Soccer is everywhere in Kansas City right now. Three professional teams call the city home, massive crowds pack Sporting Park, youth fields are popping up on both sides of the state line and marquee events are starting to stack up in 2013.
The challenge: What comes next?
There won’t be participation trophies and orange slices handed out now just for showing up at Sporting Kansas City games. Not with such high expectations. The league, the U.S. soccer federation, the ownership groups for multiple pro teams, thousands of fans and national observers are counting on Kansas City to become a full-blown soccer city.
Overzealous expectation from overzealous soccer people? Maybe. Hyperbole? A little.
But there’s evidence to support it.
Wait. First things first: What does it even mean to be called a soccer city?
Really? Nothing. It’s a bragging-rights thing. Like most sports expressions, it’s mostly just an honorary title that goes to whatever city is generating the most buzz.
But it holds a deeper meaning for KC. Here, becoming a soccer city would mean that Lamar Hunt, the grandfather of modern American soccer, was right to insist on putting a franchise in Kansas City back in 1996.
That the 30,000-plus dedicated fans at the U.S. World Cup qualifier at Arrowhead Stadium in 2001 are still here.
That the game has meaning and roots and that the dark years of the last decade are a memory.
But more important, it means KC will be less likely to be left out of the picture if something truly big comes around — a World Cup in the United States, perhaps.
It’s a very good time to be a soccer fan in Kansas City.
The city’s main team, Sporting Kansas City, has excelled on the field, and the fan base has grown from a few thousand at a minor-league baseball stadium to almost 20,000 per game over the last few years. The venue those fans are filling, Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., is one of the finest soccer-specific stadiums in the country. And this summer it will draw some big matches.
The MLS All-Star Game — the marquee summer event for America’s top professional soccer league — is coming July 31.
The U.S. Soccer Federation will bring a major World Cup qualifying match to KC when the United States hosts Jamaica on Oct. 11. The federation is hoping that KC can deliver a “pro-U.S.” crowd to lift the Americans to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
And thanks to winning the U.S. Open Cup last year, Sporting KC has booked a spot in a competition that pits the best teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean against one another. It will mean at least two midweek games in Kansas City this summer, potentially against a massively popular Mexican team.
“Big games were always part of the plan,” said David Ficklin, Sporting KC’s vice president of development.
The stadium was designed to accommodate every possible competition, both in terms of the size of the field and the amenities in the stands and locker rooms, Ficklin said.
Sports Illustrated’s senior writer Grant Wahl says that delivering that sort of big-game atmosphere is part of what has established Kansas City’s “soccer culture” so quickly.
“Kansas City is an example that you can make big games part of your culture with the right conditions,” said Wahl, a native of Mission. “Giving the rabid fans the right areas behind the goals (in the Members Stand and the South End), allowed the culture to multiply in a viral sense.”
The viral support for soccer has spread beyond the confines of Sporting Park.
In April, the National Women’s Soccer League will open its inaugural season right here as FC Kansas City takes on Portland Thorns FC at Shawnee Mission North District Stadium.
The Missouri Comets just completed another successful season of indoor soccer at the Independence Events Center. Youth soccer continues to expand with gorgeous facilities like the Overland Park Soccer Complex and plans for more fields in Swope Park and in Wyandotte County.
But there are still questions and hurdles to overcome. So let’s further examine KC’s soccer-city credentials.
The atmosphere at Sporting Park is electric
Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes, before the season, revealed one of the secrets to Sporting’s home success: Opponents hate coming here.
“One of the assistants on another team said to me the other day, ‘We hate coming to your place. We know it’s going to be the longest 90 minutes of the year,’” he said.
The atmosphere for the opener on March 16 lived up to that.
The sellout crowd of 19,868 fans, many standing and singing for a full hour before kickoff, filled the state-of-the-art stadium with noise for a tense 90 minutes as it implored one of the league’s best teams to victory. It was the 17th straight shutout and 29th in the stadium’s brief history.
