By Michael MacCambridge
THE ESSENCE OF A PLACE
On a purely functional level, stadiums and arenas and concert halls are simply gathering places that allow a lot of people to experience a sports event or a concert or some other performance at the same time.
But on an aesthetic level, they mean so much more. They are an expression of the communities in which they reside, as well as a statement of intent about the way the events that take place there ought to be experienced.
And aesthetics matter. In sports, the best places to watch a game succeed in large part because of how they frame and present the dramas that take place on the field. The frozen tundra at Lambeau Field would be significantly less compelling if it had artificial turf instead of natural grass. People wouldn’t be writing poetry about the ineffable allure of Fenway Park if it was covered with a dome.
This is true everywhere, but it is especially true in Kansas City, where we have, for nearly a half-century, taken special civic pride in Arrowhead Stadium and Kauffman Stadium. As a sports obsessive who grew up in the city, some of the most memorable nights of my life have been spent in those stadiums. I have war stories, about the Royals fighting the Evil Empire of the Yankees throughout the late ’70s, and about decades worth of cold, heartbreaking playoff losses at Arrowhead.
I left Kansas City for college in 1981, and though I visit there often, I haven’t lived there since. By the ‘90s, when I thought of “going home,” the place that felt most like home—both in the sense of the place I knew best, but also the place I returned to most often when I came back—were those two stadiums in the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex, which have remained a civic beacon, and among the very best places in the entire country to watch a football or baseball game.
And that challenge, of finding the right home that could live up to that standard, was what faced Kansas City’s charter entry into Major League Soccer in 1996. Even as the history of MLS spans a quarter of a century, that generation is divided into two distinct eras in Kansas City, with a clear demarcation between the past and the present. June 9, 2011, will forever be the crucial pivot-point in the history of the club, the night when what was past fell by the wayside, and what was present introduced itself.
I came home that evening, to a place I'd never been before.
Though the name would change, the essence of the place remained fixed. Livestrong Sporting Park—soon renamed Sporting Park, and finally re-renamed Children’s Mercy Park—was instantly the best soccer-specific stadium in North America. It was a long time coming, for the club and for the city.
PAST IS PROLOGUE
I can remember the first time I was dazzled by a new stadium. It was August 12, 1972, the opening night of Arrowhead Stadium. I was a nine-year-old football-silly geek, living with my mother in an apartment complex nearby, at I-435 and Eastwood Trafficway. My mom’s friend Nancy had scored a couple of tickets and as we walked into the stadium that night, Arrowhead felt to me like the single most exotic place on the planet.
While the Chiefs played host to the St. Louis Cardinals in a pre-season game, the opening night crowd got a glimpse into the future of how sports would be experienced. I remember staring, transfixed, at pretty much everything that evening: The gleaming emerald blanket of artificial turf; the au courant stylized “A” of the Arrowhead logo at the 50-yard line; the Chiefs’ shiny red patent-leather game shoes; the impossibly large oval scoreboard, which played out a small series of black-and-white animation vignettes. Throughout the game, I tried to cope with the sensory overload, while occasionally stealing furtive glances at the alarmingly attractive Chiefs’ Arrowette ushers, decked out in white go-go boots and miniskirts.
The occasion carried such promise for Kansas City, with the knowledge that just 300 feet away, Royals Stadium would open the following spring. After decades of Kansas City's football and baseball teams sharing the cramped confines and obstructed views of old Municipal Stadium, the city stood at the precipice of something entirely different and innovative—two glorious stadiums sharing a parking lot and little else. This went against the prevailing wisdom of the time, when generic cookie-cutter multipurpose stadiums were going up in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Arrowhead was built solely for football, every seat facing the 50; Royals Stadium, which was renamed to honor original owner Ewing Kaufman in 1993, was built solely for baseball, every seat facing home plate. (Those four cities that built multipurpose have built nine other baseball and football stadiums since then, while Kansas City got it right the first time.)
While we fell in love with the stadiums immediately, it would take them decades to become their best selves (Arrowhead tore out the carpet and moved to natural grass in 1994, Kaufman did the same a year later). But they soon became a Kansas City landmark, a way to identify the city in a single iconic shot. Even as the teams’ fortunes alternately flagged, we could still take great pride in the venues.
And for much of those first decades, soccer wasn't even part of the equation.
