I had my USMNT scarf ready to go, I was considering picking up a T-Shirt or a jersey. The USA simply had to beat El Salvador and LIVESTRONG Sporting Park was going to be the place to be as we we went on to Qualify for the Olympics, or at the very least play Mexico and it was exciting. A few days later, I was watching in dismay as the perfect storm of apathy formed around the fixture. The US were held to a draw by El Salvador thanks to their own failings – triggering a sell off of tickets, and was compounded by the University of Kansas’ beloved Jawhawks making into into the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.
LIVESTRONG was going to be a graveyard, everybody said so. And so the story went as more and more locals threw their tickets into the fire sale. The morning of the game, I took my normal game day rituals and threw them out of the the proverbial window. I wasn’t going to a game I cared about, I was excited because for once I would get to watch some football as a neutral, but I didn’t expect a big crowd. The weather was good though, and I managed to find a whopping 4 people I knew who were going to tailgate with. My prep was all about charcoal and brats, beer choices and sitting in the sun and relaxing before heading in to relax more and watch a game or two.
We’d discussed missing the first half of the first game, talked about maybe leaving early if the later Mexico game wasn’t up to much. It felt like I was going to a baseball game, it was all very casual and relaxed and there wasn’t much in the way of anticipation. I could not miss it though, and it wasn’t all about the soccer. With a six week old kid and a two and a half year old daughter getting time just to blow off a little steam and unwind is precious. The game had become purely an escape, a chance to get out of the house.
I guess I should have known better. I went to a friendly game a few years back. An all-Mexican encounter between Chivas and America at Arrowhead stadium. That day a crowd probably only sneaking up on 30,000 created an atmosphere that I’d never heard at a soccer game in Kansas City. It was vibrant, alive, reactive to the play and oh so loud.
At this game, I expected to get some of that from the large Mexican community in the midwest who would certainly travel to the game but the carpark at LIVESTRONG was dominated by El Salvador fans when I pulled up to park in a secondary lot. The primary lot where I normally would casually park an hour or two before the game was jammed.
I trudged grumpily towards my traditional spot hauling a sack of charcoal, a cooler, a chair, and various other things, found my small band of friends and tried to talk while we were bombarded with music that was so loud I wondered if the NASCAR drivers practicing in the background could hear it. The volume came down, we started to cook our food, drink a few drinks and watch what was going on around us. Flags were being flown everywhere, large bands of El Salvador fans were mingling and meeting up with each other. The odd Honduras flag emerged, green shirted Mexican fans made their way through what rapidly became a colorful and vibrant tailgate.
People sang, chanted, waved their colors at each other and the normally ‘wild’ Sporting KC tailgate seemed like a timid affair. This was fun, and the atmosphere and vibe was jovial and light hearted. It felt like a festival and people smiled as they poked fun at each other and their various groups. In between ogling Latino women in tiny shorts and tight tops and listening to music, I power-ate five bratwursts sipped my way through five or six cold drinks and thought to myself that today was going to be a very good day.
An hour or so before the first game between Honduras and El Salvador kicked off, a large mass of El Salvador fans had gathered on the steps leading out of the the lots onto the main concourse of the stadium and proceeded to chant and sing. Staggering numbers of them were already inside the stadium and large contingents of Honduran fans were streaming into the stadium. As we began packing up to make our way inside, crowd noises from within the stadium started to boom out into the lots and our pace picked up as the excitement grew. This wasn’t going to be lightly attended.
Entering the Members Club, which was largely empty was a bit underwhelming – we hung around for a few minutes, took a leak, watched the end of the Philadelphia Union vs Whitecaps game hoping Le Toux would bag a winner. Two minutes or so before the anthems we finally got situated in the Members Stand and looked out across a stadium that was filling up fast. The East and West stands were fairly jammed, the cheap seats behind the goals filling out last. It was the opposite of an MLS game day at LIVESTRONG. The noise was coming out of the big stands, and the spots where fans traditionally sit they stood in their thousands waving flags, arms, children and anything else that came to hand.
The El Salvador anthem started up and was belted out by the fans with such gusto that every hair on my body stood up. Hondurans followed with similar passion but fewer numbers. El Salvador were the home team and as the game started and the volume climbed and climbed my small band of Cauldronites occasionally just grinned at each other. The noise was simply staggering, real, organic and intense and the game started with a bang with as Honduras grabbed an early lead setting the game up perfectly and pushing the crowd into a frenzy and intensity that I have never seen in the USA. When El Salvador finally scored I was up and out of my seat fist pumping the sky like I was one of them and then we watched on as the East and West stands simply went berserk – you’d have thought they had won the World Cup itself or something.
That we got to see such a big rivalry playing out before us was a treat, I’ve long talked about the almost never mentioned Football War but the main protagonists were here playing like it was 1969 itself. The game was intense, physical, wonderful and neutral or otherwise people picked sides and got involved in what may have been the most perfect game of knockout football I have ever seen.
Through 120 minutes the majestic five goal extravaganza played out, and the crowd swept me along, the only downer was that Honduras beat ‘my lot’. Casual Saturday afternoon out watching a nothing game?
I was so exhausted at the end of it all that the Mexico game was purely a bonus. If it was good then so be it, and it was but I found myself hoping that the Mexicans would drop the hammer so I could avoid extra time and get home and into my bed.
The dust has settled on things a bit and I find myself wondering what I can take away from an experience like that.
One thing for sure is it has helped rekindle a growing weariness with the game that has had me abandon watching the Premier League and frequently questioning if there is almost too much work that goes into my relationship with Sporting and not enough sitting back and just enjoying it. Internal wars aside, the presence of Honduras and El Salvador fans in the same stadium reminded me just how special it is to have traveling fans that exceed numbers in the hundreds. It took me right back home to days at Highbury when thousands of away fans would come into town, the larger the travelling support the better the atmosphere. Back then I used to feel real envy watching the fans in the Clock End (away end) going crazy when they had scored, there is something about have that rubbed in that makes everybody sing a little louder and celebrate a little hard. I think it is a vital component of MLS that is missing and I’m not sure how that is resolved without continually adding secondary teams to existing markets.
The secondary take away was this …. this was Kansas City. What essentially was a ugly backdrop in the US Soccer landscape a mere 2-3 years ago had essentially become mecca for an afternoon. The organized fan groups that make up the KC Cauldron have taken a lot of credit for the growth of the atmosphere at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park but without that organization the fans of three teams (and a few Canadians) managed to create more noise within the building than anybody has done so far. Watching entire sides of the stadium baying for blood because of errant passes or tackles as the crowd simply reacted to the game was immense. Without LIVESTRONG being the canvas, none of these scenes would have ever been possible. This isn’t me trying to diminish the efforts of the Cauldron just remarking that the real star of the show may well be the stadium being simply perfect for this game.
Having a venue worthy of national and international games has helped put not only Kansas City on the map in terms of being a soccer town, but has put this town on a par with any other city in the US when it comes to providing the right stage for games of the highest caliber. There is absolutely no reason that Kansas City should not host World Cup Qualifiers, Gold Cup games and any other high profile games that are out there for the bidding. It simply has the potential to be as iconic and beloved in soccer terms as Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park or Wrigley field have been in baseball. A home for the world’s game.
Tell me you saw that coming in 2006.