Welcome To The Blue Hell

A Kansas City native’s inaugural Sporting Park experience explains the city’s blooming love affair with soccer.

“I really feel like I’m a part of the growth of soccer in the United States,” Molly, a Sporting Kansas City staffer, tells me as she takes me on a tour of Sporting Park a few hours before the team was to take on Toronto FC in a recent match.

“In New York, soccer’s here,” she puts her hand just above her head.

“In Maryland, where I played, soccer’s here,” she says, not moving her hand.

“In Kansas City, soccer’s here,” she moves her hand a few inches down, level with the top of her head, “but it’s going here,” and she skyrockets her hand upwards.

It’d be easy to dismiss this as a company line if it wasn’t supported by the numbers. According to the MLS, the average MLS attendance is 18,958. Sporting KC, per the blog MLSattendance, has an average of 20,160, and sports the league’s third-highest percentage of listed capacity at 109 percent. They’ve sold out over 40 straight games and have a 1,000-person waiting list for season tickets. One staffer told me that their season-ticket renewal rate is at a record high.

What, exactly, is happening in this long-time football and baseball town?

I was born and raised in Kansas City. Except for college, I haven’t lived anywhere else for more than a year. The Chiefs and Royals dominate this city. Even when they’re bad — and they are usually some variety of bad — the city supports them. It’s not like there were other options.

Scores of emoty seats at Arrowhead didn’t help the former Wizards establish a great hone-field advantage or experience for fans. (AP)

Then, in 2011, the then-Kansas City Wizards went through a total re-brand (though, that word doesn’t do the process justice to how completely the owner remade the team). Gone was a pretty generic franchise (despite having captured an MLS Cup in 2000). In its place, complete with a new, state-of-the-art complex and training facility, was Sporting Kansas City. Along with the new name came a new logo, new colors, and a completely new approach to team-city relations.

Instead of a business-as-usual approach, Sporting KC actually tried listening to the fans and to the city, paying attention to what they wanted. Then they actually won games, lots of them, en route to last year’s championship campaign. The team made itself part of the community’s fabric, and in so doing, transformed a town built on baseball and football into one quickly falling in love with soccer (and a winner).

Despite my Kansas City roots and the success of Sporting, however, I have never been to a game in person before. I’ve heard, of course, about the packed stadium, and even seen evidence of same on TV, but nothing could have prepared me for this, the live experience.

The stadium isn’t Barcelona’s Camp Nou or Manchester United’s Old Trafford. It isn’t even a monolith like Kaufman Stadium or Arrowhead Stadium, where the Royals and Chiefs, respectively, play. It seats approximately 18,500, with standing room for a bit more. Size, though, is a crucial factor in Sporting’s success. Even when the old Wizards were good, they never packed the 75,000 seat Arrowhead, so even the most exciting games were muted. Clearly, the product just looks and feels better with a packed house of rabid fans whose cheering voices are able to cascade upon the pitch.

Attendance numbers, though, only tell half the story about the city’s bond with the team. Walking around the different parts of Kansas City — the plaza, town center, brookside, the crossroads — Sporting gear, from bumper stickers to shirts to hats, is as prominent, if not more so, than those of the Chiefs or the Royals. It’s a symmetrical relationship, too, as Kansas City is everywhere around Sporting Park, from the Boulevard beer stations to the in-arena Grinder’s (a local restaurant/deli). Kansas City is fiercely proud of everything from here, a mindset Sporting embraces.

“We want to bring Kansas City’s finest to the forefront,” Robb Heineman, one of the owners of the team, says. “What we try to reinforce is how local we are. All five of the ownership families are from here and work here. Our corporate partners are local businesses. We’re very proud of the fact that we’re Kansas City.”

Local product Matt Besler is one of Sporting’s main talents. (AP)

Sporting’s promotion of all things local isn’t limited just to the merchandise, either. The captain and star defender of the team, Matt Besler, is a local product, and he’s everything the city could want in a homegrown star: talent with roots to the community and (United States Men’s National Team) bona fides.

“Having a player like him captaining the team and succeeding is a huge thing for us,” Heineman said. “It’s our version of (Royals’ legend) George Brett, who has become a Kansas Citian. Besler provides that anchor that fans can be really proud of, since he’s a local boy.”

And, when other, more prestigious clubs came calling, Besler instead decided to stay in Kansas City long-term. “Deep down, this is where I wanted to be,” Besler says. “I wanted to be a part of this. I love playing for the team and the city.”

I take my seat in the press box about a half hour before the game starts. Fans are still shuttling in from all over. Maybe 15 minutes before kickoff, a hype video plays on the massive screen behind the goal to my right.

Pre-game hype videos are, by and large, terribly formulaic. Soundtracked by loud, bombastic music — usually hip-hop or strings and horns of the Game of Thrones theme variety — words flash on the screen or blare from the speakers about how “this is our city” and “this is our team,” juxtaposing images of the city’s landmarks with the team’s highlights. Production is usually terrific, but needs to be to overshadow the bland, forced narratives.

