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After Great Progress, Sporting Kansas City Looks For Next Step

Livestrong Sporting Park
file photo
Livestrong Sporting Park

Major League Soccer’s all-star game will offer the best of its league against Italy’s AS Roma at Sporting Park Wednesday in Kansas City, Kan. Though it’s tough to get a ticket for the match, it follows the pattern lately for Sporting Kansas City’s home games with a string of 27 straight sellouts.

Kansas City: soccer hotbed

It was raining Monday afternoon, but fans showed up with umbrellas to watch professional soccer players aim for a soccer goal across Brush Creek in the plaza.

Keith O’Dell works at Whiteman Air Force base. He and his four- year-old son, Aden, watched from under a bridge since they didn’t carry an umbrella.

"I’m also not smart enough to look at the forecast ahead of time," said O'Dell. "We just kind of planned on coming out here, figured we could maybe meet some players, see them kick the ball across the river and have a good time."

The road to fandom

When Kansas City, then known as the Wizards, won the MLS championship at DC United in 2000, no one seemed to notice. Even in a city that was starving for a winner.

The Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since the brief Joe Montana era in 1993 and the Kansas City Royals haven’t reached post-season since their 1985 World Series championship.

But assistant coach and former Sporting player Kerry Zavagnin senses a modicum of progress.

"You know if we were on page 12 of the sports section week in and week out, maybe we made it to page 6. We felt like that was progress and we had a group of fans that greeted us when we came back from D.C. and it’s all we knew at the time," he says.

The franchise’s first owner was the late Lamar Hunt who also owned the Chiefs. He envisioned a soccer-specific stadium, but didn’t live long enough to see it become reality. That dream was fulfilled by a group of six owners whose ambitions caught the attention of Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber.

He cites the Kansas City area as one of the great sports turnarounds in the history of soccer in America. "From the very beginning they wanted to build a state-of-the-art facility and Sporting Park is just that," says Garber. "It’s one of the real great stadiums in our country, but also anywhere in the world."

But it wasn’t just the construction of Sporting Park that mushroomed Kansas City into a soccer hotbed. Quality youth fields sprung up in the area with more on the horizon in a yet-to-be-fulfilled promise by the Sporting owners. Overland Park native and Sporting defender Matt Besler recalls what it what was like in the youth leagues.

"We used to bounce around," he says. "It felt like every season we were on a different field and the quality of fields weren’t very good, but somehow we made it work and that’s all changed today."

 Besler earned his second nod as an All-Star this year, but this one is special since it’s home.

"It means everything," he says. "It’s such an honor to be named an all-star, but I think it’s just a huge honor for the city to host this game and our city definitely deserves it."

Looking forward

What is happening in Kansas City, however, is part of a bigger picture through the eyes of the owners of Sporting Kansas City.

Owner Robb Heineman says the first goal is for Sporting to consistently win championships. And the other?

"We want to win a World Cup and I think there’s a responsibility for all of us as Major League Soccer owners to build as good of a youth development program as we can to help achieve that goal," he says.

Sports have an economic and social impact on our community and, as a sports reporter, I go beyond the scores and statistics. I also bring the human element to the sports figures who have a hand in shaping the future of not only their respective teams but our town. Reach me at gregechlin@aol.com.
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