Since the fiasco last month that eliminated the U.S. men’s soccer team from playing in the 2018 World Cup, chaos and panic have defined the state of the program.
Two coaches have been purged in less than a year, federation president Sunil Gulati’s job seems in jeopardy, and disarray is obscuring any traction or trajectory the team seemed to be on since qualifying for every World Cup from 1990 to 2014.
With faith hard to come by, hope in the unseen improbably has been bubbling up in Kansas City, Kan., between Parallel Parkway and Schlitterbahn, framed by such landmarks as the Dairy Farmers of America building and a Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers.
In other words, a fine spot for sprouting a field of dreams.
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The 80,000 square foot National Training and Coaching Development Center, an estimated $80 million public/private partnership between Sporting Club, Children’s Mercy and the state of Kansas, is scheduled to open in the first week of December.
(The broader $93.5 million project includes the 12 fields at the nearby Wyandotte Sporting Fields complex).
As much as all concerned might have preferred it be christened off the momentum of the men’s team preparing for the World Cup in Russia, the reality spurs a different sort of urgency and energy and even opportunity.
“Couldn’t be at a better time in our state of affairs, if you will,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said as he provided a tour of the complex that he insists can reinvigorate the entire movement.
Speaking amid the din of drilling and hammering and beeping vehicles and other constant clanging, he energetically steered The Star through a meticulously detailed look-see that noted everything from fascinating new technologies to where trash receptacles will go.
“The nation is ready for this,” Vermes added, standing on a “Super Pitch” of three natural grass fields (“something I kind of designed,” he says) and looking back at the main building. “And I think we’re coming at the right time.”
In some ways, in fact, Vermes believes that the epic breakdown almost needed to happen to trigger a reformation.
Because it creates both time and perspective to address short- and long-term approaches to reinvigorate the movement, which might otherwise have remained static under the illusion the program was on the right path despite just two victories in the previous three World Cups.
Instead, the 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago that excluded the men’s national team from competing in Russia is a scream for reassessment and realignment.
“Soccer has had incredible growth over the last 20-some odd years …,” said Vermes, who has done little to douse speculation that he’d be interested in being the next U.S. coach. “But it’s like anything: You get to a certain place, and then … you start to sputter out, you start to level off.
“The question is, how do you get to the next step and the next level?”
To U.S. Soccer and Vermes, “how” fundamentally starts not just with player development efforts here but with overhauled and streamlined training of coaches and officials that will be the constant backbone and currency of the training center.
“We expect this place to be full year-round,” Vermes said, noting that U.S. Soccer already has sent education staff members here to live full-time.
The colossal failure of the men’s team reverberated here in ways both obvious and more subtly … and substantially.
Less visibly but in a deeply personal way, Sporting KC vice president of development David Ficklin absorbed the wrenching feeling, too.
“I don’t ever want to feel the way I felt that night,” said Ficklin, who is shepherding the training center project. “I don’t ever want to feel that way again.”
Especially because he believes that Sporting is on the verge of lending new meaning to the organization’s proclamation of Kansas City as “the soccer capital of America.”
As you can see on a mural downtown, in Sporting attendance at state-of-the-art Children’s Mercy Park, local World Cup TV ratings and now this …
At least if it sparks what Sporting and U.S. Soccer hope it will.
The unveiling will represent the culmination of a vision engaged five-plus years ago as Sporting brass talked about what more they could and should be doing to change soccer in America and, naturally, grow their own business and brand.
“Kind of brashly or naively,” as Ficklin put it, “someone said, ‘Well, we need to win the (men’s) World Cup.’”
If that seemed brash or naïve then, it seems all the more so now.
When the ambitious initiative was announced in 2014, it was accompanied by a statement from Gulati expressing anticipation of the national training center “hosting our national teams and coaching education programming in the future.”
And the organization has signed an agreement to be a tenant of the facility that will feature five soccer fields (with another 12 youth fields nearby) and also will become the official training site for Sporting KC and the companion component of the Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center set to open in the spring.
But it remains unclear just how often and for how long the youth and senior men’s and women’s national teams will be in residence in an endeavor that Ficklin said was intended to be “aspirational and inspirational, aesthetically beautiful as well as functional.”
After brainstorming among Sporting leaders Cliff Illig, the late Neal Patterson and CEO Robb Heineman — along with Ficklin, Vermes, U.S. Soccer and Populous architects — by the time the idea went from storyboarding to paper “we had put ourselves in the mind of every constituent” who would enter the building, Ficklin said.
So it remains the belief of Ficklin and Vermes that it’s inevitable that the comprehensive resources will make it an irresistible site for the U.S. senior national teams to use frequently as well as the current facility in Carson, Calif.
Gulati was not available to comment, but Vermes characterized U.S. Soccer as being “overwhelmed” by what it sees here … but not as much as it will be.
“They don’t know yet what they have here; they do, but they don’t,” Vermes said. “This does not exist anywhere.”
The effort is about much more than the visibility and further credibility that would come with the national teams availing themselves to resources such as the Sports Performance Lab and Hydrotherapy Suites, which will feature a neuropsychology office, hyperbaric chambers, a cryotherapy lab and a force plate for analysis of running form … and then some.
At various intervals during the tour, Vermes was about bursting as he gazed on the fields or talked about a master button that can black out windows on one side of the building or walked and re-walked through the recovery stations …
And even over a small side room for media interviews.
“You know what this will be? Do you know?” he said in a tone of wonder that underscored it all.
But what he most wants it all to be about is nurturing the future and making this the epicenter, a force that could figure in Kansas City’s appeal as a potential World Cup host city in 2026.
It’s not the same as moving the federation headquarters here from Chicago, but it’s a shift in its center of gravity.
“Because now what you’re doing, instead of being fragmented all over the country, you have a place that brings it all together,” he said.
While Ficklin is directing the project and his momentous profile includes having served as the director of the venue development team for the Sochi Olympics of 2014, Vermes has had considerable input — part of a twist that hovers over all this:
What if U.S. Soccer picks him for its vacant men’s national team head coaching job, which would mean moving only a few hundred feet from his soon-to-be Sporting office to one waiting for the new man entrusted with reviving hopes for the program?
With Gulati up for re-election in February and his own future uncertain, it’s a complicated time for the organization.
While Vermes has dismissed questions about his interest, he hasn’t exactly dismissed the notion:
Asked about it a few weeks ago, he said only that he is focused on his current job and not talking to anybody but that “anybody is going to listen to somebody when they come and talk to you.”
As a U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer and former national team player with international experience, Vermes would figure to have great appeal.
He has coached Sporting KC to the 2013 MLS Cup, among other achievements, and he often has articulated a need for closer ties between Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer — for which his Sporting team has produced national-team regulars Besler and Graham Zusi.
Moreover, during the tour, he talked about how long he’d thought about the sort of detailed things that might go into a process like this.
For now, though, all that’s clear is this:
The future of U.S. men’s soccer, not to mention the continued success of the women’s program, might hinge on to what degree this facility can raise standards.
So that being excluded from the 2018 World Cup becomes seen as pushing off bottom.
“Our goal has to be to win a World Cup, and then we have to pursue (that) every day in everything that we do to try to reach that goal,” Vermes said. “And if we do that, I’m a big believer in this country, and I think this country can do anything that it wants to. …
“A facility like this proves that we’re able to do it with bricks and mortar. Now we have to do it with our spirit and everything else.”