Impressions of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in Kansas City
I’ve haven’t had the experience of attending many professional soccer games. Over the last number of years, I’ve seen D2 and PDL games in St. Louis. They are a great deal of fun, but the only time I’ve previously seen world-class players up close on the pitch was when I was twelve years old and Pele and his Santos club played a friendly with the old NASL St. Louis Stars at Busch Stadium. So I was quite excited to obtain tickets (thanks to Chris Flynn of Sporting KC’s front office) for the June 14 Gold Cup doubleheader across the state, and I hope you enjoy my impressions of the trip and the soccer atmosphere in KC.
LIVESTRONG Soccer Park
LIVESTRONG Sporting Park more than lived up to its advanced billing. The official opening match was only days before, when Sporting KC hosted the Chicago Fire, but everything went smoothly and the stadium is absolutely high-tech and gorgeous, fan-friendly and easy to navigate. The huge HD video screens behind each goal were such quality that they seemed more real than the action on the field, and the sound from the PA was crystal clear. Sightlines were fantastic and the concourses made it easy to get to concession stands and move around. In the words of USMNT and FC Dallas fan Jose Arriega, who traveled up from Texas with his sister Adelaide for the doubleheader, LIVESTRONG Sporting Park is “world class….something you would see overseas. It’s pretty cool that we’ve gone from playing in NFL, high school and college stadiums in the U.S. to playing in soccer-specific stadiums. It shows how much the game has grown and how much people are willing to invest in something they believe is going to grow, and IS growing.”
The dream of Lamar Hunt has reached fruition. Fifteen years ago, Hunt was a founder of MLS ( he had previously helped establish the old American Football League in 1960), hoping to build up the beautiful game in the U.S. Hunt was a rock during the lean MLS years that any new enterprise encounters, not panicking or giving up on the game. Now Kansas City is a soccer hotbed that not only can boast of a beautiful new soccer-specific stadium for the Sporting Kansas City club, but also area teams such as SKC reserves, the PDL Kansas City Brass and the indoor Missouri Comets of the MISL. (NSC Minnesota Stars midfielder Lucas Rodriguez played for the Comets this winter and earned MISL Rookie of the Year honors.)
Fans in the U.S.
I think we are way overdue in retiring the still-lingering notion among the stubborn that the beautiful game in the United States is strictly the province of ex-pats from the U.K, Euro wannabees and new arrivals to our nation from Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Seeing the number of American Outlaws making the trip to see the USMNT from all over the Great Plains region was inspiring. The Outlaws from the Lincoln, Nebraska branch were very well represented, arriving by the busload from their Captain Jack’s headquarters, while the enthusiasm displayed at tailgate parties hours before the game was amazing. The stadium was full by the time of the 8:00 pm kickoff between the U.S. A. and Guadeloupe, and the crowd roared and cheered, banners and flags flying, face-painted and in garb supporting their country. Fans from Panama, Guadeloupe and Canada also rooted on their team’s efforts.
I also met two families who traveled to KC from western Iowa en masse — dads who referee, one daughter who plays the game at the community college level and the boys who all play high school soccer in their hometown, while the moms were knowledgeable about the game and its players. Fans from the KC area, St. Louis, Kansas and South Dakota were among those I met at the game — young men and women, kids, parents and the gray-haired of seemingly every demographic and ethnic group and all enthusiastic about the USMNT in particular and the sport in general.
Sitting in the hotel lobby a bit and watching the parade of fans dressed in USMNT jerseys and club kit provided a great feeling. Even the desk clerk was well aware of the USMNT. I told her I’d gotten some pictures of defender Carlos Bocanegra after Monday’s practice, and she was well-aware of the St. Etienne back who was voted the most handsome player in Ligue 1 a few years back. If soccer in the U.S. and Canada is still a niche sport, it’s a wide niche involving many Americans from diverse backgrounds.