A FOREIGN GAME
There can’t be many baby-boomer Kansas Citians for whom the sport of soccer was a first love.
When I was growing up, it was always something on the periphery, more a rumor than part of our reality. (The Kansas City Spurs won the North American Soccer League title in 1969, when there were only five teams in the league; both the city and the nation seemed unprepared for the soccer invasion; the Spurs just 2,398 fans per game in their final season, 1970.)
Later, I recall waiting curiously to see the mythic Pele’s nationally televised NASL debut with the New York Cosmos on a summer Sunday afternoon in 1975. The Dallas Tornado were selected as opponents for that showcase game, because the team featured the only American soccer player most U.S. sports fans had ever heard of, Kyle Rote, Jr. Even that measure of fame came with an asterisk; we knew of Rote not from his considerable soccer exploits, which no one outside of NASL cities had seen, but from him being a dominant force on the made-for-TV athletic event The Superstars on ABC, a contest he won three years out of four in the mid-‘70s.
Pele would give the NASL a boost, but with no national TV deal and no team in Kansas City, we didn’t really get to know soccer then. We’d see occasional TV specials, like the NASL championship game, dubbed "the Soccer Bowl," which in 1976 saw Minnesota Kicks playing the Toronto Metros-Croatia (a name which sounded just as ridiculous back in the ’70s). The league died in 1984, at which point the authentic outdoor game seemed to go into hibernation here.
A decade later, when soccer finally broke through as a spectator sport in the States, it did so emphatically, thanks to the 1994 World Cup, played in the U.S., with every ticket to every game a sellout. The monthlong tournament provided a generation of American fans with a firsthand glimpse of The Beautiful Game, and the grand global melting pot that was obsessed with it.
I was living in Austin by that time, and went with my friend Kevin to a quarterfinal match at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, to watch Brazil and Holland stage what turned out to be the match of the tournament. It was a brilliant, sunny day, with a festive atmosphere, tens of thousands of Brazil fans dancing and singing and banging on drums, seats and railings for the better part of two hours. Meanwhile, thousands of Dutch fans—most dressed in bright orange—were also getting rowdy. The cacophony was magnificent. Kevin and I left the match that day wholehearted converts to the game, with high hopes for the return of a major professional league in the U.S.
Shortly thereafter, I learned that the new professional league, Major League Soccer, would have a Kansas City entry, to be owned by Chiefs’ founder Lamar Hunt. He had deep pockets, and a deep passion for the game. As it turned out, he would need both.
The announcement of the names and colors of all the original MLS team names came on June 6, 1995. And it prompted a nearly identical response from virtually every serious Kansas City sports fan I knew:
“The Wiz!? Really? The freaking Wiz?!?”
The MLS nicknames (Burn! Mutiny! Clash! Wiz!) was exactly what you’d have expected if MTV were to be put in charge of a sports league. In the case of our team, it confirmed every stereotype about how elite coastal marketing types viewed the Midwest, and how they remained blissfully unaware that the greater Kansas City area and Arrowhead Stadium were both in Missouri, not Kansas. Nearly 60 years after The Wizard of Oz came out, that was still how they viewed us. The team changed its name to Wizards the following season, and while that was better, I didn’t know anyone who actually loved it.
SEARCHING FOR A HOME
It made sense, of course, that Hunt’s soccer team would play in the same stadium that his football team played. But while Arrowhead was a spectacular place to stage an athletic event in front of 75,000 people, the environment was decidedly less brilliant in front of only 5,000 people.
It was a Broadway stage for an off-Broadway show that wasn’t yet ready for prime time. Sports fans go to events not merely looking for a result and a diversion. They want to be part of the throng, to experience the abandon and transcendence of those moments when the crowd rises as one in a primal expression of spontaneous joy, all the colors running together in jubilant release. Those peak experiences depend partly on the environment. So it was with Arrowhead; no matter how hard you try, even the greatest stadium in the world will seem hollow when it’s mostly empty. So the Wizards’ early years prompted fierce loyalty on the part of Kansas City’s soccer true believers, but mostly indifference by everyone else.
