They are not light-hearted about their sports in Kansas City. "We don't budge" said the son-in-law, when I politely complimented their soccer team for having previously played so well against Seattle.
I had parked next to his in-laws at the brand new LIVESTRONG Sporting Park and there was still more than an hour left before the match versus the Sounders was due to start. They pulled out chairs and coolers and tables, marinated and barbecued meats, lovely salad, very cold local micro beers. I asked why the stadium was out here, 20 miles out on the Kansas prairie, not a native tree in sight. There is a massive mall on one side and a vast concert facility on the other. "Kansas City ( meaning Missouri KC) didn't step up, it's as simple as that, and Kansas did. That big furniture store over there even gave 'em the land."
You get a different sense of MLS soccer when you go on a road trip. Only Portland shares with Seattle the fact of their playing field being downtown. For the rest of the clubs, you are headed out of town, either to another town, or a suburb, or like Kansas City, out on the plains. Both the professional baseball and football teams of Kansas City have stadiums 20 miles away, to the east: no one thought a whit of driving out 20 miles for a game.
The new stadium is a fine pleasure. It was only completed a couple months ago, nine games into the MLS season, but already the team, Sporting Kansas City, has an unbeaten record at home and sits in second place in their division. Four nights earlier, they had defeated the visiting MLS champion Real Salt Lake, 2-0. Sporting KC was in a very good mood.
They installed WiFi transmitters into the overhanging canopy of the stadium, thousands of them, to ensure that, at any moment, everyone could be online at the same moment, downloading the Olympics if need be, and nothing would be slowed. This is a pure soccer stadium, built precisely for soccer, for 20,000 people who all have an open view, to all be comfortable, to all be dry, out of the wind, mostly shaded, to see the game and hear the game and smell the grass. There is even a buffet, out in the food tent.
The team seats look like First Class on Virgin Airlines and the field is a perfect grass. There are two massive wide angle screens, at each end and, oddly, for you think you simply missed it, not a clock in sight — there is a game clock, of course, but not the time. The field starts only three yards from the first row of seats; there is no glazing over, you are right at the game. With the overhang that circles the stadium, with the concrete surfaces and the intimacy, it collects sound like a glutton.
It is an elegance, this field. Weird that for the full hour before the game, they played music, so loudly no one could talk, nor even use their phone, you could only sit there and take it. It was as dumb as those NBA games, where there is never a moment of silence, never a time for anticipation, build-up, or company.
By game time, it was still 96 degrees, even with the shade. That is not Spokane 96, that is Kansas 96, three showers up. Sporting KC was after Seattle from the game's first moment, and after Mauro Rosales, the wonderful Argentinian Sounder midfielder in particular. And they are right — Rosales, like Ljundberg two years ago, bears much of the responsibility for the Sounder attack. He is the rhythm and the force, it is Rosales who will carry parts of the game completely on his own will. It is a wisdom to pound Rosales. But it had better be done honorably; he is Argentinian and has a fine sense of revenge.
So they pounded on Rosales, three times dropping him, each time more blatantly, in the first 12 minutes. Finally, there was a yellow card but that only gave license for more pounding. This is a football town, and Kansas City soccer, like the Houston, Dallas, and Colorado teams, knows damn well to play physical soccer. They are intentionally one of the biggest teams in the league and every crunch on the field gets loud hurrahs from the stands. MLS is a little two-faced about it all. When the European teams come, they clean up the bashing and play purer soccer and the officials know the terms. But among the league, competing in a bash brothers manner sells tickets and keeps soccer from looking like an exotic import.
Sporting might have scored two or three times in the first 20 minutes but Keller tipped away the first two point-blank blasts and had no chance on the third. It was 1-0 at halftime, and Seattle had not one shot on goal.
The second half started with five Sounder passes in a row missing any target at all. They were a team of heavy sweat-soaked uniforms, abandoned on a Kansas prairie in August.
But then Sporting made a foolish error. Their manic captain Omar Bravo slid cleats up into the back legs of Sounder Pat Noonan. Bravo missed but it was so dangerous and stupid, the referee pulled a red card and ejected him.
Now the Sounders were up a man. They pulled out Montero and Fernandez, who had both hated the game, let Fucito and Neagle run loose in the heat, and, for the first time in the night, they put Sporting on the downhill. But the heat was winning and by the 80th minute, passes from both sides were dying alone. At one point, 11 players were fully bent over, trying to inhale some help.
By the end of regulation time, it was thankfully over, the players on both sides were checking EBay for a cold shower. Except Mauro Rosales, he still had matters to settle. They added two minutes extra time to the game and the little Argentinian scored a goal in each minute, kicking the first one himself and laying off the second to Neagle to roll it slowly in. And Sporting Kansas City, first cut, then cut in two, their first defeat at their wonderful facility, their fans unhinged that what was so sure and closed somehow got open and away.
The Sounders had no business leaving with a win, no one saw even the script of a win, except Mauro. He saw justice and by the time he got close, it looked like a long cool glass of water.
The Sounders play again, this time at Sounder field, this Saturday, just after lunch at 1:00 , against Chivas USA.