KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There was a time when there simply wasn’t a great deal to look at in terms of soccer here, and when people almost entirely drove to Arrowhead Stadium to watch the teams on crisp autumn Sunday afternoons instead of the ones on sticky summer Saturday nights.
Frank Klopas was 30 years old then and coming off almost a decade playing professionally in his native Greece. But this was his home in 1996, when Kansas City was truly an outpost in the early days of Major League Soccer.
More than 21,000 fans showed up for the Kansas City Wizards’ inaugural game in 1996, but the numbers at times dwindled to 9,000 and then 8,000 at Arrowhead, which was as unforgiving on soccer crowds as any cavernous NFL relic back then: the old Mile High Stadium, Foxboro and Giants Stadium.
“At Arrowhead, I could pick out my relatives,” Klopas said with a grin on Thursday night. “It was a little different then. I couldn’t do that tonight.”
Here’s what the players with Sporting KC and the Chicago Fire saw on Thursday at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park: a sea of blue and a crowd of more than 19,000 believers that can finally see the light.
No, Sporting didn’t exactly get the moment they were looking for while christening Major League Soccer’s newest (and most unlikely) jewel of a stadium. That was clear as soon as the final whistle blew to cap a scoreless draw against Klopas and the Chicago Fire, a match that failed to live up the hype and might have been better timed when these two proud franchises weren’t stuck in the mud the way they are now.
Instead, Sporting’s goalkeeper lost his bearings en route to a stunning red card, their star striker got fruitlessly tossed on his back in the penalty box and the Cauldron supporters’ section bubbled over and littered their end of the field with trash when things didn’t go their way.
But to think that a real soccer environment like this one — a living, breathing, bouncing one that did, at times, rival the best in the league — now exists in Kansas City? The same MLS old-school Kansas City that has traditionally struggled for attendance, merchandise sales and corporate sponsorships?
The same one that seriously flirted with relocation a decade into their existence?
Believe it. At least for one night, all eyes in MLS were on Kansas City.
“I’m telling you, that’s the first time that I’ve felt that in this city,” said veteran Davy Arnaud, who made his Kansas City debut in front of roughly 8,400 fans at Arrowhead back in 2002. “It was more than I could have imagined. It was a great night for soccer in this city, no doubt about it.”
LIVESTRONG Sporting Park is, without a doubt, one of the top stadiums in the league, if not the best outright. There’s not a bad seat in the house, there’s a Members Only bar for the supporters (beers under $3?) and the Sporting locker room could double as a war room for James Bond and the British Secret Intelligence Service.
And how poetic it is that the stadium sits not far from CommunityAmerica Ballpark, the minor league baseball stadium that served as the club’s temporary and quirky home from 2008 to 2010? Every time a fan pulls into the lot at LSP, they’re instantly reminded how far the franchise has come, from Bull Durham to the big time.
The event Thursday was fittingly major league, with Tour de France champion and Livestrong CEO Lance Armstrong offering up a pregame welcome, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback gracing the field at halftime and, in case you missed it on Twitter, honorary SKC member and NFL wide receiver Chad Ochocinco offering an up-close reminder that you might have a better chance at seeing a Pro-Bowler at a soccer game than at an NFL stadium in Kansas City these days.
For head coach Peter Vermes and his players, the opener was as much a weary farewell to the past as it was a nod to the future. SKC endured the longest road trip to open an MLS season in league history this year, slogging through a 10-game stretch while the builders back home worked overtime on the stadium, and the team was understandably ragged by the time their big night came.
“We miscalculated that on our 10-game road trip,” Vermes said. “There was a complete disconnect to our fanbase. You almost lose sight of who you’re playing for. You have this fanbase out there, but you never get to see them.
“Everywhere we’ve been,” he added, “we’ve been the enemy. We never got too much love in those places.”
SKC got the love Thursday night, but the question remains: Can they keep it? The nuance of the new stadium will invariably wear off at least a little, and what’s left to bring the fans back is the quality of players like Teal Bunbury, Omar Bravo, Jimmy Nielsen and Ryan Smith. The appeal of rock bands in the parking lot and affordable microbrews are nice on a summer night in June, but they won’t mean much if the team’s in the Eastern Conference cellar in October.
An ambitious new ownership group and a relentless construction crew have given Sporting a new lease on life in Kansas City, and given the league a wonderful reason to remember that yes, soccer exists somewhere in the middle of New York and LA and somewhere south of Seattle and Portland.
The nights Klopas spent in a comparatively hollow Arrowhead Stadium or Arnaud played in a rinky-dink CommunityAmerica Ballpark are dead and gone, chalked up to the growing pains of a club finding its footing where traction is tough.
But now comes the truly hard part. Now SKC have to give them a reason to keep coming back.