The fan base was ready-made for USL expansion here. So were the stadium, the training facilities, the regional rivalries – and even the club name, which had been around since 2008 as a nickname for Sporting Kansas City's reserves.
Swope Park Rangers was bound to happen.
“For us, we think it's the first time there's been a professional sports team in the United States named after a municipal park,” new Swope Park Rangers general manager Kurt Austin told reporters on Thursday after Sporting KC announced the foundation of the USL's 30th side. “We couldn't think of a better place than Swope Park. The city's been a great partner for us with Swope Soccer Village, right after the team was bought in 2006 by Sporting Club, and recently renovated with more than $20 million poured in.”
The park, in southeastern Kansas City, is home to Sporting's training facility and a nine-field soccer complex. Swope Park Rangers will ground-share the main stadium with two-time NWSL champion FC Kansas City.
The Rangers have not yet named a coach, but said that announcement would happen soon.
SPR will be the fourth USL side in the region, an expansion boom that began with former affiliate Oklahoma City Energy in 2014 and continued with Saint Louis FC and Tulsa Roughnecks FC this year. Sporting beat Saint Louis 1-0 in US Open Cup play this season, on the way to their second title since 2012, and drew the largest fourth-round cup crowd in modern history.
“Here in the Midwest, I think soccer's really taken off,” Austin said. “You've seen it in MLS, and now you're seeing it in the lower levels, too, especially in USL. Saint Louis started last year and gave us a run for our money at Sporting Park in that Open Cup game, so I think it's going to be exciting to see that rivalry grow.
“You saw a lot of Saint Louis fans come over to Sporting Park, and we hope they'll come back for the USL games next year, too. And you're talking 4-5 hours to Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and we'll play both of those teams multiple times. So I think we're going to build those rivalries right off the bat."
The Energy – coached by former Sporting goalkeeper and captain Jimmy Nielsen – reached the Western Conference final in their second season before falling to eventual runner-up LA Galaxy II.
“That kind of shows us the path forward,” Austin said. “Hopefully we can be successful in year one, and year two take it from there.”
Sporting manager and technical director Peter Vermes said the two clubs would train side-by-side, making for an easier flow of players between the two and offering Rangers players the occasional chance to test themselves against the senior squad.
“We always talk about how competitiveness helps your team,” Sporting captain and center back Matt Besler told reporters after Thursday's announcement. “Peter's already told me he's going to be pulling guys from the USL team that are playing well. Guys that aren't performing on the first team are going to go and train with the second team. So I already know that's going to happen, and that's going to push the guys and help our team in the long run.”
The USL side would also serve as a bridge between Sporting's academy and the senior club, Vermes told reporters.
“It gives us the flexibility to bring those kids up and get them experience,” he said. “At the same time, we can use the opportunity to send some players down to get experience as well, and then we've got that player we're bringing in from the outside that we're not sure yet when he can make that jump, but we can start spending some time on him and see him for the future. That's a big part of what this is all going to be about.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.