Kansas City is known for its jazz, delicious barbecue, fountains and the Chiefs. But a sterling stadium, 11 returning starters, a growing young audience, a championship-starved metro area and a talented group of locally grown players are transforming Kansas City into something else: a hotbed for soccer.
The buzz is certainly growing, and the expectations for Sporting Kansas City have skyrocketed as well.
“Our goal is to win the East, play for the MLS Cup and, hopefully, win the damn thing,” said Robb Heineman, the CEO of Sporting Club.
Livestrong Sporting Park, the Midwestern soccer mecca that opened last June, is one of the showpieces for American soccer. The state-of-the-art stadium was home to Sporting’s games last year as well as host to the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams.
This year, seven games at the boisterous stadium will be featured on national television (NBC Sports, ESPN and Galavision), and the Olympic qualifying finals will be there March 31 through April 2.
Sporting Kansas City, which holds its home opener at the park on Saturday, came within one game of an MLS Cup appearance last year, losing at home to the Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference final. All 11 starters from that game return this year, and odds makers have picked the team as the favorites in the East and one of the top four to win the Cup.
“ ’Paint the wall’ has got to be our expectation,” said Heineman, who’s fond of using the Twitter hashtag ”#paintthewall.”
The “wall” is the northwestern corner of Livestrong Park where the team proudly displays its three major trophies: the 2004 U.S. Open Cup, the 2000 Supporter’s Shield (given to the team with the best regular season record) and the 2000 MLS Cup trophy.
Not only are those the last three trophies won by the team, they are the only trophies won by a major sports team in Kansas City since the Royals won the World Series in 1985.
Perhaps nobody understands the expectations, the frustrations and the complicated championship history of Kansas City sports more than Kansas City’s five locally grown players: Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Michael Thomas, Kevin Ellis and Jon Kempin.
None was alive to see the Royals victory lap through Kansas City. None has seen the Chiefs even sniff a Super Bowl appearance.
But the memories of that magical Wizards run 12 years ago remain.
The 2000 MLS Cup trophy that’s in the possession of the Hunt family, which owned the team from 1996-2006, will be on display at Livestrong Park this year for the first time. But after this season, it will move to permanent display at the Lamar Hunt Gallery at Arrowhead Stadium.
While a championship this year would put Kansas City on the national sports map and give the team a permanent trophy to display, there are plenty of other signs of soccer’s growing popularity in the region.
“I travel around the country and people are always like, ‘What’s going on in Kansas City?’ ” said Jon Parry, the director of coaching for Sporting Kansas City Juniors, an academy system run by the team that resembles the minor leagues.
The high school and club scene in Kansas City is thriving for both boys and girls.
The high-quality fields at the Overland Park soccer complex are a big draw for local, regional and national youth competitions. Even more fields are in the works, as part of the deal to build Livestrong in Kansas City, Kan.
The Missouri Comets have been revived in the Major Indoor Soccer League.
The 2010 national champion Notre Dame women’s soccer team featured five women from the Kansas City area including Mandy Laddish of Lee’s Summit, who is currently with the U.S. women’s U-20 team.
Major League Soccer held the 2012 SuperDraft at the Kansas City Convention Center in January in conjunction with the National Soccer Coaches of America Association convention.
Seventeen of the Sporting KC Juniors recently earned scholarships to play collegiate soccer.
Sporting Kansas City not only has one of the best soccer venues in America, it also has a deal with KSMO-TV and KCTV to broadcast every Sporting game in high-definition.
The biggest reverberations of the soccer buzz in the long run, however, could come from Sporting Kansas City’s discovery and development of talent in the region.
Sporting’s collection of five young, homegrown players isn’t an accident, and it’s not a ticket-selling ploy. As manager (and also a key player on the 2000 MLS Cup team) Peter Vermes puts it, “We’re not just going to pick (players) because they’re from Kansas City.”
These guys can play.
“If you can win with homegrown talent, then why wouldn’t you do that?” Besler said. “I think a lot of MLS teams don’t have that. Aren’t even close to having that homegrown talent.”
Besler and Sinovic are returning starters from last year’s squad. Besler was an All-Star.
Thomas, one of the fittest guys on the team, is returning after playing in Sweden and will fight for playing time in a crowded midfield.
Kempin, 18, and Ellis, 20, are considered key building blocks for the future. Because of an injury, Kempin will actually begin the season as goalie Jimmy Nielsen’s primary backup.
“I think over the last 10 years, youth soccer in the United States has grown dramatically,” Vermes says. “Within in KC it’s taken, I think, a stronger step.”