I suppose I was part of the target audience for the Wizards at Arrowhead—someone who loves football and also loves soccer. And yet, the graft never quite took. No one was happy with the Wizards in Arrowhead. The Chiefs weren’t, the Wizards weren’t, the fans of the Chiefs and Wizards weren’t. I was glad Kansas City had its own soccer team, but I still resented the dual use of the venue from both perspectives. I disliked the sight of soccer lines on my football field, and equally disliked football lines on my soccer pitch.
So for a time the Wizards, I will admit, fell off my radar. I would watch their games when they’d show up on ESPN, which wasn't often, and was jarring when it did happen. By the late ’90s, I’d developed an affinity for the Liverpool Football Club, and watching a full season of Premier League action in those days, then turning to MLS in May and June, could be disconcerting. While the game in England possessed precision passing and world-class dexterity, the MLS games in that first decade often looked like a manic game of foosball played at a life-size level. Most of us Americans were still novices to the game, and it showed. Much of the atmosphere at those early MLS games could feel derivative, with American fans were trying a bit too hard to imitate the laddish excesses of English fans.
Yet even in the dark days of the 2000s, when Major League Soccer was fighting for its life and the fate of the Wizards hung in the balance, I still felt a connection, and I had friends back in Kansas City who had become devoted supporters. There had been missteps, yes. Even the most diehard fans granted that point. My friends back in Kansas City who were in seemed all the way in; going to the games was a fun family night out, they explained, with a younger and more avid crowd.
There was something happening here. The question was, could it last? I’d already seen two major professional sports franchises leave Kansas City—the NHL’s Scouts in 1976, and the NBA’s Kings in 1984. Even after the sale of the Wizards to a local ownership group, and the announcement of an ambitious $200 million stadium, I remained curious but not quite converted: Show Me.
In 2010, my children were 11 and 9, and we were living in St. Louis. That was the summer of the World Cup in South Africa. They collected Panini stickers, they got up at 6:30 a.m. to watch early matches, they painted their faces orange for the final between Holland and Spain. Yet they had never attended a professional soccer game live, so later that summer we took a road trip to visit friends in Kansas City, and I brought them to a Wizards game at CommunityAmerica Ballpark. It was the club’s last season in the temporary purgatory between Arrowhead and the new stadium.
We parked in the Nebraska Furniture Mart parking lot, and took a shuttle to CAB. Even as the dimensions were somewhat absurd for soccer, the scale was better than playing in front of 70,000 empty seats at Arrowhead. I recall wondering if it had really been a good idea to get seats adjacent to the Cauldron when, after an elaborate dive from a Real Salt Lake player, the supporters group broke into their “You go down like a Tijuana whore…” chant. But my kids rolled with it, and enjoyed themselves, as did I. Walking out of the stadium that day, I saw a booth promoting season-ticket sales with a model for the new stadium, to open in 2011.
And a few months later, the club’s new name was announced: The club would hereafter be known as Sporting Kansas City. I liked the sound of it, and I quickly went online to get a look at the club crest. I can remember staring at the new badge for an extended period, trying to figure out if that S on the crest was somehow actually some kind of K, and finally deciding it wasn't. Then I stared at it some more, and the detail that won me over was the ingenious element representing the state line. Crisp and uncomplicated, important without being obtrusive. My hopes were raised.
It was around then that I had the bolt of inspiration: The memory of going to the opening of Arrowhead as a child was still vivid, and I thought how perfect it would be to take my own children back to see the opening of another wonderful, ultra-modern new stadium in my hometown.
Then I got lucky. In the spring of 2011, I went on to the ticket resale website StubHub and struck gold. “Four tickets, East Stand, midfield, second row,” read the description. The tickets were being offered at the bargain rate of $36 each, so I bought all four and gave silent thanks to whichever anonymous season-ticket member was out of town and made them available.
On June 9th, 2011, we arrived early, and the mood was as festive as I'd hoped, but even more fan-friendly and engaging. I was still grateful that there was free parking close by, and when we got to the area just outside of the stadium, both Miles and Ella took part in the kids’ 5-on-5 games that were being staged, with portable goals set up on the grounds.
Once we ventured inside, the effect was breathtaking, all the more so for us having been witness to the humble surroundings at CAB a season earlier. For me, what impressed most wasn’t the seemingly countless number of hi-def TV screens or the space-age chairs we’d read about in the home locker room. It was the stadium’s coherence and unity of purpose, of seemingly every detail dedicated to heightening the soccer fan’s experience and encouraging loud support, with architectural flourishes that worked to keep the noise inside, reverberating throughout the stadium.
