SOCCER

Winning KC: Once an outsider, soccer has become immensely popular

Updated: 2013-07-29T07:25:43Z

By ERIC ADLER and ZACH MURDOCK

The Kansas City Star

Anasten Schaefer of Kansas City is only 2 years old and already owns a pink soccer ball.

“She’ll be playing soon enough,” her mother, Monica Schaefer, 39, said this past week at a soccer camp in Brookside as she slathered her 7-year-old son, Ethan, with sun protection and watched him run onto a field.

Asked what he liked better, football or soccer, his answer was unequivocal.

“Soccer,” Ethan said.

Baseball or soccer?

“Soccer.”

His mother thought it would be a short-term interest.

“I never expected him to keep going,” she said.

But he has. That’s because as blogs, bars, blue stickers on cars and big crowds at Sporting Kansas City’s shimmering $200 million stadium attest, soccer in Kansas City is no longer a subculture.

In Overland Park, some 2,000 athletes from as far off as Hawaii thronged this past week for the 2013 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships at what might best be called Socceropolis, the 12 synthetic fields of the Overland Park Soccer Complex. It’s a facility that, since it opened four years ago, has consistently helped rank the town as one of the best youth soccer cities nationwide.

Four miles away, Chad Conder, 31, stayed busy serving up beers and food at Futbol Club Eatery & Tap, a soccer-centric restaurant that opened only three months ago to cater to what its owners see as the area’s burgeoning futbol faithful.

“It’s here. They’ve found their voice,” the assistant manager said of Kansas City’s soccer culture. “I don’t want to say ‘fad.’ I don’t want to say ‘trend.’ It’s mainstream.”

On Wednesday night, Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., will host the 2013 All-Star Game for Major League Soccer, a 19-club league in which Sporting Kansas City currently ranks first in the Eastern Conference.

No one doubts the success of Sporting Park (opened as Livestrong Sporting Park in 2011) and the team (rebranded in 2010 after 15 years as initially the Wiz and then the Wizards) has served as the most powerful catalyst in solidifying soccer as part of Kansas City’s culture.

Winning team

Long viewed as an outlier, as an awkward stepchild inside a sports realm ruled by the big boys — Kansas City Royals baseball, Kansas City Chiefs football and college basketball — soccer’s Sporting Kansas City is currently the most winning major league franchise in the city.

As such, like a frog-turned-athletic-prince who is living in a gleaming new palace, soccer is now being seen in a fresh light as arguably the coolest kid in town.

So far this year, attendance at home — with a seating capacity of 18,467 people — has averaged 19,709 fans, with the others buying standing-room-only tickets.

The best average attendance the Wizards ever achieved was 14,816 in 2004, a crowd that looked paltry, sad and lonely when the team played inside cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, with some 65,000 of its nearly 80,000 seats empty.

In most of its years, the Kansas City Comets, an indoor professional soccer team that played in Kemper Arena for a decade until the team folded in 1991, often pulled in more fans than the Wizards. Resurrected in 2010 as the Missouri Comets, the indoor team is playing to dedicated crowds of 4,000 at the Independence Events Center.

Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes recalled the harder days, when he was traded by the Colorado Rapids before the 2000 season to play for the Wizards, then a last-place team.

“You can imagine, you were going to the worst team in the league,” he said. “The venue was Arrowhead, and even if 20,000 people would have shown up at Arrowhead, it would have been a drop in the bucket. The environment was not conducive to watching the game.”

That was the year the Wizards won the MLS championship.

“We were the best team in the league that year,” Vermes recalled, “but it sure didn’t feel like it.”

This year, Sporting KC sold more merchandise during the halftime of one game than the Wizards did during all of 2007. In fact, until 2006, the Wizards sold less merchandise than every other team every year. They even sold less than two expansion teams that hadn’t even played yet.

From the fan’s point of view:

“It was terrible … atrocious,” recalled Sean Dane, 36, of the atmosphere in the early years.

Dane began following the Wizards early, transformed into a rabid supporter and currently is president of the Cauldron — the mass of some 2,400 passionate fans who, by their own rules, stand throughout every Sporting game to beat drums, chant and wave banners in the section behind the north goal.

In the early Wizards days, the group numbered between 20 and 30 people, Dane said. By 2002, he estimates there were still fewer than 50. Although the group grew when the Wizards played for four years in the more intimate CommunityAmerica Ballpark, soccer support was nothing like it is now.

Today, at Sporting Park, the Cauldron alone has upward of 7,000 Twitter followers. Some 1,700 people in the section have season tickets. As many as 600 have traveled together to away games.

The commissioner of Major League Soccer, Don Garber, has called the club’s transformation “one of the great sports turnarounds in the history of soccer in America.”

“I think that 98 percent of the people who have been there (as fans) since ’96 could have asked for no greater dream than what we have today,” Dane said. “It is what we always imagined.”

It is likely what the late Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt also might have imagined in 1995 when he bought the rights to an MLS team and in 1996 placed it inside Arrowhead. But even after new ownership in 2006 — a group of six led by Cerner Corp. co-founders Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig — it took the new stadium, new name and close-to-the-action fan experience for soccer to clasp hold of Kansas City.

“Entirely different world,” said Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. “Everything has completely changed.”

Choosing soccer

When Lisa Crissman and her husband, Steele, both 33, moved three months ago from St. Louis to Kansas City with their two young kids, they could have chosen to go anywhere on that first weekend in town –– the zoo, a museum, a water park, a T-Bones or Royals game.

“We went to a Sporting game,” Lisa Crissman said, standing with her soccer-playing son, also named Steele, age 5, and watching her daughter, Eva, dressed in pink shin guards and a “Rule the Field” T-shirt, take to the field for soccer camp.

“This is her first experience with soccer,” Crissman said. “She’s just turning 3.”

