Is Kansas City The Soccer Capital Of America?
Abundant talent, excellent facilities and an enthusiastic player base is making Kansas City the PLACE to play soccer
PHOTO COURTESY SPORTING KANSAS CITY
In the 1980’s no one equated Kansas City with soccer. What soccer there was primarily consisted of moms and dads running recreational youth leagues. Jim Shuster whose son played soccer “back in the day” says, “We were lucky if we could find a place to practice that had recently been mowed. Mostly, we kicked the ball around on empty fields with the grass sometimes reaching mid-calf. It was all very, what I would call, homemade.”
Three decades later the exact opposite is true. Today, there are close to four thousand youth soccer teams and more than 35,000 kids are playing the game in the Kansas City metro.
And, they’re playing well, competing and winning at the national level. In fact, the list of local talent playing professional soccer today is long and growing longer.
The city also is home to one of the premier professional teams in Major League Soccer: Sporting Kansas City, which in its 22-year history, has won multiple championships.
Then there are KC’s state-of-the-art soccer facilities that are coveted by the rest of the country, led by the newly-opened Pinnacle complex in Kansas City, Kan. which not only houses Sporting KC’s training facilities, but is home to U.S. Soccer’s coaching and referee education programs.
Put it all together — high-level youth and professional soccer, facilities and homegrown talent — and there’s no other community in the country currently with as strong a soccer pedigree as Kansas City.
PHOTO COURTESY SPORTING KANSAS CITY
Growth in youth soccer has pro roots
Outdoor youth soccer in the early 1990s consisted mostly of the Johnson County Soccer Association, which formed in 1977 and had 4-5 recreational clubs. Today, the JCSA has morphed into the Heartland Soccer Association — the largest youth soccer association in the U.S. Between leagues and tournaments, Heartland represents more than 2,500 teams, 30,000 players, 4,000 coaches and 1,300 referees.
Youth soccer made a great leap forward in 2003 when Peter Vermes became technical director of the Blue Valley Soccer Club.
“I wanted to make sure the club was providing the best product possible for those playing,” says Vermes, who maintains his position with BVSC while also serving as the coach of Sporting KC.
When Vermes came to BVSC, the club had 4,000 kids registered. Today, registration stands at 9,000 and is the anchor tenant of the Scheels Overland Park Soccer Complex. What was 28 competitive teams today stands between 115-120.
“When I first came to Blue Valley, we could not compete (nationally),” Vermes says. “Now, we can.”
One of Vermes’ star players with Sporting KC, all-star and U.S. National Team defender Matt Besler, started at BVSC.
Rob Million, president of Puma FC says he’s seen a dramatic increase in kids not only playing soccer, but playing longer.
“The kids not only have an initial interest, but they’re staying in the sport and developing more skills as they move in to their high school years. Soccer development takes time and practice and we are seeing kids who play past the age of 14 really have true success later in their careers.”
If you build it, they will come
Jon Parry, who’s been director of the Sporting Academy (a premiere competitive league run by Sporting KC that develops youth soccer players) for 10 years, was one of the first to assist Vermes at Blue Valley Soccer Club 16 years ago and remembers having to vigorously search for places where his teams could practice.
“We used to train at all the middle schools,” Parry says. “It’s come a long way.”
Today, Parry trains Sporting Academy on a synthetic turf field at Swope Park Soccer Village. The complex also has four other synthetic turf fields, two with Bermuda grass and a large building for dressing, fitness and training needs.
Another jewel in the youth soccer crown is the Scheels Overland Park Complex, which has 12 synthetic turf fields with an air conditioning system installed underneath to keep the turf cool during summers.
The complex, which opened in 2009, has hosted several U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships, and Livability.com named Overland Park a top soccer city, because “the complex is the only one of its kind in the United States.”
Chance Walker with Scheels says the company is extremely proud of the facility and calls the local passion for soccer “incredibly powerful.”
Nothing says KC is serious about soccer like Children’s Mercy Park, where Sporting KC plays its home games. This soccer stadium/complex is the envy of the MLS and the nation. It’s why, in addition to Sporting games, there have been numerous U.S. National Team appearances and Gold Cup games played there. It’s also why Kansas City is on the shortlist to host games should the U.S. be selected to host the World Cup in 2026.
The newest gem in the Kansas City area’s treasure trove of soccer riches is Pinnacle, which had its grand opening last spring and, in addition to world-class fields and training facilities, has a sports lab complete with a recovery room, hyperbaric chamber, atmospheric room and in-house CAT scan.
“There’s no place like this,” says Chet North, the lab’s director.
It’s all enough to make Vermes, for one, wish he could turn back the clock.
“I’d be lying if I said I never wished I could’ve played in an environment like this,” he says. “What I’m really proud of, though, is seeing how this game has evolved. It’s awesome, really.”
Pinnacle complex in Kansas city