“I think the draw for anyone comes from the atmosphere of the game, the accessibility of the players and the community feel of being a fan at Sporting Park,” said Laura Byrne, one of the co-founders of the Ladies of SKC supporter’s group.
That’s especially true in the Cauldron, the group of diehards behind the goal on the north end of the stadium. They drive the atmosphere.
Before Sporting Park, conservative estimates pegged membership at a few hundred depending on the game.
Now? Organizers say they have at least 4,000 members.
“Ten years ago if I told someone I was the leader of the Cauldron they either didn’t know what that was or laughed at the small group of ‘crazies’ over in the corner at Wizards games,” said longtime fan Ben Cunningham. “Today, it is cool to be in the section. It is a badge of honor to tell your friends ‘I was in the Cauldron Saturday night.’”
But Kansas City has seen success off the field and on the backs of its fans too. In 2010, the last year of the Wizards, the franchise was near dead last in merchandise sold. After the re-brand and addition of more styles of clothing, Kansas City finished third in the league merchandise sold in 2012.
The big question: Are there more fans out there?
“We know that only a fraction of the metro has been to our games,” Ficklin said. But he’s optimistic: “This is a sports-crazy town. There’s a huge potential for growth. Still.”
There’s a budding culture of winning
Last year, while the Kansas City Chiefs were fumbling their way to the worst record in the NFL and the Royals were turning “Our Time” into “Maybe Next Time?,” Sporting KC was adding to its trophy case and its national profile by collecting the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in front of an energetic home crowd.
After winning that trophy for the second time in franchise history, the club made it accessible to fans. For months afterward, pictures would crop up on Twitter of fans holding the trophy. It attended road trips and birthday parties.
Fans got a chance to hold it. It made them, like the players and owners, hungry for more.
Even though Sporting KC started a little sluggish this year with a 1-1-2 record, the title talk isn’t just wishful thinking. The owners, the fans, the players and the media expect KC to challenge for a title.
“I want to win the MLS Cup,” said goalkeeper and team captain Jimmy Nielsen before the season. “The team, the organization, the fan base, the city want that. We are built for a championship this year.”
During Sporting KC’s last two years, the team has been lucky that the city’s other teams have been bad. Often, monumentally bad.
“Kansas City needed a winner to support, and Sporting has filled that void,” said Robert Houghton, a former organizer in the Cauldron. “They have been putting a quality product on the pitch, and that has lead to a team that has been winning consistently for several years.”
Sporting Kansas City started to put together victories almost immediately after opening Sporting Park. Since June 9, 2011, Sporting KC is 19-6-9 at home in the regular season and has hosted the Eastern Conference final in 2011. If not for the Houston Dynamo — two years running — Kansas City probably would have played for an MLS Cup.
The big questions: What happens to the Sporting Park crowds this year if the Royals are able to turn it around? Or, gasp, the Chiefs? What happens if Kansas City fails to live up to expectations? What if Sporting loses a lot?
There is historical precedent. In 2004, the Wizards had one of the best seasons in league history. They won the U.S. Open Cup and played for the MLS Cup, losing in controversial fashion to D.C. United. But the next season was one of the worst, attendancewise, in Kansas City history as the Hunt Sports Group openly looked for a potential buyer.
“Kansas City needs to put a few more years in the rearview mirror and have consistent support through losing seasons like (the) Portland Timbers have been able to do,” Cunningham says. “That for me is going to be the true test, can this wave of support be sustained through a couple of losing seasons?”
KC can draw and support big games
Thanks to Sporting Park, KC is among the prime destinations for major international matches.
Since opening in June 2011, the venue has hosted the U.S. men’s national team for a key World Cup qualifier, the 2011 Gold Cup, the 2012 men’s Olympic qualifying tournament, the U.S. women’s national team, an Open Cup final, three playoff matches and four friendlies featuring teams from England, Mexico and France.
