Kansas City Wizards goalkeeper Tony Meola, who has recovered from an Achilles' tendon injury that sidelined him for most of the last three months, voiced his frustration Friday about not knowing whether he'll start in Sunday's MLS Cup against D.C. United.
"I feel great. I'm ready to go," said Meola, who's widely regarded as the best goalie in the league's nine-year history. "I can't even get anyone to talk to me, so I don't know what the deal is. I feel so out of the picture right now. There's nothing I can do about it. All I know is, I feel I'm the best man for the job when I'm healthy, and I am healthy now. I've trained all week and haven't missed a beat, but it's not my decision."
Meola, a former University of Virginia star who was MLS's most valuable player in 2000 when the Wizards won their only championship, started 21 of 30 regular season matches this year, finishing second in MLS in goals against average (1.05) and tied for third in shutouts (seven). However, his injury has limited him to one appearance in the last three months, that coming in the U.S. Open Cup final against Chicago on Sept. 22.
In his place, journeyman Bo Oshoniyi made nine starts in the regular season and three in the playoffs, yielding just 10 goals overall. Oshoniyi is not nearly as experienced as Meola and doesn't have Meola's flair for second-half drama, but he has been steady and his teammates have gotten accustomed to him barking directions from the net. A change at this late stage could disrupt the team's defensive rhythm.
At practice Friday morning, Oshoniyi played on the same side as the usual starters, although it's not uncommon in training for different goalies to work with different units.
"If I get the call, I'm ready to go, and if not, I'll back Tony up and hope for the best," said Oshoniyi, who, other than with Columbus in 1996, has been a reserve throughout his MLS career. "I just want to be holding the trophy at the end. That's what matters the most to me."
Predictably, Wizards Coach Bob Gansler wouldn't say who would start in goal.
"It's no big process," he said when asked about the decision-making method. The media "make a heck of a lot more out of it than the team does. We have two good goalkeepers. One, for two-thirds of the season, showed that he was at least as good as anybody else, and the other guy, for a third of the season, has shown he was at least as good as anybody else."
Gansler said he would follow the usual routine for choosing his goalie on game day: pregame meal, pregame meeting and the announcement of the starting lineup.
The Kansas City players say they are comfortable with either Meola or Oshoniyi.
"When Tony left, it was obviously a big loss for us," Wizards midfielder Kerry Zavagnin said. "Bo has come in and done a good job. The way we performed with both goalkeepers is very similar, so I don't think it really matters to the guys on the field. One of the reasons this team has been successful is because it's very even-keeled. I don't think this has been a distraction at all."
United faced Meola twice during the regular season, beating him in May, 1-0, at RFK Stadium on Jaime Moreno's late goal and falling in July, 1-0, at Arrowhead Stadium.
However, in Meola's nine seasons, United has a 10-8-4 record against him and has averaged 1.6 goals per game.
"It doesn't matter who plays," United Coach Peter Nowak said. "We have to worry about ourselves and not who's in the goal for them."
There are no such controversies stirring in United's camp. Barring a last-minute injury, Nick Rimando will make his 10th consecutive start in goal ahead of rookie Troy Perkins.
The rest of United's lineup also seems set with the return of all-star defender Ryan Nelsen and midfielder Dema Kovalenko from one-game suspensions, which forced them to miss the Eastern Conference final against New England last weekend in Washington. Their re-entry will likely send veteran defender Ezra Hendrickson and rookie midfielder Josh Gros to the bench.
Right-side defender Bryan Namoff was having trouble with a strained quadriceps, but has participated in full workouts the last few days. Hendrickson has also been slowed by a minor leg ailment.
Commenting on his team's postseason run, Nowak said: "I have a special group of players. They make me look like a genius."