KC’s soccer boom reflects Lamar Hunt’s vision, Sporting’s results

07/01/2014 10:48 PM

07/02/2014 10:03 AM

Here they were again Tuesday, during work hours, no less, 10,000-plus fans swarming the Power & Light District.

They were shoehorned and sardined in every crevice and cranny and stairstep not for America’s Game (football), for which this sort of thing might seem routine, but for the World’s Game (futbol).

They dressed up in gaudy gear and preened for the ESPN camera that kept flashing to the scene, so many times it might have seemed as if Kansas City were the center of the U.S. soccer universe.

They roared every time Sporting KC’s Matt Besler or Graham Zusi were on the big screen and ooohed when fleeting scoring opportunities were squandered and sagged when Team USA fell behind 2-0 to Belgium.

Then they were resuscitated when 19-year-old Julian Green made the rally seem possible with a goal in the 107th minute.

And finally they hugged or cried or buried their painted faces in flags when their team finally succumbed 2-1 to fall out of the competition after breaking through to the round of 16 by surviving the “Group of Death.”

It was a mesmerizing game, appropriately played into extra time and lost through no fault of beleaguered goalie Tim Howard. His 16 saves were the most in a World Cup game since 1966 and made a valiant loss out of what might well have been a thumping.

As all this unfurled around him, Cliff Illig, 63, thought back eight summers ago.

He couldn’t so much as spell soccer then, he said with a laugh. He also allowed as how it was possible he was pleased when his children’s games would end.

Or as he put it, “We could hardly wait until they quit playing.”

Then one night in the summer of 2006, Illig and his Cerner co-founder, Neal Patterson, had dinner with Lamar and Clark Hunt at the Capital Grille.

And that explains something about how Kansas City’s past and present and maybe a hint of its future came to converge at the P&L the last few weeks as soccer further permeates the broader American sporting landscape.

That includes the hearts and minds of others in Illig’s age range, even those who don’t, say, have an ownership role with a professional soccer team as he does.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of holdouts.

But it is to say that the game has arrived here and gradually will chisel into more of the entertainment pie now that more than a generation of children has played it.

For that matter, it has an upward arc into the worlds of some who had foresworn it that mirrors its trajectory in Illig’s life since 2006.

At the time, the elder Hunt, the remarkable visionary whose enterprises included the Chiefs and the founding of Major League Soccer, was seeking to sell the Kansas City Wizards.

During the meeting that came just months before Hunt’s death, Illig recalled, Hunt stressed four key points.

The first was that “soccer is the world’s game, and even out here in the flatlands we’re becoming much more global in our perspective.”

He then noted that the rising “Hispanic demographic in this country is going to create a demand for high-quality football, soccer, in this country.”

His third point, Illig said, was that there already were 110,000 kids who played soccer in this region.

“And the way I look at it, ‘Those are all future season ticket holders,’” Illig quoted Hunt saying. “And that was a classic Lamar Hunt statement.

“But his final point, which we found most compelling, was he said Kansas City is a major league city in the minds of most of the rest of the country because of our major league sports franchises.

“‘If we lose one of those,’ and he put the Wizards in there with the Chiefs and the Royals, ‘we’re going to become less major league.’”

All of this and Hunt’s “infectious enthusiasm” resonated with Illig even if soccer itself didn’t.

And there were others the sport spoke to (perhaps particularly Robb Heineman) in the prospective ownership group of local entrepreneurs that became OnGoal LLC and bought the team some weeks later.

This ultimately hatched the rebranding to Sporting KC and Sporting Park, the soccer-specific state-of-the-art gem that also reflected a fundamental belief of Hunt’s.

Such a strong belief, in fact, that Illig recalled him saying, “All I ask is that you guys promise me that you’ll do your best to put the (team) into a soccer-specific” stadium.

That begat a local surge in interest and the MLS All-Star Game last summer and Sporting’s league championship last December and its investment in the game’s growth at the youth level and, of course, having two Sporting players on the U.S. team.

That includes Besler, the Overland Park native who is the first local product to play in the World Cup.

Sporting’s success, of course, doesn’t account for all of the pageantry at the P&L.

But it’s hard not to think Tuesday wouldn’t have looked a little different if not for all of the forces converging at once: the ones that Hunt had pictured, the emergence of the franchise, the awakening of a fan base that Illig believes Sporting helped energize but credits for sticking with the team too.

Whether it’s running their other businesses or Sporting, Illig added, “We believe in the demographic that is attracted to soccer. That’s the future of our region.”

As he spoke during halftime, he glanced at the TV screen nearby: ESPN was zooming in on the fans just outside where he was sitting.

“There’s Kansas City,” he said.

And, yes, there it was and is.

“It’s a pretty nice thing to watch,” he said.

And a nice thing to be part of bringing together just a few years after such a scene would have seemed preposterous here.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at vgregorian.

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