Kansas City has transformed itself into a loud -- and proud -- soccer community

July 30, 2013

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- He remembers the conversation to the letter, largely because he figured the guy was a few animal crackers shy of a box. A soccer-themed bar? In the heart of suburban Kansas City? As a business investment? Are you crazy? Here's my shirt. You want the pants, too?

"I thought it limited your (audience) a little bit," Pat Phelan says, chuckling.

This was January. On a gloomy Tuesday, in the death throes of July, the Futbol Club Eatery & Tap of Overland Park, Kan., wipes the sleep out of its eyes as the lunch hour approaches. On one of the half-dozen flat-screen televisions that brace the bar, there's a repeat of a Champions League match between FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain via the FOX Soccer Channel. A few feet away, it's horse racing from Goodwood Racecourse in the UK, via Al Jazeera's beIN Sport network.

One wall is devoted to giant pictures of Wayne Rooney and Hope Solo; the others are lined with framed soccer jerseys, from the internationally renowned (goalkeeper Tim Howard's shirt from his Manchester United days) to the provincial (the orange hues of Baker University, an NAIA school in Baldwin, Kan., some 33 miles west). A giant glass case toward the party room out back houses soccer balls adorned with the logos of each Major League Soccer club, including the familiar sky-blue shield of Sporting Kansas City.

Scarves of storied national teams -- Italy, Ireland, etc. -- dangle from the ceilings. An outdoor patio is lined with couches and comfy chairs, where more hi-def flat-screens hang from a wall. There's a foosball table and a bar that serves Newcastle Brown Ale, Old Style, and any matter of suds in between. It's Drew Carey's man cave on steroids, more or less, a painstakingly detailed tribute to the Beautiful Game, an oasis of fish-'n'-chips in burnt-ends-and-brisket country.

"There's one thing that works with theme restaurants," says Phelan, president of Leap Hospitality, a company that specializes in food and beverage development/management and helped to get Futbol Club off the ground for an April launch. "If you can tap into passion and a way of life, and if you bring that into a restaurant, it works really well."

Because in Kansas City, soccer works. It's no longer a cult thing, no longer simply the provincial domain of the very posh or the very foreign, no longer a sport confined to the margins of popular culture.

It's ... cool.

It's cool the way the NHL was cool in 1994, the way NASCAR was cool in 2001. Sporting KC logos are everywhere, especially in the more affluent Kansas suburbs to the south and west. The club's home, Sporting Park, is at the center of a business/shopping development hub known as "The Legends," some 17 miles west of downtown along I-70; it's arguably the top soccer-specific stadium in the United States and the site of Wednesday night's MLS All-Star Game. The $36 million Overland Park Soccer Complex, located just three miles south of Futbol Club, is one of the elite facilities of its kind in North America, home to 96 pristine acres that include 12 lighted synthetic-turf fields, three cafes, basketball and tennis courts, a skate park, and multiple playgrounds. It's home to the Heartland Soccer Association, which includes more than 800 teams, 13,000 youth players and 2,000 coaches.

Sporting leads the MLS Eastern Conference. FC Kansas City sits atop the new women's pro soccer circuit, the National Women's Soccer League. Last year, the web site Livability.com declared Overland Park the top soccer city in America; now it boasts its very own soccer-themed restaurant and pub.

"I've lived here for 17 years and no way would (a soccer bar) have worked (then)," Phelan says. "Five years ago, I don't know if it would've worked. Yeah, five or 10 years ago, no way -- I never would've seen it here.

"And I wasn't a real big soccer fan. I didn't understand the game as much five or six years ago. Now I catch myself watching matches on TV and really interested and understanding the strategy. It's overtaking hockey a little bit. I think it's the fourth major sport in the United States."

There are a few theories as to how we got here, but they all generally circle back to those two big, shiny jewels: Sporting Park -- formerly known as Livestrong Sporting Park -- which opened in 2011 in the far western 'burbs of Wyandotte County; and the Overland Park Soccer Complex to the south, which opened in 2009.

