The upcoming home-and-home series between the Kansas City Wizards and the MetroStars over the next two weekends will be more than just another pair of battles in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. For at the other end of the field from the Wizards will be a former comrade-in-arms, a strange presence between the posts in MetroStars goalkeeper Tony Meola.
Wizards midfielder Diego Gutierrez, who still works from a distance on a nearly daily basis with Meola as a partner in their Kansas City branch of the American Mortgage Company, speaks from experience.
"It'll be strange because we work together on the business side," he said. "I have left teams before, like in Chicago. I still have dear friends like Chris Armas and C.J. Brown and all these guys that I love like brothers, but I have to see them four times on the other side of the pitch."
Gutierrez had a front seat view of Meola's struggles with not having a team to play with after the 36-year-old Kearny, N.J., native was unceremoniously released by the Wizards at the end of last year.
All Meola had done was provide a staunch backbone for the one of the most feared defenses in Major League Soccer during his tenure in Kansas City, including winning MLS Cup 2000, coincidentally after being traded to the Midwest in January 1999 from the MetroStars.
Befallen by a calf and Achilles tendon injury that avoided an early, accurate diagnosis, Meola was sidelined for the latter part of the Wizards' run to MLS Cup 2004 and was forced to watch backup goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi play in the 3-2 loss to D.C. United in the final even though Meola was healthy and ready to play.
"I think he's motivated, not only because he's playing us, but he's happy to be playing," Gutierrez said. "He appreciates the fact that he's in goal again, he's got a team, he's got a job, and he's got a group of guys that he can share with. That's the most important thing, that you're back to playing."
Another player who is especially ready to face his old teammate this Saturday at Giants Stadium is Wizards winger Chris Klein.
"That's going to be great. My first game in MLS was played against Tony Meola. I've told him this many times, he owes me a few because I had wide eyes a couple of times and he stoned me when I was a rookie," Klein said. "I'm very much looking forward to playing against Tony. I'm a good friend of his, but I respect him as a person and a player."
To Klein, Meola's June signing with the MetroStars was no surprise.
"I think the reason he was brought into the MetroStars is pretty simple -- when healthy, he is probably the best goalie in this league. For them to bring him in was a no-brainer. What he can do and what he can bring to the team in leadership and the intangibles that come along with having Tony Meola in the goal -- that's a very positive step for them," said Klein.
"The reason they brought him in were the reasons he's been successful his whole career." Now the Wizards No. 1, Oshoniyi feels he and his former mentor respect each other despite some incendiary remarks Meola made earlier in the summer to the Kansas City Star in reference to the Wizards early-season struggles in 2005.
"I would think that Tony definitely has a respect for me. I don't think he expected our team to do as well as we have been doing with him gone," Oshoniyi said. "But I think he has respect for my talents and being a No. 1 guy and continue to have a successful team.
"The way everything went down last year was a little awkward for both of us just given the situation and how well the team ended up playing and how far we ended up going. It's one of those situations where the front office makes decisions. I was happy that I was able to finally get a chance to prove my worth as a starter."
According to Klein, Meola left Kansas City reluctantly, a fact which will simply serve to up his already enthusiastic nature when the two clubs in Meola's MLS career clash.
"It's no secret that Tony didn't want to leave here. Even if he was traded, Tony would have been motivated - that's just his personality," said Klein. "Even when he was traded here from the MetroStars, he wanted to stick it to them every time we played them. He's a very competitive person, and that's kind of what fuels him is those types of things."
Gutierrez agreed, emphasizing the return match in Kansas City.
"I think he'll be nice and motivated to come back to Kansas City for the next match," said Gutierrez who will have to wait until the Sept. 10 match to face his former colleague because of suspension. "Hopefully, I'll be given a chance the weekend after in Kansas City, and I'll be able to put one past him."
The fact that Meola's closest friends and his one-time training partner want to stick it to him on the field pay tribute to his fire and his dedication as a professional soccer player. People always want to get under the skin of the ones who have been influential in their lives.
"I'm excited about it. Once I saw he had signed with New York, there were two games that I was looking forward too," Oshoniyi said. "It gives a little bit more excitement to the game because Tony's involved in it. I think it will be great."
Said Klein: "I know he's going to be up for it, and we're going to get the best from Tony, and we wouldn't want it any other way."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.