Saturday, September 24, 2011

An Evening at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park: The Philadelphia Union vs. Sporting Club Kansas City

Last year, my buddy Vintage Pancho went out of his way to take me to a Kansas City Wizards game. He’s a season-ticket holder, a business proprietor, and trying to select a game that fit both of our schedules was the epitome of hit and miss. We made the October 9 contest against the Seattle Sounders work, and unfortunately the Wizards dropped the match 2-1.

I remember leaving Community America Ballpark a touch unimpressed, but in hindsight that feeling was two-fold: 1) I’d been to Kansas City T-Bones (then the Northern League; now the American Association) baseball games and, while I appreciated the antics at my first visit to C.A.B., I could never really bring myself to enjoy the experience or the baseball, or really even the park, because it simply wasn’t Royals baseball at Kauffman Stadium. Therefore, when I went there to see soccer -– a sport for which I’d developed a personal platform based mostly on boredom -– I sort of left feeling like I’d watched a lame matched crammed into a second-rate venue. 2) That said, it certainly did not detract me from rooting for the Wizards, and when they lost, I thought it unfortunate.

It’s plausible that these sentiments were rooted in two other categories: 1) My penchant for hating on the soccers made me almost want the experience to have a negative twist, and 2) this was one of those make-or-break games for the Wizards, wherein they get the points for the win, or see their post-season chances vanish, a theme all-too-common with sports in Kansas City.

Finally, another angle: I knew that the Wizards had ended their residence at Arrowhead Stadium, though I wasn’t certain why. I also knew that there was talk of building a new facility in south Johnson County, and that ultimately, Kansas City, KS was selected. What I didn’t understand was why there was significant interest in either, why there was this fascination with professional soccer in the Kansas City metro, when, for my money, the surrounding cities could never a) agree on taxes for a refurbished Truman Sports Complex vs. building a downtown stadium for the Royals, b) obtain another major sports franchise –- NHL or NBA –- for its touted Sprint Center, or c) realistically and perennially sell enough season tickets to support such a team while continuing to support the Chiefs and Royals.

Nevertheless, construction was underway at the time for the facility in which the Sporting Club Kansas City now calls home, LIVESTRONG Sporting Park.

In the spring, when the venue neared completion, and the franchise announced that they would become known as SportingKC, I found it peculiar. I then found myself surprised when they unveiled the name of the venue and felt somewhat surrounded by all of the buzz surrounding it. The season got underway, and the team played ridiculously well, or so the newspaper and radio kept saying by way of hyping an unbeaten streak.

Around midsummer, Pancho came to me and said, “We’ve got to get you out to a game.” Because of the aforementioned buzz, I was eager to attend one, but because he and I had both seen our first-born children come into the world since that game against Seattle, it made for an even trickier scheduling pinpoint. As I imagine most parents would agree, your calendars fill up mighty fast once little ones are in the picture.

But we settled on last night’s contest -- and, hey: free bobblehead! -- versus the Philadelphia Union, and I was not surprised by the traffic or the number of tailgaters outside of LIVESTRONG. Finally seeing the building’s exterior up close, I was amazed at how immaculate it looked, and the same would be said about the interior. From outdoors, Pancho pointed out the Members Club and the section in which the rowdy crowd sits, and I couldn’t’ve been more surprised at the amount of merch’ that had been slung this season. Jackets, hats, jerseys; you name it, they were wearing it.

On the other side of the walls, an abundance of cuisine choices zig-zagged across the middle of the room, and we settled on some hearty brisket sandwiches with Buffalo Mac ‘n Cheese for our sides. At our seats, which were nothing shy of rock star, we listened to Ashleigh, a cancer survivor, belt out “America the Beautiful” while some mid-song pyrotechnics nearly caused me to jump out of my pants. “The Star-Spangled Banner” followed, as did more heart-stopping fireworks. Strangely, a sequence of them were ignited mid-song, which made a line or two inaudible, and it made me curious if such a choice offended the same people who get peeved at Arrowhead for the local-fan version of the song’s ending.

Some in-game notes:

7:30 p.m. Game on. SportingKC with more ball control and scoring chances early.

7:35 p.m. Philly with a chance, offsides not called.

Both teams pulling, tugging a ton; young fans calling for resident Mexican star Omar Bravo to get the ball.

7:49 p.m. Serious collision at midfield; free kick awarded to SportingKC.