The biggest match so far was in October, when the United States men’s national team won a key World Cup qualifier against Guatemala in front of a raucous, capacity crowd.
The Jamaica match this year will be even more vital. It will be the last home game for the U.S. in this qualification cycle and figures to be a highly charged atmosphere — the reason KC was selected to host, according to Sports Illustrated’s Wahl.
“(The U.S. Soccer Federation) looks for the best possible place to get three points (a win),” he said. “And the pro-U.S. atmosphere at Sporting Park for the Guatemala game and the 2011 Gold Cup were great signs.”
Jurgen Klinsmann, U.S. Men’s national team head coach, said: “From an energy point of view, it’s one of the best venues in the United States. The stadium itself is a piece of art. It’s thrilling just to be in that facility.”
The All-Star Game also will be a huge showcase event for KC. Unlike in other sports, the MLS match will pit the league’s stars against a big European club. Last year, it was Chelsea of the English Premier League. The two seasons before that, it was the biggest club in the world, Manchester United.
The big question: Can KC pull in large crowds for the other big games, like the CONCACAF Champions League, the biggest club competition in North and Central America?
“Our big challenge,” Ficklin said, is for the club to “explain why the Champions League matters. This is an extremely important competition. We need people to know, ‘Look, if we win this thing, we can go to the Club World Cup and play a club like Barcelona in a meaningful game.’
“That thought alone gives me goosebumps.”
Sporting KC has brought buzz back to the game
Whether it was building a technologically advanced stadium for the wireless-addicted crowds or forming a groundbreaking but ultimately calamitous partnership with Livestrong or having a social-media-addicted owner hold real-time Q&As on Twitter, Kansas City has managed to almost continually generate buzz.
“Kansas City (owners) aren’t afraid to fail. To try bold things,” Wahl said. “You don’t need perfection. You need the attitude to try big things. It comes down to ambition. The most ambitious owners” can turn franchises around.
Even though Kansas City was part of the inaugural MLS season in 1996, KC is often lumped into the vanguard of innovative franchises like Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Philadelphia Union.
“I think the sense is that Kansas City finally got an ownership group (OnGoal) truly dedicated to the team, and that made all the difference,” said Jason Davis, co-host of the podcast “Best American Soccer Show” and writer for ESPNFC.com. “Maybe Kansas City is not seen as the same sort of natural soccer market that Portland and Seattle are, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be spoken of in the same breath.”
The Sounders and the Timbers — the best-supported clubs — had a dense history with the North American Soccer League to latch onto when they started. Right out of the gate, the Sounders had crowds of 30,000 waiting to devour the sport.
Kansas City has a way to go to get to that level. But to be in the conversation is somewhat staggering.
The big question: Have we hit the peak of potential soccer supporters in this town, or are there still more out there to win over?
“There’s always an unknown of what the future will hold. There’s no script that we can follow in soccer,” Ficklin said. “You open a stadium and you do well and how long does that last? Do you continue to grow or do you stabilize? Does the enthusiasm wane? We’ll do absolutely everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen. And we’ll continue to treat our fans better than they’ve been treated anywhere else.”
The signs are all pointing in the right direction. The pieces are all in place. The culture is firmly established. The sport isn’t leaving or receding anytime soon.
But can it turn the corner? Can Kansas City stay a soccer city?
A soccer city can host big, showcase games and deliver big, showcase crowds. Kansas City has done it and will certainly do it again this year.
A soccer city can carry the weight of multiple teams clamoring for attention. Kansas City will certainly be tested.
And a soccer city needs to prove that its love affair isn’t a crush but a full-blown devotion. That it hasn’t been a two-year fling while the city’s more dominant franchises withered and/or retooled. That there are more fans. That it can support multiple teams. That can it can withstand the adversity and continue to thrive.
The owners believe that is possible. The league believes it. U.S. Soccer believes it.
It’s time for the city to deliver.
Charles Gooch is a designer for The Kansas City Star and is the creator of The Full 90, the Star’s soccer blog.