Tony Meola yelling celebration - Kansas City Wizards
Edward Zurga

Q&A: Sporting Legend Tony Meola on his storybook stint with the Wizards and love of Kansas City

With Major League Soccer’s 25th season temporarily on hold, there is no better time to cast a fond look back at the greatest moments and stories in Sporting Kansas City history. As a proud charter member of MLS and one of the league’s most successful teams, Sporting has been graced by numerous stars whose colossal impacts on the pitch still resonate to this day.

Among Sporting’s longtime heroes is former goalkeeper Tony Meola, who was appropriately part of the inaugural Sporting Legends class in 2013 alongside playmaking maestro Preki and championship-winning coach Bob Gansler. caught up with Meola this week for a Q&A that covered his storybook stint with the Wizards and his eternal fondness of Kansas City.

You spent your first three MLS seasons with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. In 1999, however, you were traded to the Kansas City Wizards. As a New Jersey native, this must have been something of a shock.

This was not a trade that I was very happy about, to be honest. Alexi Lalas and I were both part of the trade from the MetroStars to Kansas City, and neither of us liked how it happened. It was March of 1999, just a few weeks before the season started. I had been told one day at our training complex that I would not be traded—that I was going to stay in New York. Later that day, I was making the seven-mile drive to my house, and I heard on the radio that I was being traded. I called Alexi and he was in the same situation.

Before moving to Kansas City, I remember having a discussion with the club’s general manager Doug Newman. I was honest and told him I wasn’t excited about going there. One of the only things he said that made my wife and I feel okay about Kansas City was that Doug said it was a great place for dogs. We had two golden retrievers and were told that Kansas City had tons of parks and open spaces.

So we got to Kansas City and I started training with this new team. Ron Newman, the head coach at the start of the season, was a great guy but I remember it being a difficult transition. Then one day at practice, a few weeks before our season started, I was playing as a center forward as I often did. This was something I’d done a lot throughout my career despite being a goalkeeper, so it was nothing out of the ordinary. We were doing a drill and I remember Brandon Prideaux barely nicked me. It wasn’t anything malicious or overly physical at all, but it was bad news for me. I immediately knew it was a serious injury and the first concern was missing the entire season.

During my time on the sideline, Bob Gansler became our head coach. I had a serious conversation with him and said, “Hey, I’ll give you all I have for the rest of the year. Then, at the end of the season, I want you to trade me back to New York.” Bob was receptive to that. So I worked my butt off to get fit again, and I got back on the field after four months and 15 days. I played the last few months of that season, and I thought my time in Kansas City was just about done.

Your first year in Kansas City might have been tough from a player’s perspective, but you got familiar with the city during this time. Was it during this time that you really started to love the city?

It really was. First of all, Kansas City is such a great place to raise a family. From the schools to the friendliness to the local pride you see around town, it’s a place that will always be close to my heart. My wife and I found it so pleasant and enjoyable raising our young family there. My expectations prior to arriving in Kansas City weren’t high, but we couldn’t have been more pleased with life at home. I got to know so many great people who I am still close with today.

From a player’s perspective, Kansas City was actually a very good place to be at the time. We had nice, natural-grass training fields at Arrowhead Stadium and had access to the Kansas City Chiefs’ big weight room facility, albeit at weird times of the day. From the player’s point of view, we really did have everything we needed.

From 1999 to 2000, the club flipped a switch. Kansas City suddenly became one of the best teams in the league. What do you remember the most about that transformation?

At the end of 1999, I had a talk with Bob about my future in Kansas City. He said, “Tony, I know I said I would trade you back to New York. But give me one more year. I’m bringing in some players you know well and I think we’re going to have a really good team. Give me one year and then I’ll trade you back to New York.” So heading into the 2000 season, I had decided to stick it out for Bob, and he was a man of his word.

In 2000 we had guys like Peter Vermes, Kerry Zavagnin, Chris Klein, Matt McKeon, Preki, Mo Johnston—we all came together with something to prove. The culture changed immediately. We played three at the back with Peter and Prideaux and Nick Garcia, an extremely hardworking midfield with Klein and Chris Henderson and McKeon and Kerry, and then you had a locker room presence like Mo Johnston who was the soul of the team. Bob also brought in Miklos Molnar, who we obviously know was a fantastic goal scorer. It was a special group, and everything gelled from the start.

