When Tony Meola played forward
June 27, 2020

When MLS reopens for its Florida tournament in July, teams will be allowed five substitutions. For those familiar with their history, through 2003, MLS actually allowed four, with the fourth one being reserved for goalkeepers.

Even casual Metro fans should know how the fourth substitute ended: On July 5, 2003, Bob Bradley pulled the old switcheroo, put Tim Howard in midfield, substituted Eddie Gaven for Mark Lisi as a goalie, let Gaven stay in the nets until the ball was put out of play, switched Howard and Gaven, and had Gaven score the dramatic golden goal winner. It's one of the best stories in league history. Even though Bradley was not the first coach to use the loophole to put on an extra field player (at least Dallas and New England tried it before), he was the first to actually make a difference with it. MLS immediately closed the loophole, and Bradley and Gaven's achievement will stand alone forever.

But that famous event was not the first time Metro used its fourth substitution in a league game. (Here we note that the fourth sub was allowed in the Open Cup for years, and wasn't restricted to goalies.) The first such occurrence came on May 11, 1997, when Metro visited Columbus.

Metro came into the game with a 3-6 record, having lost to San Jose at home just two days prior. Carlos Alberto Parreira decided against any rotation, making one change: inserting Jeff Zaun for Braeden Cloutier. Columbus also played two days prior, but were clearly a better team. Metro went down in the 29th and the Crew doubled the lead in the 49th. So, in the 57th minute, Parreira made a rare decision: he put in three subs at the same time.

Out came John DeBrito, A.J. Wood, and Zaun. In came Cris da Silva, Marco Rizi (in his first and only Metro appearance), and Giovanni Savarese (maybe should have been a starter, CAP?). Then, in the 73rd, Mike Sorber went down with an injury. What was Parreira to do?

The Brazilian World Cup winner used the fourth substitution. Unlike the brilliance showed years later by Bradley, he did not utilize the loophole. Instead, Tony Meola put on a regular player's jersey and became a forward. Zach Thornton went in goal.

Meola, of course, had quite a good goalscoring run back in high school, and even scored in the shootout in MLS play. By 1997, however, heft started to be an issue, so he lumbered for 17 minutes, trying his best but rarely seeing the ball. Not that it would have mattered, as three minutes from time, Metro was whistled for a penalty and Thornton let one in for a 3:0 final score.

A rather forgettable loss, and, at the same time, a rather interesting footnote. Seems quite right for early MLS...

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