KANSAS CITY, Kan. – In some ways, this week represents a homecoming for Tony Meola. In others, he's discovering just how much the soccer landscape has changed in the city where he enjoyed his greatest MLS success.
Meola was in goal when the then-Wizards won the 2000 Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup, earning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors. He was there too to help KC snare the 2004 US Open Cup.
He hadn't been back since the end of that season, but while the club has rebranded and moved across the state line, the 2012 Sporting side and the 2000 Wizards have a couple of key things in common.
One is Sporting manager Peter Vermes, who anchored the Wizards backline in 2000. The other link, which has much to do with the first, is a stifling defense.
“Once we got a goal, you were finished,” Meola told MLSsoccer.com in a sit-down on Monday, a day ahead of the United States' World Cup qualifier against Guatemala at Livestrong Sporting Park. “It didn't matter. We didn't lose a game that way. We were a stingy team, so it doesn't surprise me – with the way Peter played – that they don't like to give up goals.”
Meola, who also starred for the MetroStars and Red Bulls, still holds the league record with 16 shutouts in 2000, when he was the league and MLS Cup MVP. Sporting's Jimmy Nielsen leads MLS with 14 this season – and could tie Meola's mark with clean sheets in the club's last two regular-season matches.
And while Vermes was the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 2000, Meola said – as Vermes does now, about his 2012 club – that success in shutting down opponents starts up front.
“The key is that they defend with 11 guys,” he said. “In this day and age, that's what you need. You can't defend with seven or eight guys doing all the work. Our two forwards were Mo Johnston and Miklos Molnar, and those two were convinced that they could mark four backs. That was their mentality. They were going to make things tough for you.”
The final piece fell into place, Vermes said, when a player renowned for his offensive prowess accepted his role in that end-to-end defensive philosophy.
“The key for me is that right from the start, Preki bought into the fact that he wasn't just going to play when we had the ball,” Meola (pictured at right, celebrating KC's conference championship win with Jimmy Conrad and Jose Burciaga in 2004) said. “He was going to play when we didn't have the ball. He didn't have to do the same kind of work that Chris Henderson or Chris Klein did, but he had to work. He had to get into position. And it worked. It worked for four years.”
Meola is also a US national team legend, and tonight at LSP, the United States need only a draw against Guatemala to advance to the Hexagonal stage of CONCACAF qualifying. Despite that secure footing and high-profile friendly wins in Italy and Mexico, Meola is reserving judgment on second-year USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann so far.
“What I look at is, 'Are we going to qualify for the World Cup and how are we going to do in the World Cup?' Because that's the standard that has been set,” said Meola, who had 100 caps for his country and played in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups.
“It has to be automatic that we go to the World Cup, one. And then two, we've got to get out of the first round. Anything can happen from there. But that's how I'll judge Jurgen Klinsmann's era.”
Meola didn't come to Kansas City just to reconnect with his old club and cheer on the USMNT, though. In his capacity as a spokesman for an insurance company, he also came to help a new generation connect with the game.
“I get to travel around the country to different events, and there are two parts to the program,” he said. “The night before the event, we go into the local community – more often than not into an underprivileged community, and we put on a little clinic. The kids have fun with the clinic, and at the end the kids are given a bag: brand-new uniforms for home and away, shin guards, soccer balls, bag and sweatsuits – and then a ticket to the event the following night.”
And while Meola enjoys the technical aspects of the clinics, it's when he talks about that last moment that he really lights up.
“You've got a bunch of kids who enjoy the game who might never have had the opportunity to go to any of these games,” he said. “At the end, I get to be like Santa Claus. It's pretty cool.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.