2013 All-Star Game

You've come a long way, KC: How city transformed from backwater into "soccer capital of America"

Sporting fans celebrate a goal at Sporting Park

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USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The pitching mound crowded the sideline, and home plate sat in an expanse of wasted space. Substitutes warmed up in the outfield, below independent baseball’s version of the Green Monster.

Behind the right field wall at CommunityAmerica Ballpark, atop a grassy hill where families lounged on blankets and next to a playground, stood the stand-alone building (see image at right) that housed the Kansas City Wizards locker room. Well, it was theirs on nights when the T-Bones weren’t home, at least.

After matches, reporters passed through the coaches’ miniscule changing room to where head coach Peter Vermes was waiting in the bathroom to deliver his judgments on the 90 preceding minutes.

Sometimes leaning against the lone stall and in front of the double sink, this is where Vermes held court during what could only nominally be called postgame press conferences.

“I say it all the time: The stadium and where this club has come from is unimaginable,” he said Tuesday.

On Wednesday night, in quite the lesson in contrast, Vermes will settle into his seat in the state-of-the-art press room at Sporting Park and face the gathered media contingent as MLS All-Star head coach, one of the men who’s seen Kansas City go from professional soccer backwater to a shining example for the rest of MLS (9 pm ET, ESPN2, UniMas, TSN/RDS, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).

These days, you’d need a few extra hands to count all the “professional soccer’s gone big time in Kansas City” missives being churned out by both soccer types and their mainstream counterparts. This one included.

And they’re all right.

Sporting KC are an integral part of the community now, raking in sellouts, cleaning up among the 18-to-35 demographic and positively oozing ambition. This week, the city is plastered in All-Star signage, from taxis to billboards to massive inflatable jerseys. Thousands – many wearing Sporting swag, a sight unimaginable even five years ago – packed the Power & Light District for Monday night’s Macklemore and Ryan Lewis concert.

It makes you wish you could bottle what’s going on here and transport it to other markets, cities where Major League Soccer’s grip isn’t quite so tight and MLS 2.0 is still just a goal instead of a reality.

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But it’s not that simple, and that’s what makes it so special.

People from all over MLS ask Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman, understandably, for best practices. It’s easy to forget that Kansas City was in the same boat just a few years ago when crowds were sparse and merchandise sales nonexistent.

“There were some dark days for us when we were doing that exact same thing,” Heineman said. “Now the sun’s shining on us and people are talking about what we’re up to. We definitely share ideas and concepts.”

And, boiled down to basics, Kansas City’s success came down to establishing an identity – one your fan base, employees, technical staff and players embrace then shape to make their own.

That and a willingness to invest to buttress that vision with investment. A little bit of good fortune doesn’t hurt, either.

Sporting’s got all that. And some. The past seven years have been a perfect storm of momentum-building events in Kansas City, one monitored by a group of local owners that have read the local head winds with a seemingly prescient accuracy.

They hired Vermes, and stuck with him through some tough times. They lured Manchester United to Arrowhead Stadium (at right) then defeated them in front of a massive crowd of potential acolytes.

Then came the rebranding, initially panned as just another European poseur attempt but now recognized as one of the strongest brands in MLS, and a new, $200 million stadium that has the US national team drooling – and returning. They established a clear identity on the field, too, a physical, breakneck style fueled by young US internationals and gregarious imports.

Most importantly, they win.

Once a lame duck, Sporting are now undeniably cool. They’re forward thinking. They’re willing to spend. They’re responsive to the whims of their mushrooming fanbase. They’ve even managed to make argyle hip. They’re everything the Chiefs and Royals are not.

And as MLS’ best and brightest descend on the City of Fountains, Kansas City is doing its damnedest to claim the title of “soccer capital of America,” an audacious move reinforced by a massive mural stating that aim as you enter downtown.

Portland will certainly have something to say about that. So will Seattle or St. Louis.

But Vermes doesn’t seem to be too concerned with their claims. Not because they don’t have merit, but because he hopes the competition for the title continues to escalate, with the swelling tide of interest in professional soccer raising all boats.

“It's not a bad thing,” Vermes said. “It's a good thing. We can say that we are that, whether other people debate it? Great. Because hopefully it keeps pushing the envelope, and everybody keeps getting better in their markets. We want this game to grow, and it needs there to be that kind of pride.”bb