The Kansas City Wizards' celebration following their 1-0 victory yesterday over the Chicago Fire in the MLS Cup at RFK Stadium began in the most appropriate of places--the middle of their penalty area, the spot where goalkeeper Tony Meola made one spellbinding save after another to preserve a precarious lead.
Meola was quickly buried in a heap of delirious teammates, the hero of a match that only lacked goals before an appreciative audience of 39,159.
Kansas City players run onto the field to celebrate winning the Major League Soccer Cup against Chicago.
(Stephen J. Boitano - AP)
_____From The Post_____
The Kansas City Wizards defeated the Chicago Fire, 1-0, to win their first MLS Cup title.
William Gildea: Defense rules, no matter what the shape of the football.
Wizards forward Miklos Molnar may not play a pretty game, but he gets the job done.
Notebook: Twenty years after spending a summer with the Washington Diplomats, Dutch legend Johan Curyff returned to RFK Stadium to watch his friend, Chicago's Hristo Stoitchkov.
"It was so surreal when Paul [Tamberino, the referee] finally blew that whistle," said the former University of Virginia and U.S. World Cup keeper who was named Major League Soccer's most valuable player two days earlier. "We had to defend. That's all we had to do. We did it all year and there's no reason we couldn't do it again."
One year after missing the playoffs, the Wizards completed an improbable turnaround with another air-tight defensive performance, this one against MLS's most-feared attack. Meola made 10 saves, few of which were routine, as top-seeded Kansas City registered its 22nd shutout in 39 games.
"The extraordinary for Tony is every day," Kansas City Coach Bob Gansler said. "I don't have to blow smoke in his direction. He has had this kind of year, and he has made these kinds of saves before, perhaps a few more today than just about all other games."
Danish forward Miklos Molnar provided the goal in the 11th minute, dumping the ball into the lower right corner of the net following midfielder Chris Klein's 55-yard run along the right flank and precise cross.
In a stunning postgame announcement, the 30-year-old Molnar, Scottish forward Mo Johnston, 37, and Canadian reserve Alex Bunbury, 33, said they had decided to retire. No explanations were given.
After a jittery start, Meola baffled a second-seeded Chicago side that had been shut out only three times in 32 regular season matches. Yesterday, the Fire had lopsided advantages in total shots (22-6) and corner kicks (8-2), but Meola's acrobatics and Chicago's unimaginative shooting silenced a star-laden lineup.
"Tony, man, he was unbelievable," Klein said. Asked how many Chicago shots appeared to be headed into the net, he added: "About seven or eight. Tony came up big. A 1-0 lead is a great lead for us. Ideally we'd like to get two goals, but one holds up for us more often than it doesn't."
Said Chicago forward Josh Wolff: "Our finishing left a little bit to be desired. We never put anything in the corner, never really made [Meola] have to move his feet. They did well. They hung on for 80 minutes."
Meola's finest stretch came between the 82nd and 86th minutes: a diving, right-handed save on Wolff's one-timer from close range; a reflex stop on Dema Kovalenko's bid following a sweet move past two defenders; and a composed stop of Hristo Stoitchkov's flying volley from 16 yards.
Stoitchkov sent an angled shot narrowly over the crossbar a moment later, then missed badly from the top of the box and failed to draw a penalty kick with an obvious flop.
"That's soccer sometimes," Fire Coach Bob Bradley said. "I thought we had a good start to the game and came out to try to be the aggressor, and then the first time that they were in our end they scored. Then it's up to us to push the attack . . . and we created a good number of chances. We didn't do well in terms of how we took those chances. Tony made a bunch of saves, and not to take any credit away from him, but we also hit a bunch of shots right at him."
Meola was good but also remarkably lucky. In the 54th minute, Stoitchkov's deflected free kick bounced and spun to teammate Diego Gutierrez behind the Kansas City defense. Somehow, Gutierrez clanked the ball off the crossbar from about three yards away.
In the first half, Stoitchkov blasted an angled attempt off the outside of the left post and Meola reacted to push Kovalenko's eight-yard volley over the crossbar.
The Wizards counterattacked effectively throughout the first half, going ahead when Klein took the ball from Gutierrez in Kansas City's defensive end and avoided one Chicago player before crossing into the box. Molnar initially missed the pass, but the ball struck the Fire's Jesse Marsch and returned to Molnar for a simple finish.
Klein is "really fast and he has done that the whole season," said Molnar, who had 12 goals during the regular season. "He ran down and gave some great crosses."
The Wizards continued to attack, with Molnar as their lone forward much of the time. Preki Radosavljevic nearly made it 2-0 in the 14th minute, but his 20-yarder streaked just a foot or two over the bar.
In the second half, Kansas City fell back into a fortified shell, absorbing Chicago's repeated charges and counterattacking when possible. A tying goal seemed inevitable, but Meola stopped everything through regulation and six tension-filled minutes of injury time.
"I'm so emotional right now," Johnston said. "It's unbelievable. It's been a long five years for this club."