Top 50 MLS Cup Moments: #7 The Great Wall
|Kansas City 1||Chicago 0|
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|Although most remembered for his starring role in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, Tony Meola was the third-string goalkeeper on the US roster for the 2002 World Cup, during which they advanced to the quarterfinals.|
#7. The Great Wall (2000)
No goalkeeper in MLS Cup history has ever faced the barrage that came Tony Meola’s way in MLS Cup 2000.
The peppering shots from the star-studded Chicago Fire were relentless – 22 in total, 10 on goal – including one that tore Meola’s right-hand glove, which he still has as a keepsake from that final. The blast that did it? Hristo Stoitchkov did the honors in the final minutes of the match.
“Stoitchkov hits a side volley of a bouncer and it didn’t look dangerous but he hit it so hard, he completely tore the palm of my glove where you can see my hand,” Meola recalls. “When I bounced the ball, I felt the air going into my glove. It’s the only time it has ever happened in my career, including training. I had to switch my gloves out with probably two minutes to go.”
They may have broken through his gloves, but there was no getting by Meola on that day at RFK Stadium. A Miklos Molnar 11th-minute goal was enough for Kansas City, with Meola making an MLS Cup record-setting 10 saves for the 1-0 shutout victory.
“It is rare,” says then-Chicago Fire goalkeeper and current Chivas USA netminder Zach Thornton. “For it to come together like that on that day on that stage in the final, it’s even more rare. It was amazing. Everything came together for him. He’s a great goalkeeper and he had his day on the biggest day.”
For Meola, his MVP season in 2000 was the fulfillment of a promise he made to Bob Gansler, his coach at the 1990 World Cup. The legendary ‘keeper was shipped to Kansas City in a shock trade in 1999 and he would miss nearly the entire season with a knee injury. It was a down season for Kansas City, and by the time Gansler was brought in to right the ship, Meola wanted out.
“I talked to coach and said, ‘I’d really like to go back to New York, do you mind trading me back?’” Meola explains. “He said to me, ‘Here’s the deal. I will do everything in my power to trade you back to New York under one condition: Accept this new contract and play one season for me.’ I said, ‘OK, that’s fair enough. I will give you everything I have for everything you’ve done for me.’”
After MLS Cup 2000, Gansler was ready to hold up his end of the bargain. At the party held hours after the final whistle in the team hotel, Gansler pulled Meola aside.
“He said to me, ‘I assume you want to go back to New York now,’” Meola says. “I said, ‘No, coach. I prefer to stay here.’ I loved Kansas City. If I stayed there forever, that would have been fine with me.”
Meola, who was 31 years old at MLS Cup 2000, was right at home as one of the “misfits,” the nickname the Kansas City players had for their squad. Gansler built his team on veterans like Meola, Peter Vermes and Chris Henderson, who were still in search of success and had something to prove in those early years of MLS. “Confident and extremely hungry,” is how Gansler refers to the squad he assembled.
“He was driven, as many of us are during our lifetime, by lack of success,” Gansler says. “It hadn’t happened for him in New York and I am sure that he went there and there were his friends, Peter Vermes and Tab Ramos, and they were going to take MLS by storm, but it hadn’t happened. I’m sure he was less than overwhelmed about being traded to Kansas City. For the big city slickers, [Kansas City] is a demotion. You’re among the plebeians of the plains here.”
Meola eventually made his return to New York to close out his MLS career with the Red Bulls in 2006. Today, he resides in New Jersey and is the CEO and co-owner of sports apparel company GK1Sports when he's not helping his son navigate the waters of NCAA Division I baseball, where he projects to be a shortstop beginning next year.
Although Meola went on to play another six MLS seasons after that 2000 final, not he nor any other shot-stopper to come after him would ever be able to replicate that magical 2000 season.
“There hasn’t been a goalkeeper performance for a year that comes close to what Tony did for us in 2000,” Gansler says. “He had 16 shutouts and no goalkeeper has shut out teams by themselves. But game in and game out he would make a couple of astronomical stops, the final was just the exclamation mark on a fantastic body of work. No goalkeeper has had a season of the quality that Tony came up with in 2000, and he just finished it up in D.C.”