Professional soccer was treading water in Kansas City, which has a long tradition as a hotbed for youth soccer.
Kansas City’s MLS franchise hadn’t connected in a substantive way with the town it called home before OnGoal purchased the franchise six years ago.
Even the first few years after local ownership took over, the club that would become Sporting Kansas City was a prime candidate for relocation if the MLS decided to move a team.
Known as the Wizards at the time, the club ranked last in the league in attendance four times from 1997-2001 and also drew the smallest average crowd each season from 2005-2008.
Tonight, that same fan base – one that scarcely existed as recently as four years ago – gets to show how far it has come when the U.S. men’s national team wraps up the CONCACAF semifinal round of FIFA World Cup qualifying with a 6 p.m. kickoff against Guatemala at Livestrong Sporting Park.
Despite opening 16 months ago, Livestrong already has earned a reputation as one of the toughest places to play in MLS. Teams typically played scared soccer against Sporting KC, packing the box with defenders and scarcely venturing out of their half of the field.
It’s a strategy that occasionally works for the visitors, but there’s no denying the influence Livestrong and its crowd, which combine to form one of the most rabid and electrifying atmospheres in U.S. soccer, have on every match.
“Livestrong is absolutely incredible,” said Alexi Lalas, who played 30 games for the then-Wizards in 1999. “You can throw that stadium up against any stadium in the world. Is it stunning? Yeah, I’d be lying if I said I predicted it, but that’s a credit to the visionaries – the guys who can look at a desert and see Las Vegas.”
As the U.S. men look forward to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying next year, hoping to emerge from “The Hex” and qualify for a seventh consecutive World Cup, Livestrong almost certainly will be in line for another qualifier.
Whether that game will be the coveted Mexico match might hinge on how comfortable Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. side feels tonight within Livestrong’s friendly confines – and, conversely, how uncomfortable Guatemala is.
“The reality of soccer in this country is at times we will play qualifiers in stadiums where we’re playing at home, but it doesn’t feel like it,” said Michael Bradley, who plays center midfielder at Roma in Italy’s Serie A. “ You can feel the excitement, you can feel the passion this area has for the game and the passion (it has) for the team.
“The opportunity for us to step onto the field tomorrow night in a beautiful stadium on a great field in front of a big-time American crowd, that’s something we don’t get all the time.”
The last few World Cup cycles saw the home match with Mexico at Columbus Crew Stadium, but Livestrong could wrest away the most important qualifying game in one of the world’s fiercest international soccer rivalries.
“It’s the perfect setting for these types of games,” Lalas said. “People have talked a lot about Columbus over the years and that place has been a fortress for the national team, but it would great for a new Columbus to come along. With all due respect to Crew Stadium, the difference in amenities – and it’s a great place – but compared to Livestrong it’s night and day.”
Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman promised to make Livestrong the nation’s preeminent venue for soccer – a promise that he’s delivered on, forking over $350,000 for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final and bringing in both U.S. national teams as well as matches with four top-flight international clubs already.
And it’s no secret that Sporting KC’s ownership would love to land the U.S.-Mexico game.
“What dictates if this will become a tradition is the environment created in the stadium and how that affects the U.S. performance,” Lalas said. “You have to want and deserve those U.S. games, but I definitely see Livestrong being more and more. The great thing about KC is that the folks there want that responsibility.”
So, what do the fans need to do tonight to earn a crack at hosting the Mexico match?
“That’s an easy question,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said, “just do what they do every time they’re at Livestrong. Our fans are absolutely incredible. I think the U.S. soccer would be smart to play that game here.”