Just a few years ago Kansas City was a soccer dead zone. Its MLS team, then called the Wizards, played in a minor league baseball park and was scraping the league bottom in season-ticket holders, attendance, sponsorship and merchandise sales. Nor was the team much better on the field, having missed the easy-to-make playoffs four times from 2005 through '10. "Soccer was dying," says Kansas City forward Kei Kamara, whose whiff on a goal line sitter in 2010 became a global YouTube classic and a symbol of the team's futility.
Two years later the bad old days are a distant memory. Ambitious local owners took big risks in building a state-of-the-art $200 million soccer stadium and rebranding the team Sporting Kansas City, with aspirations of becoming a social club, √† la FC Barcelona, that plants deep roots in the community and transcends soccer. And as the MLS playoffs are set to start, the team has turned into a power, boasting the Eastern Conference's best record through the season's penultimate week and winning this year's U.S. Open Cup.
Interest has soared. Sporting KC's merchandise sales now rank third in the league, and 18,467-seat Livestrong Sporting Park, which opened in June 2011, sells out every game. At a time when the Chiefs and the Royals are struggling, Sporting is Kansas City's only winning pro team, a franchise that has been transformed from a farce to a force. "[The stadium] is probably our version of the David Beckham effect: Get a bunch of people to give us 90 minutes worth of their attention and see if we could convert them into fans," says Robb Heineman, Sporting's hard-driving, 38-year-old president. "We've done that in a larger and quicker way than we thought we could. People on Saturday nights think of [Livestrong] as the place to be." It's a young crowd too: On average Sporting's season-ticket holders are just 29.
Playing entertaining soccer helps too. Despite one of the league's lowest payrolls, Kansas City has risen to the top of the East with a full-throttle approach that values hard running and pressure defense in a wide-open 4-3-3 system. "Everybody wants to possess the ball, but you have to have possession with a purpose, and our purpose is to go to goal," says coach Peter Vermes, a former U.S. national team standout. "If we can get there really fast, we'll go fast. If we need to slow it up because the other team has numbers back, we'll try to be more calculated. When we lose it"—he snaps his fingers—"we want to win it back as fast as we can because we want to be on the attack. That's who we are."
Yet for a team that likes to take risks going forward, the defense has been sterling, allowing a league-low 26 goals in 33 games this season. "The spirit of the team is not to be scared against anybody," says center back Aurélien Collin. "We always try to play good football, but sometimes you have to be a little dirty or physical, and we know how to do it."
A Frenchman who designs his own clothing line (AC78), hosts a wacky online video series (Collin's Corner) and likes to stay an extra day on road trips to explore North American cities, Collin is one of several engaging personalities on a team that could be taken straight from a Benetton ad. Kamara, the team's top scorer with 11 goals, escaped war-ravaged Sierra Leone as a teenager and has found a home on his fourth MLS team. Midfielder Graham Zusi, 26, took a second job coaching youth soccer in 2010 to make ends meet, but now he's a top MLS assist man (15) and a rising star on the U.S. national team. And center back Matt Besler, from Overland Park, Kans., grew up playing pickup soccer in parking-lot tailgates before Wizards games and is the favorite to win MLS Defender of the Year.
Other popular players hail from Brazil (midfielders J√∫lio César and Paulo Nagamura), the U.S. (forwards C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury) and Honduras (midfielder Roger Espinoza), but perhaps the biggest fan favorite is Danish goalkeeper Jimmy (the White Puma) Nielsen. A bleach-blond shot-stopper who's fond of sharing a postgame beer with supporters at the stadium's Shield Club, Nielsen went through nine months of gambling rehab in Denmark in 2004 and came out the other side. "I lost everything except for my family," says Nielsen, 35, who has embraced the Midwest with his wife and two children. "Thank God the opportunity came here. I was close to retiring."
The players' diva-free attitude adds to the club's appeal. "A lot of casual fans who maybe didn't love soccer have connected with the personalities on this team," says Zachary Cobb, 29, a photographer who's one of the organizers of The Cauldron fan group. "You see them around the city, and they're very approachable and friendly. You want these guys to win, and you love that they represent Kansas City."
Not everything has gone smoothly—there have been calls to drop the stadium's Livestrong name after Lance Armstrong's fall from grace (Heineman says the team will stick with it)—and the organization feels it has plenty to prove in the 2012 playoffs after a surprise home loss to Houston in last year's conference final. But ambitions remain large. After setting the goal of launching what Heineman calls "the most technologically advanced stadium in the world" in concert with Cisco, the owners have set up a spin-off company, Sporting Innovations, which is advising teams in the NFL, NBA, English Premier League and Australia's National Rugby League.
The franchise has also started the Sporting Club Network, providing coaching resources and putting the Sporting logo on the jerseys of 75,000 youth players in the region, from Tulsa and Omaha to Wichita and Kansas City. Sporting is also investing $1 million a year in its youth development program, with the goal of having a senior team with a half-dozen homegrown starters. And in an effort to build on the social potential of its 200,000 club members, Sporting KC is teaming with local businesses to launch a series of programs next year that include art exhibitions, concerts and sports events. "There's a ton of potential for our brand," says Heineman. "A few years ago we were nowhere, and it's exciting to think of where it could go."
Already, Sporting can serve as a model in a league that has grown from 12 to 19 teams in the last five years. Recent expansion outfits such as Seattle and Portland have been popular from the start, but Kansas City is the first MLS market to experience a complete turnaround in local interest. If the same can happen for the likes of Colorado, Columbus, Chivas USA and Dallas, MLS will take another major step toward the first tier of U.S. sports.
SI'S 2012 MLS AWARDS
Grant Wahl picks the season's best
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Easy choice. For the third straight year no one has more MLS goals; with one game remaining the San Jose veteran is one shy of Roy Lassiter's league record of 27.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Berry's consistency (27 starts at center back for Chicago) and set-piece punch (three goals) give him the edge over Vancouver forward Darren Mattocks (14 starts, seven goals).
DEFENDER OF THE YEAR
The fourth-year man's play in central defense has been a big reason why Sporting has allowed the fewest goals in MLS.
GOALKEEPER OF THE YEAR
KC's iron man is at or near the top of the league in save percentage (76%), shutouts (15) and GAA (0.79).
COACH OF THE YEAR
After missing the playoffs last year, Yallop turned the Quakes into the league's top regular-season team by making smart roster moves and getting the most of his players.
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA (KAMARA)
SUNSHINE BAND Characters like Kamara (left, 23) and Nielsen (above, in red) have helped ratchet up the fun, not to mention the W's, in front of sellout crowds.
KYLE RIVAS/CAL SPORT MEDIA (CELEBRATION)
[See caption above]
JOHN HEFTI/ICON SMI (WONDOLOWSKI)
ANDREW KATSAMPES/ISIPHOTOS.COM (BERRY)
KYLE RIVAS/CAL SPORT MEDIA (BESLER)
FRED KFOURY/ICON SMI (NIELSEN BELOW)
DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES (YALLOP)