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.
Corey Ashe (Houston Dynamo)
Ashe anchors Houston's notoriously stingy defense, which is often criticized as boring and plodding in style. But it works; Houston appeared in its second MLS Championship Game last year (losing both to the Galaxy).
Aurelien Collin (Sporting Kansas City)
Collin's play on defense for Sporting can be thrilling and entertaining and also maddening. His rare combination of size and speed gives opponents fits inside the penalty box. But he also has a penchant for getting caught out of position farther upfield and getting smoked by other team's attackers.
Omar Gonzalez (L.A. Galaxy)
Gonzalez would be easier to cheer for if he didn't play for MLS's most unlikable team. The Galaxy is like the New York Yankees; it seems to find money lying around everywhere to buy high-priced players. Good thing Gonzalez stars often for the U.S. back line, where he looks to become a mainstay for the national team's weakest position.
Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake)
Beckerman looks more like a Subway employee or a Widespread Panic roadie than one of the United States' most accomplished defensive midfielders. A somewhat less-known fact about the dreadlocked starter for Real Salt Lake: He once launched a high-end clothing line.
Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls)
Cahill typifies one of the more annoying aspects of Major League Soccer: its habit of attracting European stars long after their prime and then endlessly marketing them. That's not to say that the Australian, who scored 56 goals for English Premier League's Everton, has been a slouch this year. With five goals and three assists, he enters the break as one of the two All-Star Game selections by MLS Commissioner Don Garber.
Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo)
For local fans, Davis' appearance at Sporting Park might be a nagging reminder of his role in Houston's twice dismantling Sporting Kansas City's MLS Cup dreams. The big-eared midfielder is one of the most underrated players in MLS, but the folks around here are well aware of how Davis can lead a suffocating midfield.
Mike Magee (Chicago Fire)
Magee was a big reason for the Galaxy's last two MLS Cup titles. He figured prominently in their lineup in their quest for a third straight championship this season, then the Galaxy inexplicably traded him to Chicago in exchange for often-injured Robbie Rogers. Since Magee's debut with one of Sporting Kansas City's bigger rivals, the Fire's moribund attack has found its spark.
Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
This isn't hometown boosterism talking: Zusi might be the best player in MLS. He has a clean, effective style that gives Sporting's often-struggling attack many of its chances. In a game at Chicago earlier this year, Zusi offered what looked to many to be a service cross to Kei Kamara in the box, but the ball kept floating past the outstretched arms of Chicago's goalkeeper for one of the stranger goals so far this season.
Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)
Since David Beckham's departure from the Galaxy, Henry has been the rest of the world's best reminder for the existence of MLS. The former Arsenal and Barcelona legend is usually the star of the show for New York, though he does have a tendency to show up to games occasionally looking entirely disinterested in what's going on around him.
Robbie Keane (L.A. Galaxy)
Like Henry, Keane left his best playing days behind him in Europe, where he was a prominent striker for the English Premier League's Liverpool and Tottenham. Unlike Henry, Keane still plays a fair bit of international soccer for his home country (Ireland).
Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
Last year, Wondolowski set the MLS record for goals scored in a single season, with 27 over the course of 32 games. He's one of the few finesse players on the thuggish San Jose Earthquakes, a team that had the best record in MLS last year before flaming out in the playoffs. His scoring touch has put him back on the U.S. national team roster during this year's Gold Cup, where his scoring streak has him in the conversation for a trip to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.
Know Thy Enemy
Roma is a prominent but perhaps second-tier team in Italy — behind the likes of Juventus, Milan and Internazionale. Roma finished sixth last season in Italy's Serie A, the top league in that nation's soccer pyramid. The allure of having Roma square off for the All-Star Game is seeing American Michael Bradley, who is one of the United States' marquee players (and son of former U.S. head coach Bob Bradley). Bradley briefly played for the New York Metro Stars (the precursor to the New York Red Bulls) before joining a couple of German clubs. Last year, he wound up with Roma, which is probably why Roma is now headed to KC.
Roma Players to Watch
This attacking midfielder has played with Roma his entire professional career, dating back to 1993. Totti has at times been a leading player for Italy's national squad, picking up a World Cup title in 2006.
Fans can look to Osvaldo as a likely source for goals in the All-Star Game — if he makes the trip. Roma's striker racked up 16 goals and led the team in scoring last season. (This is the offseason for European club teams.)
If Osvaldo can't score, look to Argentinian Lamela to pick up the pace. He went toe to toe with Osvaldo during Roma's last season as the club's top scorer, only to come up a goal shy, with 15.
Daniele De Rossi
KC soccer fans with long memories might remember De Rossi from Italy's 2006 World Cup match with the United States. De Rossi caught former U.S. mainstay Brian McBride with a nasty elbow to the head and was tossed from the match. The game ended in a 1–1 tie, a good result for the United States. Since then, De Rossi has been a consistent performer for Roma and a fixture on the Italian national squad.
Where to Watch If You Don't Have a Ticket
Walk into Johnny's during a Sporting Kansas City or other high-profile soccer match, and you wonder, "How will I ever get a seat?" Arrive early. Bonus: Sporting players are known to frequent Johnny's, so there's a chance that you might spot one.
Martin City Brewing Co.
500 East 135th Street
Speaking of getting to places early, stake your claim at this small but popular pub on Martin City's main strip. It has long been a popular destination for Sporting crowds watching out-of-town matches. It will likely fill up with ticketless All-Star Game fans.
Fütbol Club Eatery & Tap
12030 Blue Valley Parkway, Overland Park
The walls of Fütbol Club are festooned with soccer regalia in the same way that Applebee's walls are covered with prefabricated crap. But the food is better than at Applebee's.
Patrick's Bar & No Grill
This no-frills bar has all you need: cheap beer and plenty of seats at the bar.
MLS All-Star Game Activities
The Power & Light District is the nexus for off-the-field All-Star activities. Here are the highlights.
Saturday, July 27
10 a.m.–3 p.m.
The Legoland Discovery Center at Crown Center hosts All-Star Game activities for the kids, including watching Lego buff Jeremiah Boehr build a plastic-brick All-Star Game logo.
The National Soccer Coaches Association of America brings local coaches and players together for "Chalk Talk" to discuss — what else? — soccer.
Sporting Kansas City's last game before the All-Star break is on the road against the Montreal Impact. Stop by the P&L District to watch as SKC tries to avenge a loss earlier in the season. (The Impact left KC with a 2–1 victory.)
Sunday, July 28
Run through downtown KC for the Volkswagen 5k Jersey Run.
Catch another viewing party in the P&L: the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup final match. The Gold Cup pits North America's national team against Central America's, for bragging rights.
Monday, July 29
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis take the KC Live Stage in the P&L.
Tuesday, July 30
Sporting Kansas City defender and fashionista Aurélien Collin talks fashion in the P&L.
Silversun Pickups play the KC Live Stage. Tickets are free, but you have to find one before the show to get in.
Wednesday, July 31
Don't have a ticket to the big game? Watch from the comfort of the P&L District.