On this Friday night, though, Sporting’s hype video is unlike anything I’ve ever seen — not in terms of production, but the message. It legitimately resonates with me as a Kansas Citian.

When you tell someone you’re from Kansas City, the reply is usually one of three things: a Wizard of Oz joke, a comment about barbecue, or a simple “oh” of indifference. The things we’re known for — save for barbecue, because barbecue is forever — are things of the past, but Kansas City wants to be known for something of the present. We’re starved for recognition, for some sign of “hey, you’re all right.” When a Kansas Citian, or someone with even the loosest affiliation with the city, obtains a semblance of fame, the city instantly claims them as our own. This was true when actor/comedian Eddie Griffin was a thing, and it’s true now with actor Paul Rudd.

If there’s one thing Kansas City wants, it’s to matter. It’s an odd, quasi-inferiority/superiority complex that permeates the entire city. We don’t think we’re better than everyone else, just better than what most people think of us. And part of this mindset comes from the city’s dearth of success in professional sports.

To put it lightly, Kansas City isn’t exactly familiar with winning. Since 1985, the Royals have been everything from bottom-dwellers to up-and-comers, but what they haven’t been is a playoff team (although that may improbably change this year, as the Royals currently have a two-game lead atop the AL Central). The Chiefs, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff game in 20 years. If you’re citing a couple of MLS Cups as a city’s greatest professional sports achievements, even Cleveland doesn’t seem so bad.

Hey, this sure beats NOTHING, right, Cleveland? (AP)

Eschewing the standard fare, Sporting’s hype video harps on the Kansas City-as-underappreciated/overlooked/disregarded themes, uniting the fans and the team in an us-against-the-world mentality. To those not from here, the video might appear to be just another giant cliche. But to natives, the video plucked all the right emotional chords, whipping the crowd into a frenzy, completely eradicating (save for the two national anthems) any notion of quiet for the match’s duration.

Mainly responsible for the lack of silence is the Cauldron, an SRO section of the stadium behind one of the goals, stuffed with Sporting’s most avid supporters. Kansas City sports fans have always been an impassioned bunch — Arrowhead Stadium, for example, is often cited as one of the NFL’s best home-field advantages — but members of the Cauldron, who were granted their own section during planning for the new stadium, are a different sort. They’ve bought in not just to the team, but to the fabric of world soccer fandom as well. For 90-plus minutes, the section is ablaze with cheers, chants and songs. They sing lazily at first, only to pick up the pace with each refrain, until they’re jumping wildly around their seats.

“I’ve said it a million times but it’s worth saying: it’s so much fun playing here,” Sporting and U.S. midfielder Graham Zusi, who also elected to commit long-term to the club, says. “It’s the best atmosphere and the fans are so passionate. They make it fun to come to work every day.”

Immediate post-rebrand, on-field success has obviously helped bring fans into the fold for Sporting. In the first year of its new existence, Sporting advanced to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the Houston Dynamo. In 2012, they won the U.S. Open Cup and returned to the playoffs, again losing to the Dynamo in the conference semis. Last year, they defeated Real Salt Lake to win the MLS Cup.

“(Winning) was definitely a factor,” Besler says. “There’s a lot of pressure on the results. If we came out here in the first season and lose 10 games in a row, it’s going to ruin the debut. But we were lucky enough to go something like 15 games unbeaten to open, and that started it all.”

As with any sport, seeing a game live makes a world of difference. On TV, you can see Michael Bradley’s terrific passes, but it in person, you truly appreciate his vision. When you see firsthand the sharp reflexes of 21-year-old goalie Jonathan Kempin, another Kansas Citian natve, you have no choice but to be amazed. But there’s something else about watching a game in-person — you become connected, to the team, to your fellow fans, to the atmosphere around you.

Sporting needs a win tonight, and the game is never too much in doubt. Dom Dwyer scores two early goals — both on penalty kicks. A beautiful back-heel goal by Gilberto brings Toronto within one before half, but despite a few close calls, they never get any closer. Sporting adds two late goals, and wins, 4–1.

Before tonight, I was happy for Sporting Kansas City’s success, and for the symbiotic relationship of the city and the team, but I never felt a part of it. When I’d watch the team on TV, they wouldn’t be my team, just a team from my home town. Tonight, even though I’m seated away from the fans, I nonetheless feel connected to them and the team. Everything — from the hype video to the match to the Boulevard beer — tugs at my heartstrings and plugs them into the live socket that is Sporting Park.

In many ways, Sporting was the perfect team for Kansas City to embrace so fiercely — mostly because MLS is very much like Kansas City. It’s not better than the NFL or MLB, but it’s better than you think it is. You’d have to go to an MLS game to understand how good and how much fun it is, and you’d have to go to Kansas City to understand it’s actually a pretty great place. The team’s success has given the city some validation.

“People say that you can be overlooked in Kansas City, and that’s true to an extent,” Besler said. “But for our entire lives, we feel like we’ve belonged.”