Work in Sports
Meola leads Kansas City over Chicago for MLS title
Updated: Saturday October 28, 2000 11:56 AM
WASHINGTON (Ticker) -- Tony Meola completed the most dominant season by an MLS goalkeeper on Sunday, stopping 10 shots to lead the Kansas City Wizards to a 1-0 blanking of the Chicago Fire and the MLS Cup championship.After setting a league record with 16 shutouts during the regular season, Meola established another mark with five in the playoffs. "I don't even know what to say. It was incredible," said Meola, who was named MLS Cup most valuable player after earning MVP, goalkeeper and comeback player of the year awards during the season. "I thought last week felt good and it wasn't even close." The win brought the first championship for the Wizards and for Meola, and brought another trophy for Wizards investor-operator Lamar Hunt. Miklos Molnar scored the game's only goal in the 11th minute and the league's top defense made it stand up. "Tony was magnificent today, and Miklos came through with the goal we needed, just as they both have all season long," said captain Mo Johnston, one of three Wizards who announced their retirement after the game. Molnar's goal was the result of a defensive breakdown by Chicago, which captured the championship in 1998. Wizards midfielder Chris Klein stole the ball from Diego Gutierrez near midfield and stormed down the right side. He sent a cross into the box that eluded several defenders.
Meola was the U.S. national team goalkeeper at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups and once tried out with the New York Jets. After a difficult stint with the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, he was traded to the Wizards last year and spent most of the season rehabilitating a knee injury.
Celebrating in the locker room, wearing a Kansas City championship T-shirt and a gold medal around his neck, was Wizards owner Hunt, perhaps the most influential figure in U.S. soccer history. The Wizards owner passed up the Kansas City Chiefs-Oakland Raiders game to attend the MLS Cup. Hunt's Chiefs upset the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV to even the score between the AFL and NFL. His Dallas Tornadoes also won the NASL title in 1971.
"There the sport was established. That made everything even, 2-2," Hunt said. "This is a different battle. The battle here is against the bill collector. Here, the battle is to sell tickets."
The game pitted the league's best offense against its best defense. Predictably, Chicago outshot Kansas City 22-6 and hit the post twice, but the Fire couldn't get a shot past Meola.
"We created a good number of chances," Chicago coach Bob Bradley said. "We didn't do well in terms of how we took those chances. Tony made a bunch of saves, but we also hit a bunch of shots right at him."
Stoitchkov, the Fire's flamboyant Bulgarian star, called for the ball early and often and argued with the referee when calls didn't go his way. Heavily marked, he sometimes found space in the wings and rattled the left post with a left-footer from 12 yards in the 25th minute.
He also went down after being sandwiched in the penalty box between Meola and defender Nick Garcia in the 60th minute, but no foul was called.
"Let's not blame the referees," Stoitchkov said. "It's a team loss."
Unusual near misses highlighted the rest of the game. Meola backpedaled as he pushed away a close-range shot by Kovalenko in the 30th minute, set up only because Chris Armas misfired on a wide-open 18-yarder on a set play.
Four minutes later, Chicago defender Diego Gutierrez fell trying to keep pace with Klein on the right wing, leaving Klein with only goalkeeper Zach Thornton to beat. Inexplicably, Klein waited, then passed up the shot for a weak cross that rolled out of bounds.
The weirdest play occurred in the 54th, when Stoitchkov's free kick from the top of the box hit the wall and took a strange bounce toward the net. Gutierrez chased down the ball and lifted it over Meola, but it hit the crossbar from just 3 yards out.
Three Kansas City veterans retired after the game: Molnar, captain Mo Johnston and Alex Bunbury.
The ceremonial coin toss was made by Johann Cruyff, the Dutch great and former North American Soccer League star.
"Little by little, you have to teach to the United States that this is the best game in the world," Cruyff said. "Otherwise, it wouldn't be so popular. But people here are the way they are."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.