Media is also important in growing the game, and the KC area also hosts quality writers like Charles Gooch of the Kansas City Star and its the full 90 online blog along with blogs like Michael Kuhn’s Down the Byline that keep fans on top of what’s going on in the game. I must also add that I can’t imagine any stadium personnel more helpful and courteous than I experienced at LIVESTRONG Park. That would include all the front office staff, ushers and security employed at the doubleheader.
The Gold Cup Doubleheader
It’s old news, but I’ll share my impressions of the two matches played Tuesday in KC.
In the first game, Panama came back late to draw with Canada 1-1 and take the Group C title. The Panamanian side certainly has exhibited their intent to muscle up into the elite of CONCACAF nations in beating the U.S. and eliminating Canada from the competition. Coached by Julio Dely Valdes, the Panama side is led on the field by Felipe Baloy, the Santos Laguna defender who demonstrates fine leadership and the consistent ability to thwart opponent’s attacks. Panama plays with pride and never gave up after surrendering an early 2nd half goal to the Canadians, and their persistence paid off in the first minute of stoppage time as veteran Luis Tejada netted the equalizer to make the contingent of fans from Panama in attendance very happy.
The Canadian national team may have been the biggest disappointment of the Gold Cup Group Stage round. After playing fairly well in a 2-0 loss to the U.S., the Canadians barely squeaked by Guadeloupe 1-0 despite having a man advantage from the 2nd minute of the contest. Canada scored only its second goal of the tournament on another penalty kick by Dwayne De Rosario against Panama, and with everything on the line, could not finish off the game. Canada’s young goalkeeper kept punting the ball high and deep down the center of the field, a strategy that may have proven more successful if Rob Friend, who plays well with his back to the goal, was not sitting on the bench as an unused substitute. Instead, the Canadians constantly gave away possession while running almost no time off the clock, and the hustling Panamanians tied the game and denied Canada’s attempt to advance. A big step backward for a team that had looked on the upswing after some good results in friendlies — it looks like it’s back to the drawing board for the CSA as they try to mold a successful team that plays to the level of talent displayed by individual Canadian internationals.
The USMNT wasn’t overly impressive in losing to Panama 2-1 and scraping by a pesky Guadeloupe side 1-0 to advance. But in both games, the Americans missed numerous opportunities to win the contest. Against Panama it took the USMNT an hour to find their rhythm, and then could only finish once. Against Guadeloupe, Jozy Altidore’s thunder strike should have been only the first, instead of the only, goal for the Americans, but despite right back Steve Cherundolo showing his effort in fine crosses all evening, the Americans were unable to score again. At least they deserve credit for some well-done offensive sequences and good work at the back, and they were able to finish off the game well.
Tiny Guadeloupe boasts a population of about 400,000 and you will never see them in the World Cup. Why? Because the archipelago is an overseas region of the French Republic, and its citizens are French. Nevertheless, Guadeloupe does compete in the Caribbean Football Union and CONCACAF tournaments, and considering the size of its population, one can realistically say that the team acquitted itself well. They lost all three Group C matches, but only by a one-goal margin in each defeat. Many of the players earn their paychecks for Ligue 2 clubs in France, and captain Stephane Auvray is in his second season with Sporting KC. Famed footballers such as Thierry Henry, William Gallas and Patrice Evra are of Guadeloupean heritage. I know the team didn’t travel to the Gold Cup to lose, but the players can hold their heads high.
If you get an opportunity, treat yourself and attend a game at LIVESTRONG Soccer Park. The Kansas City area also boasts some great museums, including the world-class National World War I Museum and the free admission Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Near 18th and Vine you’ll feel the spirit of such American legends as Satchell Paige, Josh Gibson, the wonderful Buck O’Neill and so many other baseball stars at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. In the same building enjoy the legacy of jazz icons like Charlie Parker and Count Basie at the Jazz Museum. The Jazz Museum also boast some fun interactive sites where you can remix classic recordings by Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus. KC also is the home of the famed Arthur Bryant’s BBQ, where political luminaries such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and John McCain, Sarah Palin and Hollywood types like Steven Spielberg have lunched. Everything is up to date in Kansas City, and it’s a trip you won’t forget.