The “rowdy crowd,” or KC Cauldron (courtesy of Zachary Cobb) as they’re apparently called, is raging behind the Philadelphia net, chanting, “We want playoffs!” By my count, two handballs have gone uncalled.

(Editor’s Note: Why I didn’t start off with clock time, I don’t know, but appropriately changed.)

18:30: Philly with another chance; SportingKC with some solid D.

(photo courtesy of Pancho's iPhone)

23:00: SportingKC continues to have chances.

27:30: Our first dual-team-header injury; neither guy down too long, which is a good thing to see. I get geared up for Team USA during the World Cup, and this past tournament, there was no shortage of dramatic flopping and rolling, which simply looks bad for the game, in my opinion.

Shortly after, Kei Kamara is involved in a collision. The fans want a call, both coaches argue with the ref, and time ticks away, making me think the running clock/stoppage time format leaves something to be desired.

Random thought: One thing about soccer: that’s a lotta damn running.

33:23: Philly with a chance; Sporting D’s it up nicely again. It’s funny –- and the same is true in hockey -– when the opposition has a break, fans holler for offsides, but you hear zip out of them when the home team appears guilty.

Another collision with Kamara, and from my vantage point, it’s his fault, as he leaned in with raised arms against a defender as he pressed along the sideline. No call either way. He’s down for a while, and moments later, he’s up and fine.

39:00: Nice slide tackle/steal by SportingKC on the far side followed by a good scoring chance. It results in a corner kick, with Kamara delivering an amazing header that deflects off the crossbar.

(Note: I noticed, at the conclusion of the national anthem, that the young lady in front of me sat, and immediately opened up her iPad. From there, she launched into a Twitter marathon like none I have ever seen. I began to lean over and peer, hoping to catch her handle, so as to tweet her in some self-invented comedic fashion. She’s moving so fast, though, that I can’t make much out. When I think I’ve got it -– I_am_McBeth -- I fire out my tweet, and she doesn’t even blink. McBeth, however, is quick to respond, and I see the woman go to my page and, in a flash, follow me, before returning to her timeline. At this point, I’ve gathered that the McBeth person is actually tweeting so much, that the timeline of the woman in front of me -- who turned out to be Kristi Colvin -- is simply full of McBeth tweets -- which are *all/every-one-of-'em* -- good and embarrassment arises.)

Random back-to-the-action note: Something impressive about these guys is the curving trajectory they get on crossing passes, especially when they take them in full stride, steaming down the line.

Stoppage time: Sporting continues to dominate the attack zone, but we hit the midway point knotted at nil.

Philly begins the second half asserting themselves.

54:00: Sporting with their first resemblance at a chance.

55:19: Bravo hammers one home. One-nothing, SportingKC.

58:49: Philly’s closest opportunity of the evening.

59:49: An SKC player goes down, and there it is, the proverbial in-pain roll, and whether it was a surprise or not, I’m still undecided, but a delayed yellow card is handed out against the Union.

62:18: Philly nets an equalizer almost immediately after C.J. Sapong comes in on substitution.

63:12: Free kick for Philly in close and the keeper makes a nice save off of a redirected header.

Again worth noting: So. Much. Running. At least in hockey, you can occasionally coast if you have to.

Here’s Kamara now griping about a non-call. He abandoned the play at the moment of alleged offense, and I feel like I’ve seen him check out on a few developments when one particular or another doesn’t seem to go as planned. Not sure about his attitude.

67:54: Sporting with a good chance, but in hockey terms, there was nobody there to crash the net for a rebound opportunity. They did, however, on the ensuing attack, put together some nice give-and-go attempts.

80:13: Kamara with a golden opportunity blown.

82:05: For the most part, the ref has kept the calls to a minimum, allowing for the teams to play. At this point in the match, he’s starting to ruin things with incessant whistles, most of which are against the home team.

86:56: Half-ass chance for SportingKC. The teams are awarded three minutes of stoppage. Philly appears to be stalling, and the contest ends in a draw.

As we file out, I’m decidedly impressed with the facility, the atmosphere, and most everything associated with the franchise. I’m still baffled by the size and energy of the crowd, as there weren’t too many empty seats, and the noise level seldom decreased. My sentiment is that all of the buzz was warranted, and although I’m now 0-1-1 in Kansas City soccer games attended, I was able to leave my biases aside, and develop a natural appreciation for the game.

I have to take my hat off to ownership and management for their delivery of a fine product in an electric environment, and I admit:

I hope I’m invited back sooner rather than later.