The Kansas City Wizards just became the most supported club in Major League Soccer. Maybe even the world.
Kansas City announced it had agreed in principle to terms with 25-year-old Indian national team standout Sunil Chhetri late Thursday night at Cerner headquarters. Per league and team policy, details of the deal were not announced.
Chhetri is the first Indian player to play in MLS and only the second to play professionally outside of the country. The striker will not be able to play for the Wizards until he can obtain a P-1 visa and the Indian federation sends his international transfer certificate. He is the team’s seventh international signing this offseason.
The Indian media has been reporting the deal for almost a week, and a number of journalists took part in the 10:30 p.m. video conference call Wednesday night – Thursday morning in India – from the opposite side of the globe at Cerner offices in Manyata, India.
The Wizards are getting a player who has scored 16 goals in 35 caps for his national team and is widely regarded as India’s most talented player. Chhetri, who will wear No. 19, is finally getting an opportunity to test himself outside of India after a move to Queens Park Rangers in England’s second division collapsed because of work-permit issues, while other trials didn’t result in a contract.
“I am very happy and optimistic,” Chhetri said. “I'm looking forward to getting to know my teammates and the city of Kansas City, and I am going to come to training and give my best every day.”
Chhetri trained with Kansas City in Arizona for a week earlier this postseason and was released by his I-League team, Dempo SC, last week. Manager Peter Vermes said the 2009 Indian player of the year fit in with the team almost immediately, developing a especially strong partnership with Josh Wolff while playing underneath the team’s forwards.
Although he has had limited time to train with the team, Vermes tipped the 5-foot-7 playmaker for early success after watching him fit in so seamlessly during the preseason.
“He already has soccer inside of him,” Vermes said. “It’s not a thing where he is thinking about the game. It’s already inside himself. That type of player is easily put into a team and is right away useable.”
Off the field, Chhetri is sure to be a very valuable asset as well. Judging by the attention Chhetri’s move to Major League Soccer generated in India, Kansas City finds itself uniquely positioned to market its brand – and by proxy Cerner – in the second-most populous country in the world. That's something that hasn't escaped the Wizards ownership group or Vermes.
“He’s an extremely talented soccer player,” Vermes said. “It just so happens that he comes from a great country in India where there are about a billion people. Hopefully, those people become fans of the Kansas City Wizards in the future because of the success he’ll bring to our team.”
But until further notice, the focus is on the field. Chhetri arrived in Kansas City on Tuesday and has been training with the Wizards this week. He will miss the season opener against D.C. United while the team completes his paperwork.
With more than 1 billion of his countrymen waiting to cheer him on, Chhetri will become the eighth player from Asia to play in MLS. It’s a challenge, and a privilege, for which he has been preparing for a long time.
“I just want to put my best foot forward, do my best for the club and improve,” Chhetri said.