Cliff Illig stood on the perfect grass field, eyes fixed upon the clear night sky. He felt the goosebumps on his arms, the knots in his stomach.
This was Thursday evening, just minutes before Sporting Kansas City’s 0-0 draw against Chicago in its first-ever game at Livestrong Sporting Park, and in an instant, it came. The black stealth bomber, clear as night, flew – more like whooshed – overhead, to the roaring approval of the sold-out crowd of 19,925 that was sharing in the moment.
In that instant, Illig smiled, along with Sporting KC’s other four owners. This was what $147 million in star bonds, 1,000 construction workers and 16 months got them – the moment they had been waiting for, the moment that would make their state-of-the-art dream of a stadium a reality.
“Hope is a great word,” Illig said, just minutes after the national anthem. “This is about potential on the field, potential for this venue, potential for these fans to witness something they’ve never seen before in this town.
“This,” he concluded, “is the starting point.”
In his mind, in that specific moment, everything was on the table. Concerts, sold-out crowds, game-winning goals, MLS Cupsyou name it, it was possible. He and his partners had built a world-class stadium, and what they could accomplish with it was limitless.
Then the game started. And for a crowd that was itching – no, clamoring – for the hometown team to score the first goal so they could go absolutely nuts, the first half was nothing but a big tease.
Heck, it was Chicago – which was so impressed with the stadium that a number of its players were spotted snapping photos of the scene before the game – that got the first good scoring chance of the game. It came on a counter in the ninth minute, when some nifty passing opened up space in the box for Chicago midfielder Corben Bone, who got off a blast that Sporting KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen had to stretch to save.
Determined not to get outdone in its own house to a team that entered with a 1-4-7 record, Sporting KC – which entered with a 1-6-3 record – responded just minutes later with a good chance of its own when forward Teal Bunbury broke into the clear, only to get off a weak shot from distance that Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson scooped up without a problem.
A few minutes later, Sporting KC got another opportunity when midfielder Kei Kamara sped past his defender on the right side and sent in a low cross toward designated player Omar Bravo, who inexplicably whiffed on the shot before midfielder Graham Zusi closed in and put it into the open net for what appeared to be the first goal of the game. The referee, however, called offsides, and the score remained 0-0.
Zusi almost struck again in the 28th minute when he maneuvered just outside the box and unleashed a rocket that sailed wide of the net and drew a huge gasp from the crowd. It was a similar reaction the crowd gave in 45th minute, when Bravo got behind the defense and received a picture-perfect cross, only to miss the header.
The tease continued in the second half, as Sapong somehow snuck open on a set piece in the 62nd minute, but he mis-hit a header and buried his face in his hands.
But for all their missed opportunities, Sporting KC was solidly in control until disaster struck. In the 68th minute, Nielsen came out of the box to corral a ball, only he touched it with his hand – can’t do that – and he was handed a mandatory red card for the handball.
From that point on, Sporting KC was forced to play a man down. And given the tough luck the team has suffered while playing a man down this season – Sporting KC has a 0-3 record in those games – you could hardly blame the crowd for being terrified in the 80th minute when it looked like Chicago would make it pay for Nielsen’s mistake.
That’s when Nielsen’s replacement, Eric Kronberg, mishandled a shot that bounced right toward Chicago forward Orr Barouch, who unleashed a blast past Kronberg that miraculously hit the goalpost and was later cleared by Sporting KC.
It would be the last real heart-pounding, oh-no moment for Sporting KC, which proceeded to run out the clock and play Chicago to an unsatisfying-but-not disastrous draw.
But this night was about more than a result. It was about hope for a brighter future, one that Sporting KC’s owners hope will lead to more buzz, more money, more everything.
“The trick,” Illig said, “is we have to live up to the potential of what it is we all started here tonight.”
That process began Thursday. And while Sporting KC didn’t get a win, given the other factors that came into play – the sellout crowd, the universal praise for the stadium, the way the team somehow managed to hold on for a draw despite playing a man down for the quarter of the game – it was, at the very least, a decent start.