Washington — Tony Meola is glad his New York Jets gig didn't work out. After all, kickers never get to be MVP.
Meola, whose 16 regular-season shutouts set a league record, was honored on Friday as the MVP of Major League Soccer.
Instead of the Super Bowl, he's leading his Kansas City Wizards into American soccer's big game: Sunday's MLS Cup against the Chicago Fire.
"I'm speechless," Meola said as he collected the award. "I know that's hard for a lot of referees to believe."
Before this season, Meola was best remembered for his failed tryout with the New York Jets after the World Cup in 1994. He got cut after training camp, then acted in an off-Broadway play before returning to soccer with an indoor team in Buffalo.
"That kicking job's too boring for me," said Meola, when asked if he'd rather be minding a net or peering at uprights. "I have no regrets about any of that. I did it while I was waiting for MLS. I was there 13 or 14 weeks. I think, for now, that's enough to fulfill the childhood dream that I had."
The real dream season was his performance this year with the Wizards. For a span of eight games a league-record 681 minutes he didn't allow a goal.
Meola allowed just 29 goals in 31 games, a 0.92 goals-against average that is second best in league history. Earlier this week, he was selected the league's goalkeeper of the year and comeback player of the year. He is the first goalkeeper to be the MVP in the league's five-year history.
"He was a very resolute warrior coming into this year because he had things to prove," Kansas City coach Bob Gansler said. "Maybe not to others, but maybe to himself. He works for it, he doesn't ask for it. I don't think there's any goalkeeper in the league that works harder."
Meola was the goalkeeper for the U.S. national team at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, but it took awhile for him to rise back to the top of the game after his NFL and acting diversions. When MLS started in 1996, he joined the New York-New Jersey MetroStars and had three unpleasant seasons for a losing, sometimes chaotic franchise.
In 1999, Meola was traded to Kansas City and was called up to the national team for the first time in five years. Then he tore two ligaments in his right knee and missed most of the season.
This year, he's had one of the best years for an American goalkeeper. The national team is calling again, although he's still No. 3 on the depth chart behind Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel.
But there's still time for him to work into position to play a vital role leading to the 2002 World Cup. Meola is 31, a prime age for goalkeepers, who have longer careers than field players.
"That was part of the goal, to get back," Meola said. "I think I'm a full-time player with the national team. I don't think I'm a part-time player like I've been the last couple of months."
In other words, the NFL doesn't have to worry about Meola putting on a helmet again any time soon.
"Maybe they didn't like the fact that he could kick with either foot," Gansler said.