Maybe the Major League Soccer All-Star Game didn’t feature a red carpet parade through the Country Club Plaza, a wall-to-wall fan show at Bartle Hall or bragging rights for scoring a ticket like last year’s baseball extravaganza.
But for 21,175 fans at the MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday night — the largest crowd ever at Sporting Park — it didn’t need to.
Soccer was more than enough — plus a night that put the Kansas City area’s growing love for the sport in the international spotlight.
And fans showed it.
The stadium erupted when Sporting Kansas City’s MLS All-Stars were introduced: players Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin and head coach Peter Vermes. All three Sporting players started for the MLS All-Star Team.
Fans began arriving hours early at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.
The festivities spilled out of the stadium in every direction, from parking lots filled with tailgating to fans lining up at the park’s gates to the All-Star Game Soccer Celebration in the Nebraska Furniture Mart parking lot.
Fans — young and old — played games, posed with MLS All-Star theme cars and picked up all kinds of free bags, shirts, hats and scarves.
Children, and a handful of excited teens, kicked soccer balls into the air to send Sporting KC forward Dom Dwyer into a dunk tank. They succeeded over and over again, soaking the grinning English footballer from his bright white sneakers to his backward Adidas cap.
Other kids tackled a soccer obstacle course and played soccer video games on big-screen TVs. At one end of the festivities, in the AT Speed Zone, children battled it out for the fastest kick to win autographed jerseys, clocking in at nearly 50 mph on the radar gun.
Most of those flooding the soccer celebration were decked out in the many variations of Sporting Kansas City’s navy and light blue jerseys and shirts. Some braved the sunny, 80-plus-degree afternoon in their team scarves.
At a handful of sponsor booths, fans had another chance to meet some of soccer’s biggest names. Scores of eager fans lined up for autographs from U.S. soccer legends Alexi Lalas, Kasey Keller and Tony Meola, who played more than 100 games for the U.S. men’s national team and led the Kansas City Wizards to their only MLS Cup title in 2000.
The Thornhill family waited more than 45 minutes to meet Lalas, now an ESPN commentator.
At the front of the line, Tom Thornhill and his 13-year-old son, Jack, traded small soccer balls back and forth, excited to add Lalas’ autograph to both.
The Thornhills are a soccer family, and they have had season tickets to Sporting Kansas City since the team rebranded from the Wizards and moved into its new stadium. All three of the children play soccer now, including 5-year-old Max. When the opportunity to buy game tickets opened up for season ticket holders, they took advantage on the first day.
“So, yeah, you could say we’re believers,” Beth Thornhill said.
Other fans came from around the country to represent their teams. Some wore the neon green of the Seattle Sounders. Others sported the highlighter orange of the Houston Dynamo.
Even the MLS All-Star Team’s Italian opponent, AS Roma, had a few fans at Sporting Park. A group of 11 Roma enthusiasts traveled from Boston, Denver and even Rome to cheer on their favorite team.
“We’re the true fans,” said Roma fan Adriano Wolff of Denver.
This is the biggest all-star game the league has had, said Will Kuhns, Major League Soccer’s senior communications director. And the MLS and Sporting Kansas City have pulled out all the stops in the week leading up to the game –– concerts at Kansas City’s Power Light District, fundraisers around the city and opportunities to meet professional soccer players.
Sporting Kansas City’s ownership and loyal fan base have created a great culture for soccer in Kansas City, Kuhns said. The team has as many fans and is as successful as teams in larger cities, and that’s why the league chose Sporting Park as this year’s host.
“What they’ve done over the past two and a half, three years in reviving this team, this club and making it about more than just the game, (this All-Star Game) is really a celebration of that,” he said.
Before 6 p.m., Juan Olivas pulled his sons, 11-year-old Diego and 17-year-old Carlos, away from the soccer video games and toward the stadium’s east gate.
They are a soccer family, and they have seen the sport grow over the past few years. Juan Olivas said he is happy that new generations of soccer families are embracing the sport.
He bought tickets months ago when they first went on sale for Sporting KC season ticket holders.
“I didn’t want to miss out.”