What Eva’s age perhaps best illustrates is how Kansas City’s soccer-mindedness didn’t just suddenly rise from the pitch at Sporting Park. It’s part of a local and national phenomenon that has been rising for years.

“Soccer is the world’s game, and it’s finally catching on here in Kansas City — more and more so now than ever,” said Nick Garcia, a former Wizards defender who in February became executive director of the Brookside Soccer Club in Kansas City.

An estimated 14 million people in the United States play outdoor soccer, according to a 2011 report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

In 2012, research by social scientist Rich Luker for the ESPN Sports Poll revealed that 30 percent of U.S. households contained someone playing soccer. So popular and prevalent is the game in suburban America, it has ushered the term “soccer moms” into the political lexicon.

The traditional big three of America’s sports — baseball, football and basketball — still draw more fans by far in the U.S. But over the last decade, television and talent have made stars out of players such as Mia Hamm and David Beckham, objects of hero worship for young fans.

Luker’s research is notable in that when young Americans between the ages of 12 and 24 are asked about their preferences, they now rank international soccer and Major League Soccer as their second favorite sport behind professional American football.

“The MLS is coming into its real heyday,” Luker said.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, he said, millions of children have been weaned on soccer’s pace. Those kids, as adults, are having kids themselves who are choosing soccer. Although sports commentators for years have scoffed at the prediction that America’s soccer-savvy kids would spawn a devoted audience for professional soccer over other sports, that’s exactly what’s happening.

“I’ll give you an example,” said Brandon Urban, 37, as he sat at lunch with his 10-year-old daughter, Grace, at Pandolfi’s Deli, a popular eatery among soccer fans at Fifth and Campbell streets.

“A few weeks ago, I took the kids to Chicago to see a (baseball) game at Wrigley Field,” he said.

Although a huge soccer fan, Urban, who is from Lawrence, is also a baseball fan. His kids are soccer players. Grace has been playing since age 5. Her brother, Ben, 12, has been playing since age 4. Still, Urban wanted the kids to have a baseball experience in the storied stadium.

“The kids were bored out of their minds,” Urban said.

They asked to leave after a couple of innings.

“Boring,” Grace said.

“It’s slow,” Urban conceded. “You know, you go to soccer, it’s 45 minutes. There’s no timeouts. It’s constant. Then you take a little break and do it all over again.”

Parents find soccer friendly, as it is equally accessible to girls and boys, with heroes for both sexes.

At Shawnee Mission North’s field, some 5,000 fans on average have been turning out to watch FC Kansas City, one of eight teams in the National Women’s Soccer League, which started play this year.

Unlike football or basketball, stature is all but incidental.

“You kick a ball. You feel successful,” said Crissman, the mom who moved from St. Louis to a town where demand for soccer has long been on the rise.

In 2009, Overland Park constructed 12 fields under lights that now consistently help rank the Johnson County suburb in surveys as one of the top 10 areas in the nation for kids soccer.

“I have more demand than I have supply,” said Mike Laplante, manager of the complex. “I have 23 different clubs that practice during the week. … If I had another six fields, I could fill them. I could probably even do eight. ”

In 2008, four new soccer fields were added to Lee’s Summit’s Legacy Park.

An estimated 20,000 players have used the new synthetic soccer field built last year at Ninth Street and Van Brunt Boulevard in the first six months it was open, said Garcia, who runs a night soccer program there called Mayor’s Night Kicks.

Five synthetic fields and one natural-grass field are currently under construction at the Swope Park soccer complex. Paid for by the city, they are alongside Sporting KC’s practice facility.

Although so far delayed, Sporting also originally agreed to build three new “urban fields” as well as an 18-field soccer complex in Wyandotte County. The fields were to be in exchange for $230 million in state and local tax subsidies used to build its stadium.

Whether the number and nature of the fields will change remains unclear, but “we definitely will be heavily invested in developing other fields because it is good for us to grow the game,” said Sporting Club’s chief executive officer, Robb Heineman, who is also one of the team’s owners.

In Kansas City, enrollment this fall for the Brookside Soccer Club is up to 2,500 kids, a 25 percent jump in less than four years. In that same time, Sporting Blue Valley’s various youth teams, skills and coaching camps have jumped from 6,000 to about 8,500 players.

Going crazy

All these athletes and their parents, observers say, are creating a soccer buzz and potential fans for a resurrected team that had already begun capturing hearts even while its new stadium was being built.

In July 2010, the Wizards stunned the soccer universe by defeating perennial British powerhouse Manchester United in an exhibition game at Arrowhead Stadium. More than 52,000 fans showed up, many wearing Manchester colors.

“The crowds went crazy” when the Wizards won, recalled Sporting’s executive vice president of communications, Rob Thomson. “The next day, the following week, our phones were ringing off the hook, wanting information to know who we were, getting on board, dying to have someone to cheer for, to have passion for.”

They’re here.

Now knowledgeable adults who played soccer as kids and thousands of Kansas City kids hooked on the game are rooting for a team that has won its division twice in the last two years.

Knowing the team’s young fan base is social media savvy, Heineman said, part of the team’s success comes from the way the organization has gone to great lengths to stay constantly connected using blogs and Twitter feeds. But he knows tweets only go so far.

“Winning, I think, ultimately ends up being the most important thing,” he said.

Dane, the president of the fan-crazed Cauldron, understands.

“Certainly if we have a couple of seasons where performance is not as great, that will be telling,” he said.

But whether the team wins or loses, he said, Kansas City has made the turn to a true soccer town. As to the possibility that the former languishing days could return…

“Absolutely not,” he said.

To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to eadler@kcstar.com. To reach Zach Murdock, call 816-234-4690 or send email to zmurdock@kcstar.com.

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