I do remember our first game that season where we beat the Chicago Fire 4-3. Peter was absolutely livid about conceding three goals. From that point forward, we demonstrated a great willingness to defend. That was our mindset and we loved doing it. That team will be remembered for its defense, of course, but I also don’t think it got enough credit for its offense. We were one of the top scoring teams in the league that season.

You set MLS records that season with 16 shutouts and a 681-minute shutout streak. Was that the best form you had been in throughout your career, and how big of a role did your teammates play in those records?

I was in good form that season but the whole team had shown a willingness and appetite to defend. That was the biggest part. I felt like I’d been in very good form in 1996 and 1997, but then a few injuries got to me. In 2000 I felt great physically, and that was also key. I remember that shutout streak in particular—everything was clicking for us. We were scoring goals and defending resolutely. We went our first 12 games without a loss before finally losing 3-2 to Chicago. It was at that point where we really knew that they were going to be the team to beat that year.

In the run to 2000 MLS Cup, are there any specific matches that you vividly remember?

The Western Conference Championship against the LA Galaxy was wild. We had to win that third game in the series, and Miklos Molnar scored a penalty kick to give us the result we needed. I remember Miklos wasn’t always our penalty kick taker that year, but he got fouled in the box and immediately grabbed the ball and put it on the spot. Then we had the sudden-death mini game to decide the series, and the Miklos goal assisted by Mo Johnston has obviously been immortalized.

What do you remember about the lead up to the 2000 MLS Cup against Chicago? Despite Kansas City winning the Supporters’ Shield over the Fire on superior goal difference, Chicago was still deemed the favorite to win.

As you point out, we had won the Supporters’ Shield and still somehow felt like the huge underdog. Chicago had won MLS Cup two years earlier and they had tons of incredible players—veterans with national team experience and youngsters who were emerging and really showing promise. You’re talking Dema Kovalenko, Peter Nowak, Hristo Stoichkov, Chris Armas, Carlos Bocanegra, then young guys like Josh Wolff and Ante Razov and DaMarcus Beasley.

In the week of training leading up to the game, I felt great. I was so confident about our chances and loved where we were as a team. But the morning of the match, I actually didn’t feel very well. We had a black tie event the previous night where I was awarded MLS MVP and Peter won Defender of the Year. I hadn’t slept well and I was a little stressed about my family being there. My father had just undergone some cancer treatment and my family had driven him down to Washington, D.C. for the match. All of that was kind of in the back of my mind.

You delivered a vintage performance in MLS Cup with 10 saves in a 1-0 victory. What was going through your mind throughout the match? Were you locked in more so than usual?

I liked our chances when we got that first goal from Miklos. I remember Chris Klein’s long run down the sideline, his cross and then Miklos being able to turn and finish. Because we had been in that position so many times that season, I was confident we’d be able to see it out at 1-0. I felt stronger as the game went on, made a few good saves, but what I remember most was how long it felt. Chicago had a lot of the ball and attacked for much of the game, and when I saw that we would have six minutes of stoppage time in the second half, I literally couldn’t believe it. I had never seen that much stoppage time before. But we actually did a great job during those six minutes. They had lots of possession but didn’t really do much with it. We did an amazing job killing the game off.

What do you remember most about the MLS Cup celebrations?

After the match, we returned to our hotel in D.C. for a celebration banquet. We had players and family members and coaches all get together for a meal and a big celebration. Bob Gansler pulled me aside and said, “Hey, at the start of the season I told you I would trade you back to New York. So I’m going to do that. I’m a man of my word.” And I stopped for a second, looked at him and said, “Thanks, Bob, but I don’t think you need to do that. I want to stay in Kansas City.” And for the next four years, Kansas City was my home. I loved it and my family loved it. To this day, I’m so glad I made that decision.

When you look at the MLS landscape now, what are the defining traits of Sporting Kansas City that you would want to see if you ever found yourself in charge of a club, either as an owner, head coach or general manager?

It’s an ambitious club with excellent local ownership. They’re committed to winning and the culture that Peter Vermes has built is truly special. But the biggest thing that stands out to me is the club’s ties to the community. The sense of community is really what makes Sporting special, with everything they do off the field for their fans, at the children’s hospitals, all of the ancillary events—those things make a real difference and set them apart. Make no mistake, it’s a club that won’t settle for anything less than winning, but the sense of community is really unique and something that always sticks out to me.