By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
July 26, 2013
Here on the eve of Major League Soccer’s annual All Star break, it would have been hard to fathom a decade ago that such a summer soccer spectacular would ever be held in Kansas City.
In the Kansas City MLS franchise’s early years, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, attendance was sparse, Veeck-like gimmicks were high, and the squad, then known as the Wizards, was playing in a minor league baseball stadium.
But that all changed after the club switched ownership in 2006 and entered into a public-private partnership with the city to build its own soccer-specific stadium. Today, the rebranded Sporting KC is one of MLS’ top franchises, regularly selling out 20,000-seat Sporting Park, hosting globally televised international friendlies—and most importantly, contending for the league title.
And in most respects, the rise of Sporting KC directly parallels the rise of MLS in the United States. Today, the seemingly ever-expanding league is seeing record attendance and ratings, growing an international fan base (especially in Latin America), and is on a fast track to turn the “Big Four” of American pro sports leagues—the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL—into the Big Five.
As with all other pro sports leagues’ All-Star festivities, the multitude of events around Kansas City’s Power and Light District are primarily a means to better reel in casual fans. The popular sports and entertainment district will be the hub of all fan-facing activity around the 2013 AT&T MLS All-Star Game. Centered at the KC Live! Stage @ the Kansas City Power & Light District, the festival will stretch across several days and include concerts, competitions, kid-centered activities, and parties in downtown Kansas City. Highlighting KC flavors (barbeque!), music, and Midwestern sensibilities, the celebration of local culture will amplify the MLS All-Star message.
The rapid spread of MLS isn’t the only thing that’s growing the game of soccer at the grassroots level in the U.S. The growth in America’s Hispanic population has increased Hispanic soccer participation at both the youth and adult levels. Outside of building a fan base, major soccer brands have also tried for years to tap into Latino communities to develop young soccer stars. None has been more successful than the Alianza, the only multicultural soccer program that not only engages the Latino audience, but also plugs Hispanic American youth into pro teams in Mexico via a series of uber-competitive workouts coast to coast.
Talent scouts from Mexico’s Liga MX teams, such as Chivas de Guadalajara, Club America, Pumas, and Monarcas Morelia, attend the free tryouts, at which 13-19 year- old players scrimmage under the close eye of the scouts. Of the thousands of kids showing their stuff across America, only 48 will advance to the national tryouts in Los Angeles in November, with only a handful earning spots on Liga MX development teams.
"We give these guys 35 minutes to sweat and to really show what they have," Juan Ignacio Blanco, general manager of the Alianza, told USA Today. "This is an opportunity that isn’t happening anywhere else."
Elsewhere, other growth continues. MLS DC United and Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray earlier this week announced that the team and D.C. officials have reached a preliminary $300 million deal to build a new soccer-specific stadium at that city’s Buzzard Point. The deal, according to the Washington Post, would allow the club to leave its current RFK Stadium digs. DC United Managing Partner Jason Levien shared that the club "has yet to decide whether to build a 20,000-seat stadium with room for expansion or build 25,000 seats at the start." The cost to the city is an estimated $140-150 million, with United picking up the other half of the tab. United aims to begin play in its new stadium in 2016.
While DC plans are moving along, MLS’ plan to build a new soccer stadium in Queens has fallen through after the expansion New York City Football Club failed to gain government support in the borough. Given that NYC FC is 20% owned by the Yankees, the league and club will turn their attention to sites in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium. It’s likely the club could actually play games at Yankee Stadium while it seeks a more permanent option.
It was no secret that MLS Commissioner Don Garber made it his personal mission to put the league’s 20th franchise in one of New York’s five boroughs. After striking out in Queens, and with David Beckham exploring expansion opportunities, you have to wonder if the league rushed to put its 20th team in New York without a viable stadium plan.
Looking ahead to next summer, Garber and MLS Timbers Owner Merritt Paulson just announced that the 2014 MLS All-Star Game will be played at Portland’s Jeld-Wen Field. Along with Sporting KC and the Seattle Sounders FC, the Timbers are MLS’ most prominent success story, and, like the Alianza, a terrific example of how soccer’s popularity has spread throughout North America.
The global foe for the 2014 All-Star squad has not yet been announced; the role of international spoiler in KC next week will be played by Serie A club AS Roma. Buona fortuna.