996). For biographical profiles, see Meola's official website at http://www.tonymeola.com.