FLORENCE, JUNE 9 -- The moment draws near. It's what Tony Meola has worked for, dreamed of, eagerly welcomed as the immense challenge it is. As the United States' goalkeeper in the World Cup, he is about to hold his team's delicate hopes in his usually sure hands.
He's been a pressure player. In his second all-American season last fall at the University of Virginia, he was acclaimed college soccer's player of the year. He shut out Trinidad and Tobago, 1-0, in November as the United States, against the odds, qualified for the 1990 finals. That was pressure.
This is more pressure, stepping out Sunday into the jammed Stadio Comunale, or City Stadium, carrying an almost impossible mission: to stop Czechoslovakia in America's first appearance in the World Cup in 40 years.
"I'm trying to imagine what it's going to be like," he said, his cool green eyes taking on a distant look.
What would the feeling be with the stadium full, the anthems playing, the crowd roaring at the 11 a.m. EDT start, the Czechoslovaks coming at him?
That's a problem, a major problem -- the unknown.
Bob Gansler, the U.S. coach, said his team has "prepared almost optimally." Yet he felt compelled to add, "You can never duplicate what they're going to see out there."
Ironically, Florence is known as a city of secrets that only experience can reveal. The clay-colored buildings are built fortress-like, to keep out enemies. It's a place in which to search for treasure.
Here conducting their own search, the Americans would consider a victory -- even a tie -- a priceless treasure.
"I dream about a shutout," said Meola. "I've been dreaming about it for six months. I won't be satisfied with anything else unless we win the game, 2-1."
He may need a shutout. Under Gansler, the Americans rely almost exclusively on defense -- scoring has not come easily. It's all the more reason Meola carries the teams' greatest burden into the World Cup. It is the United States's first Cup appearance since 1950, before his Italian-born father, Frank, who operates a barber shop in New Rutherford, N.J., played the game around Avellino.
"We can't score three, four, five goals a game," Meola said. "The heart of our team is our defense. That's what's going to get us through the second round, our defense."
He's capable of a shutout. This year he played a half in a shutout of Bermuda. He blanked Malta. Last year he shut out Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador (twice) and Trinidad and Tobago.
A shutout Sunday would give the United States at least a point for a tie; two points for a victory would be about as improbable as Cameroon's opening-day thrashing of Maradona and defending champion Argentina.
The Americans are desperate to make their stand now against Czechoslovakia. That means Meola will be tested as never before, a new experience certain to be filled with pressure and possibility.
"I'm second in aggressiveness to Rene Higuita," said Meola, more animated now, as he is in the nets. Higuita is the wild wanderer from Colombia, a former forward who's come out to midfield dribbling, a scorer on penalty kicks. Meola already has a bit of a reputation around the world. "They say that I'm crazy," said Meola, "but I don't think that's the case."
He's being asked to raise even his impressive standards, to somehow stop some of Europe's dazzling scorers, to realize hopes placed in him by countrymen and family, to make an American dream come true. Should he excel, his treasure could include a better contract when he signs soon with a European club.
He has spoken with Benfica of Lisbon, which lost to AC Milan in the recent European Champions Cup final. He likes the Italian club team Lazio, coached by a hero of his, Dino Zoff, goalkeeper for Italy's 1982 World Cup champions. And the Italians love Meola because he is passionate in his play.
Scouts from major clubs, many of them Italian, will be in the stadiums scrutinizing Meola. His proud parents will be in the stands praying. The son has reached a breathtaking level of soccer that the father was unable to achieve.
"I'm not promising any 'Miracle on Ice,' that kind of deal," he said. "But we'll put on a show."
He's confident. He knows a player in his position has to believe he can win before he can win. If any American player believes, it's Meola.
He has his history of playing well under pressure, and easy-going manner that settles teammates, an honesty that lets him admit he'll be nervous and a confidence expressed in his vow to be himself -- often daring.
He has studied the Czechoslovaks arduously, knows their tendencies -- most of which endanger him. "Ninety percent of their non-penalty scores come off crossing passes," he said. On defense "I think they'll high-press us," defend closely when the Americans try to clear the ball from deep in their end. None of his homework has been particularly encouraging.
Czechosolvakia can score. Forward Ivo Knoflicek and midfielder Lubos Kubic, both who defected but returned to the team, are scoring threats. But, forward Stanislav Griga will have to sit out Sunday's game because he received a red card in Czechoslovakia's final qualifying game.
The Austrian coach, Josef Hickersberger, has been quoted as saying: "I recently went to the United States, where soccer is nothing. It interests no one. Their presence in Italy is useless." Hickersberger has denied making the statement. Meola wonders.
"It's a naive statement," he said. "He probably didn't say it. Maybe it got blown out of proportion. He didn't say anything all along, then comes out with that. I don't understand it."
It's the kind of remark, fact or fiction, that can stir players' emotions, and may be a small part of Meola's mental preparation. "This is 'The Show,' " he said. Then, explaining for the benefit of a few foreign writers: "Back home, they talk about major league baseball being 'The Show.' This is 'The Show.'
"We have to be ready. We're going to be nervous. Who will get that first shot on goal? Who can make that first great give-and-go? In the beginning, we could be feeling each other out for 15 or 20 minutes. After the half, things sort themselves out.
"The first game is the most important game for us. We need somehow to get a point out of the game. The first game will dictate our play against Italy. If we get a point, we won't have to go so much on attack against Italy. If we have to go on attack, that may or may not mean trouble."
Meola knows his history, that once upon a time the Florentines' original favorite pitch was the Piazza di Santa Croce. But he's interested in now because when Gansler says, "The players are going to be the ones who will have to take the exam," the coach is not talking ancient history.
The team was not allowed onto the stadium grass until 5 p.m. today. But Thursday, after the players were brought here from their seacoast training compound to be accredited, the team bus stopped at the stadium. The players walked in for a sneak look.
It was impressive, but nothing more than many of them have seen before. After all, the team has several Olympic team veterans. Still, Sunday will bring people and pomp, the Czechoslovaks and likely a chill to the American players. When they looked into the empty stadium, they still didn't have all the answers for Sunday's exam.