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28 October 2012

We're not in Kansas anymore?/An odd place for "hooligans"

I was in the middle of the Kansas steppe with flowing corn and wheat fields stretching for hundreds of miles on each side of a seemingly endless highway. The wind gusted through that flat terrain with an unseasonable, disconcerting warmth. And then, all of a sudden pearly artificial lights pierced the landscape. Chain restaurants and retail stores built in the cowardly faux neoclassical style, so typical of some newer sections of the United States, grabbed one's attention like a light at the end of a tunnel. Just beyond the cluster of shops and restaurants it appeared-a bright collasal pentagon made of concrete and white metal, with four sizable surrounding entrances....

This was "Liverstrong Stadium."

Livestrong Stadium

So what exactly were 20,000 screaming soccer fans doing here? And why did this stadium, as of October 24, 2012, still carry the name of a cheater's organization?

Ex-US Postal Service cyclist Lance Armstrong's well-documented doping scandal has left his legacy in tatters. He's been stripped of his record seven Tour de France medals and has been forced to relinquish control of his cancer foundation, Livestrong.

PR representatives from Kansas City's Major League Soccer team, Sporting Kansas City, say that they are not considering re-naming their home ground, Livestrong Stadium. Controversial? Maybe slightly. But what's really in a name? With the team now in first place, clearly not everything.

I recently had the chance to visit the well-reputed home ground of the team formerly known as "The Kansas City Wizards" (a name more fitting than "Sporting," which stinks of a crude attempt at Europeanizing a 17-year old club with no tangible connection to Lisbon, Portugal or its 106 year-old Sporting Lisboa soccer club) and came away from the experience with several new impressions of soccer in the United States.

A birthday present to remember with fun people

The pitch at Livestrong Stadium was composed of nicely-manicured natural grass (a rarity for American sports fields these days). It was surrounded by comfortable well-designed seats with unobstructed views in every row, luxury boxes for the well-to-do, and standing room areas with plentiful access to "food and drink," from where I observed the match.

My friends and I presented our tickets to the ushers and crowded into a surprisingly well-filled stadium. The stadium's atmosphere and general aesthetics were inviting, yet professional-professional in the sense that the design (overhanging roofs, readily accessible food and beverage stations, memorabilia shops at every corner) mimicked the most renowned European and South American stadiums-and inviting in the sense that this felt like a team's true home.

That night Sporting Kansas City, who occupied first-place in the Eastern Conference of the MLS, would play third-from-last Philadelphia Union. The home fans were decked out in sky blue shirts. The supporter's section, filled to capacity, flew supportive banners and cheered on their squad with a fervent passion that I had not personally witnessed since Euro 2012. They even sang their own songs (in the spirit of their European and South American counterparts). Yet unlike some European and South American fans, these were better-behaved "hooligans," content to sing and cheer without resorting to the darker arts of flare throwing, racial abuse, or violence.

What began as a birthday present from a friend, ended with a new impression of a nascent soccer league still trying to establish a unique identity and appeal to a wider crowd.

While I can't say that I was initially excited by the prospect of attending an MLS match, I was impressed, however, by the venue and by the prominence and creativity of the Sporting fans. I can now even see how MLS could develop into an internationally-competitive league (certainly not on par with Argentina's Primera Division or Brazil's Serie A, but perhaps more akin to Mexico's Liga MX or Uruguay's Primera).

Improving this league, however, might require some difficult decisions. The difficulty will be in establishing a youth system that is unhindered by the demands of higher education and college sports. This in essence, is the key difference between the European/South American educational model and the American version.

Whereas European children generally specialize in a subject or pursue a professional track early in their lives, Americans follow the general education principle. It may be hard to unanimously defend either model, but European soccer clubs, who generally begin "educating" players as young as five, have clearly developed an enviable profit-making system.

I've never considered following the MLS, mostly because I've already chosen my loyalties and prefer to follow the established, high quality European and South American leagues. That's not to say that I'll never follow MLS, but I wasn't exactly encouraged by the quality of play that night. Even Sporting KC, a league-leading team, reminded me of the technically dull college soccer that has hindered the development of a decent professional league since the inception of the MLS. Many MLS players cut their teeth with college soccer teams, which given the learning curve for young players, seems like a waste of time.

As easy as it was so criticize some of the slack dribbling, lazy passing, and sloppy play of the Sporting KC and Philadelphia players, they were "doing what they loved and getting paid for it," as one of my friends reminded me.

Confetti rains down as Sporting makes it 1-0

In the end Sporting won 2-1 in a back-and-forth match that made me want to quit drinking the warm Budweiser, which was failing to quench my thirst, and step onto the pitch myself to show the world what I (maybe) still possessed. The blue confetti that reigned down in the Philadelphia half after a Sporting goal, however, snapped me back to my senses. The MLS has come a long way since its inception in the mid-1990's, but it's also got a long way to go.  Teams like Sporting KC and the Seattle Sounders, however, have started to do things the right way and maybe the models for the growth of this league.

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