After enduring ten grueling road games to begin its Major League Soccer season while its new state-of-the-art soccer stadium was being completed, Sporting Kansas City is a little over 24 hours away from its home season-opener at beautiful Livestrong Sporting Park.
On Thursday night, Sporting Kansas City will complete the circle of its all-new look for the 2011 season, now a couple of months old, with its first soccer match on the team's brand new field in western Wyandotte County, Kan. Late last season, the team announced a rebranding of the franchise, going from the Kansas City Wizards, the team's name for the past 14 years (in 1997, one year after debuting in Kansas City as the Wiz), and adopting the new European-style club name of Sporting Kansas City. Adding to the new name were new team colors of indigo and "Sporting" blue.
Sporting's opponent Thursday night will be the Chicago Fire, an MLS Eastern Conference rival that sits just one spot ahead of Sporting KC in the league standings, but with a four-point advantage in the all-important points column. A capacity ground of over 18,000 fans is expected for the public unveiling of the new $160 million Livestrong Sporting Park, named in collaboration with legendary U.S. cycling champion and seven-time Tours de France winner Lance Armstrong's Livestrong Foundation, which provides education, encouragement and a sense of community to cancer survivors.The capacity of the spectacular new venue is approximately 18,500 for soccer, but the capacity can be expanded to 25,000 for other events.
Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes and his squad are hoping that being back home and playing before the home crowd will help turn what otherwise has been a highly disappointing start to the 2011 season. In its opening 10 games, Sporting won only one time, while suffering six losses playing to three ties, all on the road. As a direct result, Sporting Kansas City occupies the basement in the Eastern Conference and owns the worst record in the 18-team MLS, which has two new franchises this year.
A year ago, Sporting Kansas City, then playing as the Wizards, had an overall record of 11-13-6, good enough for third place in the Eastern Conference but four games and 12 points back of the conference-champion New York Red Bulls. Unfortunately, Sporting's record at home was not much better. In fact, in games in which their opponent scored first, the then-Wizards' record at home at CommunityAmerica Ballpark, which they shared with the Kansas City T-Bones' independent minor-league team, was an improbable 0-13-3. No wonder they were anxious to change their name, team identity and get a new place to officially call all their own.
Vermes and his Sporting Kansas City players are excited about the opportunity to finally open their new stadium. "I'm always in awe when I come here," Vermes said recently. "Every time I come here, I see more and more of the things that we've been talking about for many years. Now to see them actually live, it just blows me away."
About having to play away from home for two months straight to start the season, Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler said: "It's a lot easier said than done. Honestly, we did expect to go on the road and win games. From that aspect, we're kind of disappointed with where we are right now. We thought we were in a position to win a few games that we let slip away."
The one positive take away from Sporting's horrendous first two months is that no one else in the MLS is having much better luck away from the home turf. Five other Eastern Conference teams are still winless on the road. Collectively, the five teams have produced a 6-28-23 record. It is quite a different story when the Eastern Conference teams play at home, though. So far this season, the East is 21-9-21 at home, and with 17 of its remaining 24 matches to be played at Livestrong Sporting Park, Vermes and Company are hoping that some of that home-field magic will work in their favor, as well.
Between July 20 and the end of August, Sporting Kansas City will host eight straight home contests.
The new stadium, designed by the world-renowned Kansas City-based sports architectural firm Populous, features an eye-catching canopy roof that covers all seating locations. It is a testament to the coming of the digital age to sports venues with two large video scoreboards at both ends of the field and 300 HDTV's situated throughout the public areas. For entertaining and fan-gathering locations, the stadium contains 36 private suite locations and 5 clubs. Livestrong Sporting Park also has the distinction of being the first MLS stadium to be fully lighted for HDTV.
"We want this stadium to be our Ft. Knox," said goalkeeper Jummy Nielsen about the teams new digs at Livestrong Sporting Park. "Nobody should run away with anything here."
Come tomorrow night, we'll get our first full-blown look at the new era of professional soccer in Kansas City. Everybody is hopeful that it was well worth the wait.