Kansas City has produced soccer talent before (Will John, Diego Gutierrez, Ryan Raybould and Scott Vermillion played for the Wizards), but not for years.
Before the Kansas City Wiz were born as one of the original Major League Soccer franchises in 1996, the Kansas City Spurs won the North American Soccer League title in 1969, and the Kansas City Comets played at Kemper Arena in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.
The Wiz, which became the Wizards in 1997, married the growing popularity of youth soccer with television coverage at the dawn of the digital age. According to a recent ESPN poll, soccer is the second-most popular sport after basketball among young people. Many in their 20s and 30s, the coveted target age for Sporting Kansas City and most MLS teams, have never known a world where an American soccer league hasn’t existed.
Sparse crowds and relocation talks almost sabotaged soccer in the early 2000s, but anyone born after 1988 who dreamt of playing professional soccer in this town has almost always had a jersey to wear to image that dream.
Like the Kansas City quintet.
“When I was younger, I used to go out and dream about playing for the team,” Ellis said. “Now I get to wear (the Sporting) crest on my shirt. It feels amazing every day I get to put that on.”
The first of the group to realize that dream was Besler, who was drafted by Sporting KC with the eighth pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. Vermes told The Kansas City Star at the time that drafting Besler “shows you we are able to develop kids from Kansas City, and that’s important because we need to continue to do that as an organization.”
However, the next two pros to come out of Kansas City got away from Vermes.
In the 2010 draft, Thomas, Besler’s college roommate at Notre Dame, was selected by the San Jose Earthquakes one pick before Kansas City in the second round. New England took Sinovic six picks later.
Sinovic joined Sporting KC after New England waived him at the end of the 2010 season. Thomas, who opted to play professionally in Sweden instead of MLS, was signed in January.
“It’s unbelievable. I grew up watching the Wizards,” Sinovic said. “It’s something you aspire to do as a kid and, to have that opportunity to play in front of friends and family, it’s unbelievable.”
All three players came up in the club ranks in Kansas City. They even played for the same coach.
“It’s pretty crazy that it happened,” Besler said. “When you’re growing up and you look around and there are two to three different guys that end up playing professionally, much less on the same team? It’s cool to be back with them. I know them both pretty well on a personal level. They are great guys to have on the team.”
Kempin and Ellis were signed as Sporting KC’s first and second homegrown players out of the team’s development system. A roster rule established by Major League Soccer allows a team to sign players from its youth development system to their first professional contracts.
The academy, as it’s called in international club soccer, allows teams to discover and develop local talent. Every MLS team has one. Nearly every team in the world has one.
In Kansas City, it is slowly becoming a talent pipeline.
“We told our team that we want to have eight or nine (homegrown) kids in the starting XI some day,” Parry said. “Just like Barcelona does, that’s our goal.”
That’s an ambitious goal. Barcelona, with its famed La Masia academy, is the most successful, liked and imitated team in the world.
But the pipeline is only just starting to produce MLS level talent. The current set-up for the Sporting KC Juniors is to copy the senior team’s training methods and style of play. A few players each season get a chance to train and play with the senior team in reserve games.
Over the last two years, more than 25 players have received college scholarships to play soccer.
“When I joined the academy, it was a million times different than playing for a normal club team,” Ellis said. “They treated us like professionals. They wanted us to like act like professionals, and I feel like that helped a lot.”
Three more local players were given tryouts during this preseason: defender Kyle Miller (Overland Park), goalkeeper Scott Angevine (Overland Park) and midfielder Matt Kuhn (Raytown). Miller was drafted by Sporting KC in the third round of the Supplemental Draft. Kuhn was drafted in the fourth round of the Supplemental Draft by D.C. United. All three are recent academy graduates. None has been able to crack the team as of yet; though drafted, they were not offered contracts.
This Saturday, Sporting starts its quest for the Cup with its first home game of the 2012 season against the New England Revolution. The team has already picked up a 1-0 win on the road over D.C. United last weekend. The boisterous Members’ Club section is sold out for the St. Patrick’s Day match. The game itself is nearly a sell-out.
The five guys with the childhood memories of the 2000 MLS Cup and 2004 U.S. Open Cup seasons will wear their light-blue jerseys the proudest. And their goal will be to help KC raise another trophy.
“I use it a lot, but it’s a dream come true,” Thomas said about the cliche. “I supported the Wiz and Wizards all my life. Now getting a chance to play for Sporting Kansas City really means a lot to me. It means a lot to be able to do something for my city, to play in front of all my friends and family, and hopefully … bring a championship back home.”