German model? Sporting KC's Robb Heineman believes new training center can transform USMNT

Robb Heineman

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Since rebranding and moving into Sporting Park just three years ago, Sporting Kansas City have led a push to make their hometown the soccer capital of the United States. Landing a US Soccer national training center only strengthens that claim, says Sporting president Robb Heineman.

“I just think the reputation that soccer in Kansas City has developed is pretty incredible,” Heineman said on Wednesday at a news conference announcing the project. “And I think this whole branding thing we’re doing about being the Soccer Capital of America means something. The fact that we’re going to have tens of thousands of coaches coming here to do their coaching education for A, B and C licenses is huge. This is going to be huge for them, not only from a coaching and refereeing perspective, but also having this asset available for the national team.

“So I think we just keep trying to push the edge of the envelope here in Kansas City, and I think this asset is just going to be a tremendous assistance in that.”

Heineman envisions a place where all of the US national teams will come to train – although conceding that Kansas City's weather will make it an unlikely location for a January camp – and where players of all levels, as well as coaches and officials, can hone their skills.

“When we had the opportunity to build Sporting Park, we wanted it to be the finest soccer stadium in America,” Heineman said. “When we thought about the next phase of the project, which was the development of the youth fields, we thought of how we could do that in a more special way than a standard youth fields project.

“The notion of trying to bring US Soccer in as a partner through their development, their coaching education and their referee education was a primary target for us. To sit here today and have that in our sights as something that is going to happen here in Kansas City is just amazing.”

And he envisions all of that happening by the Copa América Centenario in 2016, although much of the project is still in the conceptual stage.

“We’d love to be a major training site for teams in 2016,” he said, “for not only the US, but I think we’d like to talk to teams like Brazil, Argentina and Chile and some of those, and see if we could have them in residence. That’ll probably mean we will start moving dirt this fall.

"To be candid with you, we haven’t done a lot design yet, and the reason we haven’t is because we want to try and have the best partners with a lot of attributes inside of this thing. From the sports science perspective, we want this to be the most advanced facility in the United States.”

Sporting already had planned to build a training complex not far from Sporting Park, the next stage of an aggressive citywide plan that also includes new fields near their training site on the Missouri side and futsal courts elsewhere in Kansas City, Kan. Having US Soccer on board with the project took it to another level, Heineman said.

“The piece I don’t want to be overlooked by US Soccer in this whole thing is the coaching education piece,” he said. “The blueprint Germany put out there was they had a unified vertical approach to how they were going to go after the game, and a huge foundation infrastructure piece of that is the coaching education. For us to have that here in Kansas City is great. It’s not only great from an economic development perspective, is it going to be fantastic just having that curriculum here.”

While soccer has become a crown jewel of the Village West area where Sporting Park is located, fans of that sport owe a debt to two others.

The area was largely undeveloped in 1997, when MLS was in its second year and the US national team was beginning to enjoy a resurgence on the world stage. That's when plans were announced for Kansas Speedway, which opened in 2001 and began fueling development in the area. An independent minor-league baseball team followed shortly after that, and the then-Wizards used their park as a temporary home while Sporting Park was under construction not far away.

“I don’t know if you can find another situation in America like this,” said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who also spoke at Wednesday's news conference. “This is an unusual partnership, but it’s worked and it’s worked very well. I think it’s going to work very well into the future.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.