Before Chris Klein could be known as the current president of the LA Galaxy with a star-studded jigsaw puzzle containing the likes of Steven Gerrard, Giovani Dos Santos and Robbie Keane, he had to be a nervous young man at Indiana University hoping to find a home in Major League Soccer. He sat in his coach’s hotel room with his college roommate, Caleb Porter, who is now the coach of the Portland Timbers, and waited for a phone call to confirm his dream.
The phone did ring and he became the fourth overall pick in the 1998 MLS College Draft, which sent him to the Kansas City Wizards. He did not yet have a wife, three children or multiple trophies with the then-Wizards, but he was unknowingly on the cusp of a special eight years in Kansas City.
“When I was first married, we started our lives in Kansas City,” Klein says. “Having a career that was built with the Kansas City Wizards and having two of my children who were born here is a connection that I’ll always have. And to be able to see what Sporting has turned into and to be part of the foundation of not only the league but the Wizards to now Sporting is something I’m very proud of.”
LISTEN: Klein on Sports Radio 810 WHB
On Saturday, Klein’s connection to Kansas City will be bolstered with an induction into Sporting Kansas City’s Sporting Legends hall of honor during halftime of Sporting’s match against Vancouver at Sporting Park. Sporting Legends began in 2013 and is meant to honor former club icons. Previous inductees include Preki, Tony Meola, Bob Gansler, Peter Vermes, Jimmy Conrad and Lamar Hunt. Klein is the only member of the 2015 class.
“You don’t think about it until you’re actually coming back,” Klein says. “I was talking to my wife about it, and it is surreal coming back (to Kansas City) and seeing where our kids were born. I’m excited to show all of them what’s been done here and the excitement and showing them a match for Sporting Kansas City.”
Soccer in Kansas City is much different in 2015 than it was in 1998 when Wizards games were played in Arrowhead Stadium and the club was still growing into its identity — an identity that now creeps into the hearts of soccer-loving Kansas Citians and bleeds blue.
“I don’t know that I envisioned this, but I always knew it was possible,” Klein says. “The growth of the league, a club like Sporting has ignited it. You look at what they’ve done and what they’ve turned this into, and it started with the Hunts and the foundation that they had here, and it certainly continued with this new ownership group and everything that they’ve done and the work that Peter has done with the product on the field is pretty incredible.
“I’m just so happy to come back here, and have for a number of years, to see it and to see what it’s turned into and how the city has rallied around Sporting. It’s an amazing sports town, it’s always been an amazing sports town, and now you have Sporting KC that’s on the landscape of that.”
Klein fell in love with soccer because of its appeal around the world and the sport’s ability to transcend language or race and enables a group of people with a common love to be part of something bigger. He felt that way when he played in Kansas City and knew that he wanted to continue growing the game in America after his playing career, which lead him to Los Angeles with the relationships he forged in Kansas City held in his heart and mind.
“I think that all players in our league have an understanding that we all have to build this together,” Klein says. “So when I was playing, it was up to us to understand the importance of speaking about the game the right way, speaking about the league the right way, speaking about your club the right way. At the end of it, all we’re trying to do is make the sport of soccer successful in our country. Whether you’re a player, you work in the front office or you’re a coach, we’re all bought into the same goal.”
Klein’s fondest memory as a player for Kansas City is winning the MLS Cup in 2000. Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes was on that roster, and Klein remembers constantly looking up to and learning from Vermes. He remembers the many players who acted one way on the field and completely different away from the game and how Vermes was not one of those players.
“To be completely candid the guy that Peter is, is the guy that I looked up to when I was playing,” Klein says. “He was one of the best professionals that I’ve ever been around. His approach to every facet of the way that he lived and how it pointed to what he did on the field — the way he slept, the way he ate, the way he worked out.
“He taught me a tremendous amount about work ethic and approach and I think that carries with me today. …And if you know Peter, Peter is not the new guy in any room he walks into. He is a very dynamic personality.”
And now Klein is a man that his three children Carson, Cami and Brielle look up to and learn from. He is cherishing the opportunity to be recognized with his kids and his wife, Angie, back in Kansas City where it all began.
“It’s humbling,” Klein says of the honor. “It means that I’m forever tied to this club, not that I wouldn’t be otherwise, but again thankful to the Hunts and to the ownership group now; to be recognized with all the great things that they have going on is humbling and something I will remember for the rest of my life.”