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Ochocinco to try out with Sporting KC

By TEREZ A. PAYLOR

The Kansas City Star

Kyle Rogers sat at his computer Saturday morning, scouring the internet as he normally does in his free time, when he came across a Tweet from Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco.

This, by itself, wasn’t enough to prompt what Rogers, Sporting Kansas City’s slender, bearded digital strategist, did next. But soccer was on his mind, thanks to a game he was watching on television, and an idea — one as wild and unlikely as it was fun — suddenly hit him like a ton of bricks.

I’m going to invite Ochocinco to train with us.

Understand, it’s Rogers’ job to think out of the box. He’s certainly come up with his fair share of quirky ideas before — he once helped stage a snowball fight between fans and Sporting KC players — but this one would be his craziest, by far. And for an organization that prides itself on swimming upstream — read: Livestrong Sporting Park — that alone seemed like good enough reason to do it.

So he fired off a tweet to Ochocinco, who has never met a camera or tape recorder he didn’t like. And just 34 minutes later, he responded that he was game. Calls were made to team higher ups, including owner Robb Heineman and coach Peter Vermes. Discussions were had between both sides.

And by noon Wednesday, it became official. The 33-year old Ochocinco, one of the National Football League’s most outgoing players, would be headed to Kansas City for a four-day trial with a Major League Soccer team, starting Tuesday.

“Look, we need as much publicity in this sport as we can (get),” Vermes said. “If he's serious and we wind up getting publicity for it, then that's great for the organization. It's great for the game. Let's go.”

For Sporting KC, an organization hungry for media buzz as it prepares to open its new season Saturday night against Chivas, it was a home run. A quick Google search of “Sporting KC” and “Ochocinco” Wednesday afternoon yielded over 30 pages of results – and the news had only been out for five hours.

However, Vermes did stop short of calling this a complete attention grab. If it was solely that, he said, he would have vetoed it. During a talk with Ochocinco on Tuesday night, he became convinced the receiver — whose decision comes as the NFL and its players remain engaged in a labor situation that threatens the 2011 season — is serious about soccer.

Well, presumably, as much as a player who became as well known for his celebrations, outlandish quotes and reality shows as his touchdowns can be.

“I had a good chat with him last night,” Vermes said. “Soccer is his favorite sport. He played for a long time. His family pushed him in the direction of football ... especially given the way sports work in this country. He really wishes he could have taken a career in soccer.”

Ochocinco, who counts such star soccer players as the New York Red Bulls’ Thierry Henry and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo as friends, played soccer as a youth growing up in Miami but gave it up when he got to high school.

Ochocinco couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, apparently because he wants to focus on preparing for the trial. But in a statement released by the team Wednesday, he opined that soccer is “his first love” and that he’s excited to follow his “childhood dream of playing for a Major League Soccer team.”

He told the same thing to Vermes, who has a track record of giving most anybody with some ability a trial. He sees Ochocinco on the outside, maybe as a forward, but wants to see him on the ball, first.

“I asked him if he was really serious about this or if it was a media ploy,” Vermes said. “He said ‘No, I really want to train and play. I know I'm not soccer fit, but I know that it will come to me quickly.’”

The discussion was not without some patented Ochocinco trash talk, either.

“He said, ‘I can race anyone on the team and I know I can beat them one-on-one,’” said Vermes, who told him that he may be right.

The concern, of course, is that Ochocinco’s arrival and the impending attention it will bring for at least a four-day period — the team can choose to extend the trial afterward – will do nothing but serve as a distraction for a team that, quite frankly, doesn’t need it. With a 10-game road trip to start the year, every game is important.

However, Sporting KC forward Kei Kamara, who — along with forward Teal Bunbury — helped lure Ochocinco to Kansas City with some well-timed Tweets over the weekend, dispelled any notion of the move being a distraction.

“He’s a professional, and he’ll respect us because this is what we do,” Kamara said. “We won’t let this become a distraction. We have to stay focused.”

And while that could prove to be difficult considering the attention this is bound to get — national media outlets have already contacted Sporting KC about potential interview opportunities with Ochocinco — the Sportings can’t help but think the attention they’re bound to receive next week will be well worth it.

And to think, it all started with an innocent Tweet over the weekend.

“It’s definitely the best Tweet I’ve ever sent,” Rogers said with a laugh.

The Star’s Charles Gooch contributed to this report. To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-5915 or send e-mail to tpaylor@kcstar.com.

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