KANSAS CITY, Kan. – For the past two years, a simple message has welcomed opponents to Livestrong Sporting Park: “Welcome to the Blue Hell.”
On Sunday morning, when the US national team took the field for an open training session in front of hundreds of enthusiastic fans, a new mantra hung from the stadium’s north walkway welcoming Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad to what many consider the crown jewel of American soccer stadiums.
“Home of the Brave”
More than just a nice touch, though, the 600 square feet of cloth and gallons of red, white and blue paint dreamed up and executed by the American Outlaws represented Kansas City’s ambition, its desire to become one of the US' permanent homes.
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As did the sell-out crowd of 16,947 – reduced from the usual capacity of 18,467 to comply with FIFA regulations – that tailgated hours before Tuesday night’s match then packed Livestrong Sporting Park to the gills with flags, jerseys, scarves and anything else they could find decked out in America tricolors. The fact that the US cruised to a 3-1 victory against Guatemala was simply the icing on the patriotic cake.
In truth, if Tuesday night’s CONCACAF World Cup qualifying semifinal round finale was a tryout, Kansas City should consider itself a shoo-in for future matches.
“First of all, we’d like to thank the amazing crowd here and all the people involved with the game in Kansas City,” Klinsmann said after the win that clinched the US’ place in next year’s Hexagonal. “It was phenomenal, not only tonight or the public training session on Sunday. It was a quite an experience for all of us, even for the European players that are used to big places.”
Make no mistake, Columbus is still the odds-on favorite to host Mexico during qualifying – you simply don’t turn your back on the home of La Guerra Fría and the birthplace of "Dos a Cero" – but there’s certainly a new No. 1 contender on the scene.
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In 2009, when the US were battling to qualify for South Africa, they hosted their Hexagonal games in Columbus (Mexico), Nashville (Trinidad & Tobago), Chicago (Honduras), Salt Lake City (El Salvador) and Washington, D.C. (Costa Rica), compiling a 4-0-1 record.
And while all five cities proved capable and eager hosts, none offer the overall package Kansas City brings to the table after proving itself Tuesday night as well as during last year’s Gold Cup vs. Guadeloupe.
First and foremost, Kansas City, sparked by the construction of Livestrong Sporting Park, has become one of the hottest markets for soccer in the US, quickly latching onto the possibility of becoming a national team hub. Sporting KC are averaging 19,403 fans per match in 2012, and with both US appearances at LSP selling out rapidly, in addition to matches featuring the US women, the appetite for soccer in the nation's breadbasket is only growing.
From a competitive standpoint, the surface is impeccable – US midfielder Joe Corona labeled it one of the best he’s ever played on – and LSP is home to two wins in two tries. Then there’s the “man cave,” as Carlos Bocanegra described the no-expense-spared home locker room, the likes of which Klinsmann said doesn’t even exist in Europe.
Those are clear selling points for the coaching staff, and amenities that can't be matched at 50-year-old RFK Stadium or even soccer hotbeds in the Pacific Northwest such as Portland or Seattle, which don't have the grass surfaces almost certainly required to be in consideration.
Nobody’s more thrilled to hear Klinsmann and his charges' praise than Sporting KC president Robb Heineman, who said from the beginning that the club designed Livestrong Sporting Park for grand occasions.
“Obviously we’re very aggressive in trying to get [US Soccer] to play as many games as they’re willing to play in our stadium,” Heineman said. “I think when the guys come here, they like it. Not only the fans in the stands, but I think they like the creature comforts of the stadium itself.
“Would we like them to be here on a more consistent basis? Of course, and I think we’ll continue to reinvest around different assets and facilities for them to try to encourage them to continue to do that as much as they’d like to.”
There will certainly be plenty of opportunities for Klinsmann’s side to return to the Heartland in the next 12 months.
Come 2013, there will be at least five chances for the US to set up camp in Kansas City for matches that will determine whether or not the team reaches it’s seventh consecutive World Cup. That’s not even including Gold Cup obligations during July.
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Of course, that would mean one city would be forced out of its spot in the Hex rotation, an unpalatable possibility for fans in those areas.
Still, it’s hard not to see the fervor in Kansas City and wonder what potential remains untapped. And if you left it to the players themselves, they’d tell you Livestrong Sporting Park should be more than just a part of the discussion.
“I’m not the decision-maker, but I think if you can plan it and figure out you need a really good venue to get a good performance, Columbus has done their part and Kansas City should be ultra proud of themselves,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “It was fantastic. The stadium was rocking, all the flags, the people. The community was great to us, and it’s definitely a place we need to come back to if this is the way it’s going to be.”