While Sporting Kansas City and its fans look forward to another top-of-the-table Eastern Conference clash on Saturday at Sporting Park against New York, Sporting also will take some time to look back this weekend with the introduction of Sporting Legends.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
Sporting Legends, which the club officially introduced Friday, aims to honor past club icons and reconnect the players and coaches instrumental in the club’s founding with the growing local soccer community.
The club selected three individuals — Pedrag “Preki” Radosavljevic, Tony Meola and Bob Gansler — for the inaugural Sporting Legends class. The inaugural class will be recognized at halftime of Saturday’s game.
“I think it’s a good moment to have the first induction of two great players as well as Bob Gansler that gave a lot to this organization before it was what it looks like today,” said Sporting KC assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin, who played for Gansler and alongside both Preki and Meola. “They are the pioneers of the game here in Kansas City.”
Since the club, which was founded as the Wiz and went by the Wizards from 1997-2010, rebranded to Sporting KC following the 2010 season, soccer’s popularity has surged in Kansas City.
Of course, it’s important to remember its roots as well.
Gansler, who is the longest-tenured coach in club history, managed the then-Wizards from 1999-2006, guiding the club to its only Supporters’ Shield (given to club with the best MLS record-season record) and MLS Cup championship during the 2000 season. He also coached the club to the 2004 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title.
Both Preki and Meola were central figures on the 2000 squad, which is generally regarded as the best team in club history.
“I could look at the 1989 team that qualified for the World Cup or the 1994 team, but from a league standpoint that was definitely the best year of my career,” Meola said. “We like to joke that we were misfits, unwanted by other teams, but Bob Gansler did a great job bringing us together and making us believe. It’s exciting and humbling, but it also means I’m getting old.”
Preki played nine seasons for the club and remains the all-time leader in goals (71) and assists (98). He was a two-time MLS MVP (1999, 2003) and eight-time MLS All-Star.
“Good times, good memories,” Preki said of his time in Kansas City.
Of course, he’d love to be playing for the club these days.
“The MLS has seen tremendous growth,” Preki said. “Fifteen or 18 years, we were changing in our cars. Quite a few of us basically built this league from scratch. Now, to go around and see all these stadiums and fans, it’s a really great thing to see.”
Meanwhile, Meola, a goalkeeper who spent six seasons in Kansas City, was a five-time MLS All-Star and remains the club’s all-time leader in saves (507). He was the MLS MVP, MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and MLS Cup MVP in 2000.
During that season, Meola recorded a 681-minute shutout streak and had 16 total shutouts, which remain single-season MLS records.
“I never played with another goalkeeper that was as big as he was in every big game,” said Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes, who also played on the 2000 championship team. “He was always on top of his form in every big game. ... He was always there and ready for every big game.”