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 Ol�! Ol�! Ol�! 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!"
Ol�! Ol�! Ol�!
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 Fallin'.)
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 castration."
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 Caf�, 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 patron.
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.