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Livestrong Sporting Park lives up to hype

The Kansas City Star

Arrowhead Stadium is a great venue for Chiefs football, but the cavernous NFL facility had a hollow feel when Sporting Kansas City played its first 12 seasons there as the Wiz/Wizards.

Moving to CommunityAmerica Ballpark made for a much more intimate atmosphere, but the minor-league baseball stadium — ideal for the T-Bones — never fit Sporting KC either.

Thus, finding a permanent, soccer-specific home was a top priority when OnGoal bought the club and decided to breathe life into Livestrong Sporting Park, which opened June 9, 2011.

“A week before that home opener, we were 17th or 18th in the league in merchandising and probably around the same number in ticket sales and every other category,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “A year later, it’s completely turned in a short period of time.”

Even the most optimistic hopes for how the stadium, which begins year two tonight with a 7:30 kickoff against Toronto FC, would transform Sporting KC have been blown away in Livestrong’s first year.

“Did I ever think it (would blow up like this)? No,” Vermes said. “I was trying to help get us there, but you never know what it will look like once it’s there. To have what we have now, it’s absolutely incredible.”

Defender Michael Harrington, who is in his sixth season with the club, couldn’t agree more. He spent his first season with the team at Arrowhead and played three seasons at CommunityAmerica.

“I feel like it’s been more than a year (since Livestrong opened) for sure, but it’s incredible,” Harrington said. “The owners had a vision for what that would do for the club and, honestly, it’s been what we expected and probably even more.”

That especially goes for the game-day atmosphere, which might mimic a European atmosphere in terms of fan fervor and fanaticism as well as any venue in the U.S.

“When I came here, I never expected a stadium as beautiful and with as much love as we have every game,” said Aurelien Collin, a Frenchman who played in Europe before joining Sporting KC last season. “This atmosphere is our 12th man. It gives us more power and more love, so we want to give everything we have — kill for them, you know.

“For me, it’s already a good atmosphere on the level with Europe. The way our fans act is at least as good as Europe, so it’s a pleasure to play there. I can’t wait for Saturdays, because it’s always one hour and a half of pleasure and fun.”

And it’s only getting better as crowds continue to flock to the stadium roughly 19,000 at a time.

“I don’t think it’s an aberration,” Vermes said. “I think it’s a result of the hard work and vision that has been put into this organization to be at this place. There’s a great connection between our team and our community — not only the players and the connection they have personally, but the way we play and everything our organization does.”

Year-over-year attendance figures bear that out. Sporting KC drew an average of 17,810 per game during the 2011 season, but that figure has spiked 6.8 percent this season to 19,017 for MLS games.

“When I got to Kansas City, I thought the T-Bones field was our second training stadium,” said Sporting KC goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen, a native of Denmark. “I think it was a great atmosphere there still, but the new stadium was a big turning point for soccer in the whole area of Kansas City.”

Livestrong, though still in its infancy, has developed a reputation as a tough place for opponents.

“I think it’s the best just because the intimacy,” Harrington said. “Portland has an amazing Cauldron-type supporters section, but that stadium doesn’t allow that noise to do what it could do in a stadium like Livestrong. Portland or Seattle, they have great followings, but the atmosphere still isn’t as good. It’s more intimate and intimidating, because all the fans are right on top of you here.”

In other words, Sporting KC is thrilled to call Livestrong home and hopes to celebrate many more birthdays there.

“Going into this stadium when it’s full and the people are going nuts never gets old,” Vermes said. “I’m just blown away every time I’m there. … The environment is changing. I always say, ‘It’s not even a fan base anymore; it’s a cult following.’ The fans have become so educated, not only about the game but about our team.”

| Tod Palmer,

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