It was a historic night for Kansas City Wizards goalkeeper Tony
Meola. His team had just clinched a spot in MLS Cup 2000 by
beating the Los Angeles Galaxy, the champagne was whizzing
through the air like tracer fire in the Wizards' Arrowhead
Stadium locker room, and the victors were bouncing together and
booming the Ole! Ole! Ole! chant that makes soccer celebrations
more childish and fun than those of any other sport. But none of
that is what made last Friday evening historic. "I actually wore
underwear today!" Meola yelled, pumping his blood-stained fist.
"I haven't worn underwear since my wedding night! I must have had
that pair since the sixth grade!"
Ole! Ole! Ole!
Thus Meola added one more chapter to his growing legend. It's not
enough that he set an MLS record with 16 shutouts this season, or
that he helped turn the last-place Wizards into the league's
winningest team, or that after missing most of 1999 with a torn
left ACL, he was set to be honored this week as MLS's 2000
Comeback Player of the Year, Goalkeeper of the Year and (in all
likelihood) Most Valuable Player. No, there was one more stunning
feat: Meola did all that without wearing any drawers (or, in
jockspeak, free balling, as sung to the tune of Tom Petty's Free
In aspect and in style, Meola, 31, resembles another
Italian-American swashbuckler, Sylvester Stallone, with one small
difference: Meola's comeback worked. "He's the only keeper in the
league who can win you five to 10 games a season by himself,"
says teammate Peter Vermes, the MLS Defender of the Year. "Tony
can make saves that other guys can't, and he's so good at
distribution that he puts us on the counterattack, whereas other
goalkeepers look for the safe pass to the back."
"He's so smooth about angles," adds Wizards coach Bob Gansler,
whose ties with Meola go back to their days as coach and player
on the U.S. 1990 World Cup team. "Another thing is his
communication with the players around him. Tony used to rip
people's heads off. Now he gives them information without
Sure enough, the only snipping that Meola has performed since his
star-making turn in the '94 World Cup was the removal of his
ponytail. Now married and the father of two, Meola is no longer a
"25-year-old punk," as he puts it, and his game has matured too.
Two years after the New York/New Jersey MetroStars traded him to
the Wizards, Meola is one of the few people who can say, "Kansas
City has opened up a lot of doors for me that might not have
opened in New York." He's the only MLS player to have his own
weekly TV or radio show, and he has both--a television program
called KC Kicks and a radio call-in show, The Wizards Soccer Hour
with Tony Meola. So thoroughly has Meola seeped into the city's
sports culture that the Grand Street Cafe, a tony eatery near the
equally tony Country Club Plaza, proudly serves the Tony Shake, a
60% vanilla, 40% chocolate concoction honoring its most famous
About the only comeback that Meola hasn't completed is his return
to the national team; he's stuck at No. 3 keeper, behind
Europe-based Kasey Keller--who may be the best player the U.S. has
ever produced--and Brad Friedel. It's worth noting, however, that
Friedel has mostly ridden the bench at the club level in England
for two years, while Meola has been winning MLS honors. "I
believe I should be on the national team because I've done
everything [U.S. coach] Bruce Arena has asked me to do," Meola
says. "I respect his decision 100 percent, but like he says, you
don't have to agree with the decision to respect it. He knows
anytime he rings my phone, I'll be there."
For now, at least, Meola has a future full of possibility, from
playing "another four or five years at this level," he says, to
moving to Europe (Italian Serie A team Reggina offered to sign
him in August, but Meola says he didn't want to abandon the
Wizards) to going into broadcasting after his playing days are
done. "Not soccer," he says. "I want to do SportsCenter."
Why limit yourself? The same goes for the Wizards, who'll be
raising a certain silver trophy after Sunday's MLS Cup against
the Chicago Fire at RFK Stadium if Meola can live up to the
T-shirt he wears every game, the one with the word goals crossed
out. Whether he'll be sporting anything else underneath on his
way in and out of the stadium is a different question.
"This was a special occasion, man," he said last week. "Everyone
argues about boxers or briefs, but I say neither. I guess it's my
own sick little world I live in."
Maybe so, but it's a sick little triumphant world.
Meola's comeback worked.