"I think Kansas City has always had the potential to be a very good soccer city," says Missouri-Kansas City women's soccer coach Chris Cissell, who worked in the front office during the first season of the MLS' Kansas City Wiz, which would be renamed Wizards and later "re-branded" as Sporting KC.

"But I do believe that the MLS and the Wizards/Sporting deserve a lot of the credit. These guys have grown up watching soccer at the highest level, going to games."

Sporting is chasing its third straight conference title since moving into 18,467-seat Sporting Park in the summer of 2011. It has been the perfect convergence of ownership, coaching, talent and facilities -- not unlike what the Royals experienced in the mid '70s through the '80s shortly after Kauffman Stadium's 1973 opening; or the Chiefs' "Martyball" renaissance of the late '80s/early '90s under the Carl Peterson/Marty Schottenheimer regime.

Which makes those who remember the, shall we say, humble beginnings all the more proud. From 1996-2007, the Wiz/Wizards played their home matches at Arrowhead Stadium, where even a good crowd -- say, 20,000 -- felt sparse in a building that seated more than 79,000.

Despite an MLS Cup victory in 2000, the atmosphere was often reminiscent of a wake. When word got out that Wizards owner Lamar Hunt was looking to unload the team roughly a decade ago, many of the hard-core faithful feared the worst.

"There was about a six-, nine-, 12-month period I was really scared and really nervous," Cissell says. "I actually thought there was a chance that Kansas City was going to lose the MLS."

Those fears were unfounded, as the Hunt family sold the franchise to a local ownership group known then as OnGoal LLC in August 2006. But they weren't out of the woods yet; plans to build a new soccer-specific park in Missouri, within the southeastern 'burbs, stalled during the first painful bites of the Great Recession.

But a financing plan with Wyandotte County got the green light in January 2010; along with it, the train started moving forward again -- and with more steam than ever. While the club played at the minor league CommunityAmerica Ballpark on an interim basis, plans were made for a new name, a new team crest and a new color scheme to go along with the new digs.

A cavernous, sparse environment at Arrowhead became one of the MLS' most electric at Sporting Park. The team averaged 9,112 fans in 2000 during its Cup-winning campaign back at the Truman Sports Complex; Sporting averaged 19,404 last season.

And as the legend has grown, so has the interest from the biggest movers and shakers in the sport. The park has hosted the U.S. men's national team twice since its June 2011 debut, and in October will feature the 2014 World Cup qualifying match between the U.S. and Jamaica.

"So to think from where we've come from, to think we've gone from having a team playing in front of 5,000 (at Arrowhead) to playing in a semi-pro baseball stadium to where they are now," Cissell says. "It's incredible."

Which is not to say there aren't skeptics, even during All-Star week, even as the town's soccermania climbs toward an apex. Some point to Sporting's attendance surge as bandwagon-hopping, that these things are cyclical, perhaps even bolstered by the latent struggles of the Chiefs and Royals.

Loyalists counter that there's room behind football, baseball and college basketball in this market, that everyone can coexist, and that soccer's gains with this generation of youth -- kids hitting their teens and 20s now -- is going to stick and, eventually, be passed on to their children.

"I think it's staying, for sure," Cissel says. "Soccer is on TV all the time now; when I was growing up, there was no soccer on TV. You can watch soccer 24-7 now. These kids are growing up with how my parents grew up as St. Louis Cardinals fans, with Cardinals baseball."

And more are coming, by the thousands. Richard Davies, director of league operations with Heartland Soccer, says the number of youth teams signing up has reached 1,100 — or more than 300 more than when he first joined the organization five years ago.

"I think even though it seems like we've gotten to a point where it's reaching the summit of whatever we're trying to build," Davies says, "I think within the league, we've got record numbers signed up for the fall season."

Nor does it hurt that those kids have icons, local icons, on which to cling: U.S. men's national team defender Matt Besler, a pillar of the Sporting back line, hails from Overland Park. So does U.S. women's national team midfielder Jordan Jackson.

"I think the city deserves the All-Star Game," Sporting defender Aurelien Collin says. "We've been a great city, a great soccer city. The last three years, we've been getting bigger. And now we can call ourselves a real soccer city."

Proudly. With a straight face.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com