I’ve gotten to watch a lot of soccer over the years. Whether it has been on TV or in the stadium, I have gotten to spend a lot of time (especially in the past five years) watching the beautiful game.
Obviously, seeing a game live is the ultimate experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to see live matches in England, Hungary, Germany, South Korea and the USA. I’ve got great memories from my experiences: The most expensive ticket was in England, the best atmosphere in Germany, the cheapest ticket in Hungary, the best place to spend a Sunday watching a game was in South Korea at the Seoul World Cup Stadium.
Yet, despite living most of my life in America I’ve only seen one professional match in person due to various reason, including Kansas City being three hours away from my hometown in Missouri. With the country so large and teams spread out across the US and Canada, it is quite difficult to see a game unless you live in a major city.
In 2007, my friend Erik and I made the journey to Kansas City to witness the then Kansas City Wizards (now known as Sporting KC) take on FC Dallas. America’s Major League Soccer was not at the height it currently is, and as a matter of fact, it was having a rebirth in 2007; 12 years after its inception. If you happen to watch a match this weekend, you will see nearly sold-out stadiums and fans enjoying the spectacle.
Back then it was a little different, especially in Kansas City. Kansas City – like Columbus – was a questionable choice by MLS. The city lays on the opposite side of Missouri from St. Louis, a city that had a strong soccer community dating back to the 70′s.
Over the 12 years before I attended my first match, the Wizards looked likely to move away from Missouri. The club came very close to leaving for Rochester, New York in 2002, but fortunately for the true fans, the club stayed.
In 2007, the Wizards played in the cavernous Arrowhead Stadium. An American football stadium that, at the time, had a capacity of nearly 80,000. Kansas City’s average attendance between their inception in 1996 and 2007 was just over 11,000 a match. Those stats may have been embellished by the club and league as well. This match, coincidentally, would also be the first of many matches I’d see over the years in nearly empty stadiums.
Though 11,000 people is good for the US’s fourth, fifth or sixth sport (behind American football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey and possibly NASCAR racing), in a nearly 80,000 seat stadium it looks quite sad.
Over five years later and MLS is a completely different story. Especially in the case of Kansas City. Gone is the ridiculous name Wizards (keep in mind they were originally the Wiz in ’96, before changing to the Wizards a year later). No longer does the club play in Arrowhead Stadium or on the Missouri side of Kansas City. The team now has one of the premier sports stadiums, Livestrong Sporting Park, in the US and are now one of the most envied teams in all of the league.
Of course families make up a big part of the game day attendance, but as the team continues to do well on the pitch, more people are being turned into casual fans or full-on supporters.
This past summer Sporting KC brought silverware back to the city for the first time in eight years, when they won the US Open Cup. Currently, the team sit near the top of the league and are one of the favorites to win the MLS championship.
But with the structure of MLS, it’s fathomable for the club to finish without anymore silverware and to follow up next season without even making the playoffs. MLS attempts to make the playing field more even than many of the leagues in Europe through a salary cap, college player draft and a myriad of other ways to help or hinder teams.
Sporting KC must now navigate the MLS playoffs, something the club has had difficulty doing since their last appearance in the final in 2004. Coincidentally, the last time the club won the US Open Cup they finished as runners-up for the league title. Perhaps this time things will be much different on the pitch, just as they are much different off the pitch for the club.
My next experience witnessing a Kansas City Wizards/Sporting KC match will be much different, I hope. Sell-out crowds and an average attendance of nearly 20,000 people a game make the days at Arrowhead stadium an almost forgotten memory.