By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 27, 2013) US Soccer Players - There’s a party planned for December 7th and the whole of American soccer is invited. The ostensible reason for the gathering in Kansas City, Kansas is to crown a Major League Soccer champion for the 2013 season. The other, unbilled, but perhaps more meaningful reason is to celebrate the stunning turnaround of soccer’s fortunes in a Midwestern market once thought to be a lost cause.
The story of the MLS revival in Kansas City began not in 2011, the club’s first season with the “Sporting” moniker and the year their state-of-the-art stadium opened, but in 2006. That was the year Hunt Sports sold the then-Wizards to a group made up of local business leaders. Operating under the name “OnGoal”, the group worked diligently to build a permanent home for the team, intent on saving them from a relocation many took as an eventuality. After several false starts, the group built Sporting Park in time for the 2011 season.
Two years later, the club stands on the precipice of an MLS Cup title. With all due respect to the 2000 Kansas City Wizards, a championship in 2013 would the pinnacle of soccer in Kansas City. An MLS Cup would represent the crowning achievement of a process that saw OnGoal turn one of the League’s failures-in-waiting into a rousing success story. Not only is Kansas City’s team good and their stadium a shining beacon for the sport in the vastness of the Midwest, but a new wave of fans make the club stand out from its peers in way unimaginable just a few years ago.
Locally, Sporting Kansas City is a phenomenon that proves the area has an appetite for soccer properly presented. Nationally, the story of Kansas City’s rise to professional soccer hotbed from the doldrums of their previous incarnation proves that such a reversal is possible.
That possibility adds significant value to each and every MLS franchise. Without a decades-long track record to prove the worth of professional soccer teams in the United States (not to mention the history of failure), Sporting Kansas City is a reason for investors to spend their money. Be it a brand new expansion team or an older underachieving franchise, Sporting provides hope.
Every market is different, and Sporting’s achievements are not directly applicable everywhere. Still, the depths from which a team once known as the Wiz that played their games at a mammoth football stadium and then an independent league baseball venue? Let's just say there's substantial upside on display in MLS.
It helps that Sporting is good, of course. OnGoal’s success is about the stadium, and the image, and the closer connection between the team and the fans, but it is most importantly about the product they rolled out over three consecutive seasons under Peter Vermes. The new Sporting is athletic, aggressive, entertaining, and perfectly suited to attracting a new generation of fans (while skirting the more difficult work of creating a team that can play an attractive, possession style). This year’s team might not even be the best of the bunch, yet because of the MLS playoff system and their year-to-year consistency, they’ve arrived in the final round. By giving themselves a chance, Sporting finally reached the biggest game of the year.
Do we dare suggest that it’s better Sporting reached this moment now, rather than in the first or second year of the experiment? Three years is just long enough for Kansas City to prove that the whole thing is no fluke, that it’s not a fad bolstered by temporary interest that will fade with time. We don’t yet know how Sporting will navigate a run of poor seasons (though it’s not necessarily assured that they’ll have one), or if they crowds will show up if the team isn’t contending. What we see is that there’s clearly a solid base that will serve the club well no matter what the future brings.
It bears mention, if only because they themselves are an MLS success story and they’ll be in Kansas City trying to spoil Sporting’s party. Real Salt Lake’s path from expansion team to model franchise status was more or less a straight line (and a much shorter one).
Built on the backs of savvy soccer minds like Garth Lagerwey and Jason Kreis and the business savvy of former owner Dave Checketts, RSL turned a small market expansion team (with plenty of doubt flying around them in the beginning) into an MLS flag bearer in just a handful of years. They too built a fantastic venue that elevated presentation of the sport. They too created strong bonds with their fan base. They too turned themselves into a consistent winner, winning an MLS Cup title in 2009, finishing second in the region a year later, and remaining in the upper echelon of Major League Soccer ever since.
There are many similarities between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City off the field, save for the crucial fact that Kansas City’s soccer passion needed resuscitation while Salt Lake City’s blossomed in just a few years. That difference is reason to celebrate not only Sporting’s run to the MLS Cup Final or their hosting of the event at a jewel of a stadium symbolic of soccer’s advancement in the United States, but the fact that they’ve reached this point at all.
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