If you don’t like soccer, you might want to start trying, because futbol is quickly becoming the biggest sport in Kansas City. Bigger than the Chiefs. Bigger than the Royals. Sporting KC is showing those teams and the world how you go about putting together a great team that can compete for championships year after year. Whether you go to Livestrong Sporting Park to watch a Sporting KC game in person or sit at home and watch it on television, Major League Soccer is quickly becoming a must-see event. The fan base is growing and if you don’t want to miss out on all the excitement, I suggest you start doing your research for next season.
Many of you might be confused seeing that Sporting beat Houston last night 1-nil (we say nil in soccer, not zero or nothing) and still didn’t advance in the playoffs. What gives? MLS uses a World Cup/European qualifying model for the playoffs. Two games, home-and-home, aggregate scoring. Team that scores the most goals moves on. The frustration is that Sporting KC had the best record in the Eastern Conference but opened their playoff run on the road, in Houston, a place they struggle to win. Houston won the first game 2-nil, which meant Sporting needed to score three goals at home last night to advance. The problem is Sporting scores by committee. They really don’t have a true scorer. A defensive midfielder scored their only goal, and it wasn’t enough.
Why watch when there’s not enough scoring? you may ask. Because soccer is not just about scoring. Think about a football game. American style. Sometimes the touchdowns are boring. A one yard dive. A quarterback sneak. But the drive down the field is exciting. Third and long, a deep pass, caught with a one handed grab! In soccer, it’s the ball movement that is fun to watch. The passing. The fancy footwork. At first, it’s hard to see it. But the more you watch, the more you realize how athletic these guys are. Yeah, when you see a soccer player on the street he looks look like your little brother, but they can run and run and run some more without ever losing their breath or getting tired. They are physical on the pitch (you call the field the pitch, not the field) and do a lot of tackling of their own with just a skimpy pair of shin pads to protect them.
Then there’s the coaching. Peter Vermes is a heck of a coach. Yeah, he doesn’t sub as often as I’d like to see him sub, but the way he coaches this team is beautiful. His teams have been really aggressive on offense. He pushes the players up the field and wants them to take shots on goal. He wants short, crisp passes to the wing, then a high shot across where the ball can connect with a head and fly into the net. He is an awesome interview. He doesn’t lean on cliche. He speaks freely and openly about his love for his team and what they need to do to win the next game and get better. With Vermes at the helm, you can expect this team to continue winning because he’s going to keep bringing in players who subscribe to his style of aggressive team play.
The players all come across as great guys. I’ve interviewed many of them and they are humble and grateful for any media coverage they can get. Hopefully they stay that way as the team rises in Kansas City’s Q Rating. Good luck getting a Chief or Royal to say anything meaningful. But Sporting players are open and willing to answer anything you throw their way. Goalie Jimmy Nielsen is so nice, he stopped his car at a local pitch where a group of young girls were playing, got out of his car, gave them some lessons and Sporting swag, and then headed home. Matt Beasler is one of the best defenders in MLS, made the All Star team last year and grew up in Overland Park – a local kid playing for his hometown team. Think Bubba Starling in a few years. Teal Bunbury and Graham Zusi have both played for the U.S. National Team, and it feels like lightning in a bottle whenever they touch the ball. Kei Kamara and Roger Espinoza dominate their opponents regularly make magic with their feet. CJ Sapong is a rising star. Sure he struggled to score the second half but he was coming back from an injury. Hopefully he will heal and come back better than ever.
These are all names you should remember. Another name you need to know: Rob Heineman. One of the owners of the team, he is the definition of what you want an owner to be. He lives in KC. He cares about KC. He and a group of investors built a top-of-the-line stadium and are aggressive in making the team better. They put a charity’s name on their stadium with promises to donate millions for cancer research. They understand that once you establish a successful brand, once you build a massive fan base, the money will roll in. In just the past two years, Sporting has gone from last in MLS for merchandise sales to one of the top three teams. Television rights and season ticket packages have increased revenue. He took the Wizards, an under performing team that played in a minor league baseball park, and transformed it into an MLS powerhouse. How can you not root for this team, especially when it’s in your own backyard?
So some of you might never buy into this whole soccer experience, and if you don’t, I promise you, you are missing out. Take the time to watch the game, to learn it, to understand it. Go to Livestrong and see the team in person next year. Buy a Sporting hat or T-shirt and talk to your friends about the game. At least this team is winning. At least these players care about KC. At least this owner is accessible and doing things to make the team better. Can the Chiefs and Royals say all these things? Sporting KC is positioned to win and thrill fans for years to come, so you might as well jump on for the ride. It’s going to be fun!
You can contact Matt Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org