Welcome to Kansas City: the soccer capital of America," proclaims a huge Major League Soccer All-Star Game mural on the north wall of 1712 Main, in the Crossroads Arts District. Such a claim is impossible to quantify, and there's plenty of room for debate. Soccer fans by the thousands in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle would have good reason to claim that their towns are the futbol meccas of the United States — where the sport is inching into the country's sportscentric consciousness.
The July 31 All-Star Game, at Sporting Park, may represent less an ascendancy to soccer-capital status than a coronation for the remarkable foothold that soccer has made in Kansas City over the last three years.
Not long ago, the then–Kansas City Wizards played in the embarrassing outfield of a minor league baseball stadium in Wyandotte County.
Voters in Johnson County rejected a proposed soccer stadium in south Overland Park. CommunityAmerica Ballpark's stands were populated by a small but vociferous crowd of followers but few, if any, casual fans. The Wizards played their last game at the baseball park (and under that moniker) on October 23, 2010, before a paltry crowd of 11,518; the team missed the playoffs that year.
Fast-forward to June 9, 2011, when the rebranded Sporting Kansas City opened Livestrong Sporting Park (as it was then known). The team had spent its first 10 games on the road — waiting for construction on the new stadium to conclude — and limped into the grand opening against the Chicago Fire with the league's worst record. The game ended in a 0-0 draw and didn't live up to the bombast (fireworks, Lance Armstrong and the packed crowd), begging this question: Could Sporting Kansas City hold on to the city's enthusiasm for a sport that for so long had been on the fringe?
The answer, clearly, is yes. Through a combination of affordability, savvy marketing, a (mostly) winning record, and players and owners who interact with fans rather than avoid them, Sporting has become this town's third professional sports team rather than an afterthought.
A small token of proof: On July 13, Sporting Park hosted a record 21,126 fans, who witnessed Sporting Kansas City dismantle Toronto FC 3-0. Toronto is one of the league's worst teams, a squad of unrecognizable players who prefer a bland style of play. Scalpers may have feared offloading their tickets. It was the type of game for which a Columbus Crew or New England Revolution fan would have no trouble scoring a ticket. At Sporting Park, it was the largest crowd ever.
Soccer capital? Maybe.
Know Your MLS All-Stars
Raul Fernandez (FC Dallas)
Fernandez, who sometimes gets playing time with the Peruvian national soccer team, arrived in MLS early this year and earned the starting job. Dallas, which started hot, entered the All-Star break mired in a slump. Very little of the blame goes to Fernandez, who has posted six clean sheets (soccerspeak for a shutout) in 18 games.
Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Goalkeepers are U.S. soccer's best exports — American Tim Howard, for a time, started for Manchester United. As such, Rimando sometimes gets overlooked among the top U.S. goalkeepers. But he has strung together a long and successful MLS career and has helped guide RSL to a strong first half. Rimando also boasts one of the more colorful Twitter accounts among MLS players (@nickrimando).
Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City)
Making it to the All-Star Game is, relatively speaking, a modest accomplishment for Kansas City's favorite (soccer) son. A trip to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is likely in the cards for the United States, and the straight-laced Besler has spent 2013 cementing his candidacy as a starter at the big event. Starting at Sporting Park will have to do for now.