On the heels of his World Cup breakthrough showing, Sporting Kansas City captain Matt Besler flew to ESPN studios on Thursday to cycle through a series of national TV and radio programs. At the conclusion of his first two stops, Besler made a point to turn the conversation from the United States men’s national team to Major League Soccer.
“I want to challenge the casual fans that watch the World Cup to start watching MLS,” Besler said during his appearance on “SportsCenter” on Thursday morning. “Pick a team and start following us — because the quality is high.”
“Pick Kansas City, actually,” he added. “Why not?”
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It was four years ago that fans did pick Kansas City after an admirable World Cup run from the United States. A subsequent Sporting Kansas City rebrand and new soccer-specific stadium led to an increase of more than 7,000 fans per home match.
The rebrand earned its credit for the growth. But so, too, did a wave of World Cup momentum that bears striking similarities to 2014.
Can the club capture that lightning once again?
“What’s happening is even the people who are already interested in Sporting Kansas City have again been given another perspective on the game globally,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “Everybody is completely concentrated on the game worldwide. That brings a lot more attention to us because when the World Cup is over, they now became even more focused on their city teams. You return to the grass roots of your hometown.”
A home match Sunday figures to provide a good start to the mission. In Sporting Kansas City’s first home MLS match in six weeks, the club is expecting its largest crowd of the season, according to a team spokesman. It serves as no coincidence that will follow four crowds of more than 10,000 fans who gathered inside the Power & Light District for the U.S. men’s national-team matches.
The large home crowds, of course, are certainly nothing new to Sporting Park, which should welcome its 45th consecutive MLS sellout Sunday.
But the club has been cautious to get comfortable with attendance figures. Four years after the 2010 World Cup sparked an increase in home crowds, Sporting KC hopes the growth this time comes in the form of the brand spreading to new fans in Kansas City and beyond.
“It’s about taking things to the next level and really grabbing hold of the millennial generation,” said Jonathan Kaplan, Sporting KC’s digital and communications manager. “We want to have one of the largest digital presences among MLS teams, as well as among businesses in Kansas City.
“We were very active on social (media) during the World Cup to continue to get our brand in front of sports fans in Kansas City, and (we) saw significant growth in our platforms.”
The presence of Besler and Graham Zusi on the national team lent support to the expansion. That notion makes retaining both players even more vital.
Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman said Thursday that the club has received “enormous interest” in Besler the last three weeks and acknowledged it’s a “strong possibility” Besler will leave his hometown club and make the leap to an overseas club.
As the team tries to reproduce some of the World Cup momentum, Heineman acknowledged the importance of keeping a player the fan base has grown to recognize as one its own.
“We realize what Matt has meant not only to us but also to this city,” Heineman said. “We’re going to do everything we can to stay in a competitive position to keep him.”
Besler was one of 10 MLS players on the U.S. roster during this summer’s World Cup — as compared with only four in 2010 — which offers another indication of the league’s progression. Americans Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley have returned to MLS.
The league is also set to welcome well-known Spanish striker David Villa to New York City’s expansion team next season. Brazilian player Kaka will be a part of the Orlando City expansion roster next season.
“You’re talking about different players coming to our league or back into our league who are still in their prime,” Vermes said. “That’s changing where our standard is, for sure.”
But will it increase the team’s and the league’s fan base as it did four years ago?
Viewership for this summer’s World Cup is up more than 1 million viewers per match compared with 2010, according to ESPN. A YouTube video featuring one of the World Cup watch parties in Kansas City has been viewed 950,000 times.
It’s a hot time for soccer.
The power of the World Cup? Sure. An opportunity for Sporting Kansas City and the MLS? You bet.
“There’s no doubt the U.S. team and the coverage ESPN has done on the World Cup can give us a huge injection into the profile of the MLS,” Vermes said. “When that many players in the MLS are playing in one World Cup game, that says a lot about the league and how these guys can compete at that level. And fans can see that.”
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CHICAGO FIRE AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY
WHEN/WHERE: 2 p.m. Sunday, at Sporting Park
TV/RADIO: ESPN; WHB (810 AM)
ABOUT CHICAGO (2-4-9): The Fire is on a five-match winless streak and has not won an MLS match since a 2-1 victory against Sporting KC on May 18. In that match, Mike Magee converted two penalty kicks and the Fire played most of the second half with a man advantage. Chicago rookie forward Harry Shipp has scored six goals in his last seven matches.
ABOUT SPORTING KC (7-5-4): The club has produced back-to-back shutouts — resulting in keeper Eric Kronberg receiving player-of-the-month honors for June. Benny Feilhaber is scheduled to return to the lineup after participating in a full week of training. He has not played since June 6 because of a shoulder injury. Claudio Bieler (hamstring) and Lawrence Olum (groin) are questionable.
BOTTOM LINE: Sporting KC has kept pace in the Eastern Conference standings despite missing Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, who aren't expected to suit up Sunday but will be in attendance. Sporting KC has lost only once at home this season, and Chicago has won just once on the road.
PREDICTION: Sporting KC 2, Chicago 0