With all the excitement, anticipation and pregame pageantry —a Stealth bomber flyover, and Ida McBeth's majestic rendition of the National Anthem—it would have been difficult for the game to live up to the momentous occasion. In the event, it very much did not. The match with the Chicago Fire turned out to be a mostly unmemorable 0-0 deadlock marked by heated emotions and missed sitters. But it was still an absorbing, exciting night. Ella had grown fond of the Senegalese striker Kai Kamara, and loved that Kamara's hand heart gesture was identical to Taylor Swift's. Miles was highly impressed with the "White Puma" nickname given to goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. I was impressed with the young Graham Zusi, who I’d heard about beforehand from my friend Laura, because he was working part-time as a coach for her daughter Becca’s middle-school team. (Becca said she thought Zusi was a good coach; but the player she was really crushing on was Chance Myers.)
The other thing that struck me that night, as much as the gorgeous amenities and the perfect sight lines, was that every Sporting KC staff person I saw throughout the course of the evening was walking around with a smile that was positively radiant. You could see that they were as ecstatic as we were. Fans had come from all over the country for that first game, but it was the club staff that had journeyed the farthest. I kept thinking of the difficult early years of the Wizards at Arrowhead, and then the two-year stopgap of playing Major League soccer in a decidedly minor league baseball stadium. Now, suddenly, they had this remarkable new fortress. And you could tell that it was all coalescing—the club, the fan base, the stadium, the authentic soccer experience.
The sellout crowd was grateful, and so ready for the transcendent moment, to go crazy with a goal celebration. But Zusi's first-half putback was ruled offside. And then when Nielsen handled the ball outside the area, earning a red card in the 68th minute, a dispiriting loss seemed imminent. It came perilously close—Chicago's Orr Barouch ricocheted a shot off the post in the 80th minute—but Sporting held on to earn the point.
Of course, memories have their own agenda. When, nearly a decade later, I asked the three people I attended the game with (my now-adult son and daughter, and my friend Trey) what they most remembered about the first game in the new stadium, they all said the same thing: The guy in the cow suit.
Yes, it was that kind of game. The sort of game in which the grandeur of the moment, the best-laid plans and celebrity appearances were all upstaged by a random act of buffoonery, when some dimwit ran onto the pitch in a cow costume—very pronounced udder, if I recall correctly—and kicked a ball into the goal. It was as meaningless and random, in its own way, as the guy with SOY BOMB painted on his chest who jumped onstage during Bob Dylan’s Grammy performance of “Love Sick” in 1998.
Yet, despite the oddness of the intrusion, and the disappointment of the nil-nil, it was clear that we were at the beginning of an extraordinary new chapter, not just for the club, but for the city itself.
HOME SWEET HOME
Now, when I return to Kansas City, there are three places that feel like home—Arrowhead, Kaufman and Children’s Mercy. Unlike the other two, CMP is not a vestige of my youth so much as it is a realization of my young sporting dreams: A Major League Soccer team to call our own, and a marvelous gathering place for the game to flourish.
Most importantly, a quarter of a century into the history of Major League Soccer , the culture that pervades is neither imitative or derivative. The Cauldron has become its own thing. There is not really any sort of Premier League analogue for Brisket Bob. If some other club paints the wall, so be it; if we didn't do it first, then we still surely do it best. Welcome to the Blue Hell; you will remember us.
And, thanks in large part not only to the club but to the stadium itself, now when people think about professional sports in Kansas City, three teams come to mind, and those three teams play in three different world-class stadiums.
There is also a pleasing symmetry to the geography. Now Kansans can get as annoyed when out-of-towners think Sporting plays its games in Missouri as Missourians do when out-of-towners think the Chiefs and Royals play their games in Kansas.
While MLS will surely continue to grow, June 9, 2011 will remain indelibly fixed as a milestone. It was the evening that Sporting truly found its home, the night that I fell irrevocably in love with the club, and the night that the stadium became part of the essential Kansas City experience.
Michael MacCambridge is an Editor of One Club: The First 25 Years of Major League Soccer in Kansas City. Michael grew up in Kansas City and has written several books, including America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured A Nation.