With professional teams like Sporting KC and the Kansas City Comets, soccer is clearly a popular sport in Kansas City. And there are tons of recreational leagues for adults and kids. But that was not always the case.
Kansas City soccer fans might take it for granted now, but there was a time when people in the area didn't know much about the game. And the story of how this sport grew in popularity is credited to Kansas City's Latino communities, in particular a team called Los Latinos.
"Where you could find pockets of immigrants, you are going to find soccer. Because that was their national pastime," says Cris Medina, executive director of Guadalupe Centers, a social service organization for Kansas City's Latino community.
According to Medina, Kansas City's first soccer team was born at a nearby Catholic church.
"It was called Guadalupe. That was the first Latino soccer team. They were co-sponsored by the church Our Lady of Guadalupe Church."
Medina's father Agustin Medina, better known by his nickname Chino, had played professionally on the Mexican national team for many years before he immigrated to Kansas City with his wife, who was from here originally. When Chino Medina arrived, he looked for other people to play soccer with and found the Guadalupe team.
"They were like blown away," says Medina. "It's like one of the former Royals going to play on a local baseball team."
The Guadalupe team grew into Los Latinos. They would get together to play games regularly on Sundays at Gage Park in the Westside. Later, they would play in Gillham and Swope parks. That's where some of the first soccer fields were in the city. Goal posts were made out of plumbing pipes and two-by-fours.
"They thought we were crazy when we started kicking the ball," recalls Armando Diaz, 83, who played with Los Latinos in the 1950s. "They used to call it kickball, and I said that's not kickball that's futbol."
As Los Latinos team grew, another team formed called Los Internacionales, made up of European immigrants. The players were from countries like Germany, France, Hungary and Croatia. The two teams would play each other regularly and had a healthy rivalry. Diaz says they faced the same challenges.
"When we first started, there were no uniforms here," says Diaz.
He had to bring balls and uniforms from Mexico for both the teams.
"There was nothing here, nothing," he says.
And out of humble beginnings strong connections and relationships were formed.
"We were in a foreign country, so what kept us together was soccer, futbol," remembers Diaz. "And the Europeans didn't speak English either. And we didn't speak English. And so the only thing that kept us together was the little ball right there. Was kicking the ball. Because that's the only language we knew."
Cris Medina was just a kid in those early years, but he remembers how those intercultural connections spread regionally.
"There was a soccer club made up of Polish people in Des Moines. I remember there was a German team, and then in Wichita there was another Mexican team," says Medina. "We'd go to those cities, and they would come to Kansas City and play here."
These were excursions that working people, with families, organized in their spare time out of the love of the game. And it wasn't long before kids like Cris Medina himself started playing, and more and more teams were organized. The sport started to take off in Kansas City.
Tony Tocco is originally from St. Louis but came to Kansas City in the 1960s. He's now the head soccer coach at Rockhurst University.
He says as recreational play picked up around the city with different immigrant groups, social clubs and churches, Catholic high schools started offering the sport to students as early as the late 1960s and 1970s.
Shawnee Mission schools started fielding soccer teams in the 1980s, according to Tocco.
"They don't have the history of soccer documented well in this city. So I think it's important, just like they do for the Negro League Museum in baseball. While there's such a rich history here of soccer and people need to know about it," says Chris Medina.
Though there's no museum documenting it, soccer has become one of Kansas City's most popular sports today, thanks to the early work of Los Latinos.
Suzanne Hogan is a contributor for KCUR 89.3. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Suzanne's grandfather Jose Portuguez, who's from Costa Rica, played on Los Latinos in the early years.