The Full 90

Sporting KC has become a top destination for players

Updated: 2012-12-14T01:12:15Z

By TOD PALMER

The Kansas City Star

Sporting Kansas City has enjoyed a whirlwind offseason already, one that certainly isn’t done, either.

But there’s a trend emerging as coach Peter Vermes shuffles the roster in preparation for three major competitions in 2013.

Players have a burning desire to come play in Kansas City.

“It’s a great club with an unbelievable ownership group, great facilities and a very good group of guys in regards to the way they approach the game every single day,” Vermes said. “From a culture perspective, it’s tremendous. I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t want to be a part of it.”

Increasingly, many players around the league feel the same way.

Midfielder Benny Feilhaber, whom Sporting KC acquired Tuesday in a trade with the New England Revolution, is coming off a down year, but he’s still a well-known commodity with 39 appearances for the U.S. men’s national team under his belt.

“I wanted to go to the best soccer place I could get to, and Kansas City was that,” Feilhaber said.

It’s not hard to figure out why he’d feel that way.

Livestrong Sporting Park is perhaps the finest soccer-specific stadium in the nation — some might argue the world — with unmatched player amenities.

Sporting KC’s fan base is raucous and rowdy with an ever-growing soccer IQ that creates an electrifying and palpably tense game-day experience.

Plus, Vermes has piloted the club to back-to-back Eastern Conference regular-season championships while earning a reputation for developing players into stars.

The meteoric rise of midfielder Graham Zusi and defender Matt Besler is a testament to that success.

Still, it speaks volumes that a player like Feilhaber, who is known for his dynamic play as an attacking midfielder and could command serious attention overseas, insists there’s no place he’d rather be than Kansas City.

And he’s adamant about it.

“Kansas City was really my first choice, whether it was inside of MLS or outside of MLS,” Feilhaber said. “I really consider myself lucky to have gotten this opportunity in going to Kansas City. It really was my first choice.”

Two years ago, when the then-Wizards were a struggling side that played on a narrow field in the outfield of a minor-league baseball stadium, Leawood native and Rockhurst High graduate Seth Sinovic wasn’t even sure he wanted to come here.

Now, players like Feilhaber and Ike Opara, a defender Sporting KC acquired Wednesday from the San Jose Earthquakes, consider the City of Fountains the nation’s premier soccer destination.

“The chance to work under Peter was one of the main points,” Opara said. “Obviously, with the stadium and their fans, it was a perfect opportunity in that regard. … Sporting Kansas City is a place a lot of guys want to play.”

Opara knew Sporting KC had two of the top centerbacks in MLS — Matt Besler, the 2012 MLS Defender of the Year who resigned with the club Wednesday — and Aurelien Collin, who finished third in defender of the year voting.

Still, he still jumped at the chance to leave San Jose, which won the Supporter’s Shield last season, and join Sporting KC.

“It’s funny, because when you look at my position, there’s already two guys there,” Opara said. “But when Sporting came calling, it didn’t seem that way for me. I was so excited at the possibility of joining that organization with great ownership. That’s all I needed to be sold on obviously with Peter there.”

Besler turned down trial opportunities abroad — including Queens Park Rangers in the English Premier League, which is widely regarded as the top league in the world — to stay in Kansas City.

“Basically, like anybody in my position, I listened to them and looked at the opportunities I had, but at the end of the day Sporting is the best situation for me,” Besler said. “That’s why I chose to stay and why it was so easy for me.”

It seems odd stacked against a history that includes eight seasons in which Sporting KC (then known as the Wizards) ranked dead last in attendance from 1997-2008.

Now, a contract with Sporting KC is atop many players’ Christmas wish lists … and could be for years to come.

“The stadium to me is the best stadium in the league,” Feilhaber said. “The fans are unbelievable. They’re awful fans when you’re the away team, but awesome fans to play for when you’re the home team.”

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer

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