2010 World Cup crowds helped usher in a Kansas City soccer renaissance

06/14/2014 11:57 AM

06/14/2014 11:57 AM

Patrick O’Meara was 18, a budding soccer fan and looking for a place in Kansas City to watch the U.S. games during the 2010 World Cup. He heard about the watch parties at the Power & Light District and he and some buddies decided to check it out.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” O’Meara said. “But we got there and there were thousands of people. It was crazy.”

And O’Meara wasn’t there for the biggest bash, the U.S. match with Ghana in the round of 16, when the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd gushed with such joy over Landon Donovan’s game-tying goal, a scene that went viral. But O’Meara was swept up in the atmosphere during the group-stage games against the likes of Slovenia and Algeria.

Four years and a few days into this World Cup, O’Meara plans watch party excursions to the P&L, except when the U.S. team plays, like at 5 p.m. Monday against Ghana. He’ll be tending bar at Futbol Club Eatery & Tap in Overland Park, a sports tavern and restaurant dedicated to soccer, and soccer enthusiasts are expected there and in sports bars throughout the area over the next month.

For several reasons, the soccer needle in Kansas City appears to be pushing an all-time high. Sporting KC is the defending Major League Soccer champion and two of its players, midfielders Graham Zusi and defender Matt Besler, from Overland Park, are members of the U.S. team. Games at Sporting Park regularly sell out, and a month-long outdoor, downtown party revolves around watching soccer.

The Power & Light District estimated 35,000 attended the watch parties four years ago, and considering the changed landscape of soccer in Kansas City since then, projecting greater numbers is an easy call.

“We do expect an increase this year,” said Nick Benjamin, executive director of the Power & Light District. “The incredible popularity and brand power of Sporting KC, the growing popularity of soccer in general and the increased energy downtown should make for a tremendous month.”

If the U.S. team, like it did in 2010, advances to the knockout rounds, Benjamin expects street closures around the P&L with as many as 20,000 converging on the district.

To watch soccer.

Who would have thought?

“The difference between where we are and where we used to be as a soccer town is night and day,” Sporting KC defender Seth Sinovic said.

Sinovic grew up playing in the area’s youth leagues and attended Rockhurst High. His first two MLS years were spent in New England, which means he never played for the Wizards and his one game as a visitor was contested in CommunityAmerica Ballpark.

“It’s been incredible to see the transformation,” Sinovic said.

In 2010, the seeds planted for soccer growth in Kansas City were poised to flower. Lamar Hunt, the soccer-loving owner of the Chiefs who was a principal founder of MLS, sold the Wizards in 2006 to a group led by Cerner Corporation executives Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig.

The new owners soon began planning their move from Arrowhead Stadium and into a soccer-specific structure. Ground was broken what would become Sporting Park in January 2010.

Still, the outward signs of area soccer interest remained largely unchanged. The Wizards’ attendance remained in the 10,000-11,000 range, ranking last in the league from 2005-08. The team typically played around .500 or below and won one playoff game in a six-year stretch.

So, when the Wizards partnered with the Power & Light District for World Cup watch parties in 2010, there was scant reason to anticipate a soccer scene. Sporting KC chief revenue officer Jake Reid had been with the organization for about two months, then running ticket sales, and was part of the planning for the P&L parties.

“I don’t believe we thought it was going to be as big as it turned out,” Reid said. “A couple of thousand for a (U.S.) game, maybe.”

Many more showed up for the U.S. games — Power & Light officials estimated 10-12,000 in district, including the bars and restaurants — and when Donovan scored on the penalty kick against Ghana, the celebration was posted and the comments flowed.

“I never expected to see a scene like this in the U.S., and right here in Kansas City…

“12,000 people gathering in America to watch soccer on TV is epic. 12,000 people gathering in Kansas City to watch soccer on TV is even more epic.”

“Kansas City has the best US soccer supporters.”

Television ratings didn’t exactly support the enthusiasm. According to ESPN, the Kansas City market tied for 31st with a 2.0 rating for 2010 World Cup games on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC. But it did match Denver, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Orlando, Fla., and improved from a 1.5 rating in 2006.

Maybe Kansas City’s TV number would have been higher had it counted watch partiers such as Sporting KC assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin. He was there for games against Ghana and Algeria — which featured another late Donovan goal — and caught off guard by the throngs.

“It was genuine excitement for the games, and there’s no way you would have had that in 2006 or 2002,” Zavagnin said. “It was an indication that soccer had at least made it on the map here.”

If it had been just that moment, thousands of fans reveling in a summer party, Kansas City would have taken a pat on the back and soccer might have been slow business as usual.

But things started happening.

A month after the World Cup, 52,424 watched the Wizards defeated Manchester United in a friendly at Arrowhead, setting an attendance record for a soccer match in Kansas City.

Zavagnin was a midfielder on the Wizards’ 2000 MLS Cup and 2004 U.S. Open Cup teams, and didn’t sense a groundswell of momentum for Kansas City soccer from either championship.

Then 2010 hit, and he looked around the P&L and Arrowhead in amazement.

“So, we start asking, how do we build on this?” Zavagnin said.

That November, team was rebranded Sporting KC, and some eyes rolled over the European-style name. But the following June, Sporting Park opened to rave reviews. In the first season with a new home and name, Sporting KC posted its best record since 2004, reached the conference finals and attendance jumped by more than 7,000 per game.

“All that’s good, but what’s next, because when you’re on the inside you’re never thinking about where you are, you’re trying to figure out how we can make it better,” Zavagnin said.

In 2012, Sporting KC won its second Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, in 2013 its second MLS Cup. Its home sellout streak stands at 44 games.

Zavagnin pauses for a moment as he considers how Kansas City can continue the momentum. Then he thinks of Besler, the former Blue Valley West standout about to appear his sport’s grandest stage.

“There’s the what’s next,” Zavagnin said. “A kid from Overland Park is playing in the World Cup. How about that?”

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @BlairKerkhoff.

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