In almost all conceivable ways, the Kansas City Wizards of old are gone. When Sporting Kansas City burst onto the MLS scene in 2011, the start of a new era began and almost everything changed. Sellout crowds crushed into the lavish LIVESTRONG Sporting Park to see an exciting team get to the brink of the MLS Cup final. They even played exciting football. The venue – simply the best sub 20,000 venue I have ever seen – served as the backdrop. The fans around the stadium finished the season singing songs in unison, a sight and sound that was as glorious as it was unexpected to anybody who had ever seen a game at Community America Ballpark or Arrowhead.
In many ways the summer of 2011 was the culmination of a decade and a half of struggle. Even the local media become involved and spoke of Sporting KC as an example to be followed. The typical crabbing about not liking soccer gave way to admissions of enjoyment at games, the stadium, and the atmosphere. It wasn’t unusual to hear that Sporting KC owners and Robb Heineman were the polar opposite to the Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt or the absentee Royals owner David Glass. Occasionally somebody would wish on air that either or both be replaced by the owners of Kansas City’s Soccer Team.Think about that? When the talk radio guys switch from open disdain if they are talking soccer at all, to suggesting that the local NFL and MLB teams could learn a lot from a Major League Soccer outfit the tables have turned. That happened in Kansas City in 2011. Sporting Kansas City became the hottest ticket in town and that is a far cry from 2010 when I basically could not give away tickets to games to friends that are now season ticket holders.
We have a right to be proud of that, and by god we all hope this continues but there is more to Sporting Kansas City that 2011. While the talk this close season has been about taking that extra step and winning something, the prior 15 years of Kansas City’s MLS franchise were played under the label the Kansas City Wizards (Wiz for 1996). Rather than being an example, the team simply existed through much of that time. Playing in the cavernous Arrowhead Stadium didn’t help much, atmospheres that were morgue-like were common and it was as good a place to take a nap in the summer as anywhere. Crowds as low as 4,100 fit sparsely into a 70,000 seat stadium while the game was played on a field covered with NFL grid-lines. This was the image of the Wizards – that and a series of awful uniforms and probably the clumsiest name in the history of soccer.
It was all a bit of a joke, to me anyway. I remember in 1996 before I moved to the states thinking “The Kansas City Wiz … this is why Americans should not be allowed to play this game”. The irony that I later wound up resisting the name change from Wizards to Sporting, and running this blog (then KCWFans.com) is not lost on me. I didn’t jump on any bandwagon either, I wasn’t pulled in by a new brand or a new stadium and while I do love them both, I was a Kansas City Wizards fan first and its hard not to call them the Wizards still. While we are clearly in a new era and everything is going well appreciating how big the transformation has been requires that you acknowledge those other 15 years or at least know something about them.
Hidden amongst the tales of empty stadiums and the Hunt Sports Group’s abandonment of the franchise, the Heart of America Foundation is another story. It is rarely spoken about and really started in 1999 with one of the worst teams in MLS history. That year, the not so mighty Kansas City Wizards played a 32 game season and won an astonishing six games, losing eighteen others. They stunk. The following season, the 2000 Kansas City Wizards managed to put together a season that we have yet to best. The Wizards won the Supporters Shield and went on to beat the Chicago Fire again in the MLS Cup Final at RFK Stadium.
That final game, unexceptional in many ways, featured a sloppy goal to give the Wizards a lead. The Chicago Fire, who outscored the Wizards by twenty goals during the regular season went on to bombard the Wizards goal. Goalkeeper Tony Meola put in a career performance to prevent an equalizer and the scrappy outfit that limped out of 1999 with their tails between their legs had become the Kings of US Soccer. MLS Cup winners. The team from the empty NFL stadium, from the city that didn’t deserve a team were the Champions of Major League Soccer.
Worst to First.
Think about that for a second. Think about us coming back from 2-0 down to slide past the Houston Dynamo into the MLS Cup Final. Think about Donovan, Beckham, Keane and the Galaxy pounding on us in the rain and failing to score time and time and time again. Think about Matt Besler flicking a header goal in the dying seconds of the game while the Home Depot Center sat silent save for a few hundred fans lost in a frenzied delirium away in the corner.
How special would that have been? How big?
That has happened, and it happened to the Kansas City Wizards. A different game, different team, a different era — but it was as real, and for everybody that was a fan at the time those are very much the halcyon days. I watched video of that game earlier today, and saw fans and people I know – looking much younger, but beaming with pride and it is all those of us who have yet to experience that dream. The worst part of 2011 was cancelling flights to LA and hotel reservations. Nobody in 2000 had to do that.
We won. We won it all.
In the stairwell just inside the front entrance of the team’s headquarters is a trophy case, and it contains no trophy for that MLS Cup win.
The trophy is in Dallas at the home of the former owners Hunt Sports Group.
While laying the foundation for the future has been firmly undertaken by Sporting Kansas City, it appears the perhaps the single greatest prize and memento of our history as the Wizards resides in a different city in a different state. Understanding why would take you on a journey from the creation of MLS, the brilliance of the late Lamar Hunt through to the sale of The Wizards and the acquisition of the team by OnGoal (topics I think are worthy of being covered separately). The trophy clearly didn’t come as part of the package but surely if there was ever a symbol of triumph it is this. If it belongs anywhere it is in Kansas City, not just so it can complete the trophy collection, but because it is part of the Sporting Heritage of this city.
I want it to come home, and I’d love it if it could travel to LIVESTRONG Sporting Park with FC Dallas on March 25th. I figure the first step should be making sure that everybody knows that Clark Hunt has our Cup, and the next step will be writing Hunt Sport Group a polite note asking for it back.
Somehow I don’t think it will be that easy, but it is worth a shot isn’t it?
If that doesn’t work, we might just have to get creative.