Meeting Their Match
The Cauldron is bubbling at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., and the town is abuzz.
Sporting Kansas City is some sort of Major League Soccer (MLS) supernova with a galactic explosion of victories and escalating fan support. From the time Livestrong opened its doors last June to this season’s 7-0-0 start that stirred the pot further, Sporting reeled off a combined 21-4-9 record and advanced to the Western Conference finals.
Coach and general manager Peter Vermes made some key acquisitions to try and ensure another spot in the MLS playoffs. Two of them, veterans Bobby Convey and Paulo Nagamura, have made the move to Johnson County. Blue Valley North graduate Jon Kempin also still resides here, as does fellow goalkeeper Eric Kronberg.
All four give their neighborhood picks (there’s some serious love for Trader Joe’s on this team, for one thing) and take us through their years in soccer.
|Eric Kronberg, Paulo Nagamura, Bobby Convey & Jon Kempin|
He admits it sounds hackneyed, but arriving in Kansas City couldn’t have gone better for Bobby Convey.
Finding a house in Prairie Village with his wife took only a few weeks, a place where their neighbor has lived in her house for 50 years. And on the field, Convey has really taken to an organization and an atmosphere that he equates to his five years in England playing for Reading F.C.
“The fans appreciate and follow their team so strongly, that’s kind of why coming here to Kansas City was important to me,” he says, “because it had that same vibe here where there’s a big fan base that supports the team every game.”
If signing with D.C. United at age 16 didn’t make him strap on some maturity quickly, playing in soccer-crazed England certainly did. It took Convey a full year to adjust to the fast-paced style there and the number of games that are played.
But Convey’s familiar with blazing starts. If you think 7-0-0 is auspicious, then take a look at 2005-06, his best year with Reading. After an opening loss, his team ran roughshod over the league with a smooth 33-game unbeaten streak.
Since signing with Sporting in December, Convey credits Vermes with putting together a group of guys who can play to their strengths at their natural positions.
“I always liked Peter’s style of coaching,” he says. “I just kind of knew the demands that Peter put on his players, and it’s nice to be in a competitive environment.”
It’s been a pleasant Kansas City education for Convey, a Philly native. He lives within a few miles of the Plaza, where visiting Fogo de Chao and the Apple Store are big on his list. And he’s also shed his strictly-business persona to host a #FollowFriday on Sporting’s hilarious YouTube page. The videos have shown Convey in a bathrobe with a dog on his lap or in a candle-adorned bubble bath, adamant that he doesn’t care about Twitter while still awarding teammates with Tweet of the Month honors.
“That’s something that people wouldn’t expect me to do,” Convey says. “It’s changing the image of what people thought I was. I think it’s great to do stuff like that, to allow people to see who you really are.”
Where else would Paulo Nagamura live but close to Overland Park Soccer Complex?
Born in Brazil, the land of Pelé where soccer is so entwined in the culture, Nagamura’s dad always took him to games and to practice fields to kick a ball around. Like Convey, Nagamura played professionally in England, and cutting his teeth with Arsenal was where he realized how good he could be.
“I left Brazil for England when I was 18, so I was pretty young,” Nagamura says. “It was a great three years of experience in my career, playing with top-quality players, learning new tactics, learning a lot of new stuff.”
Nagamura won the MLS Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2005 and then had two stints with Chivas USA in the Los Angeles suburbs before being traded to Sporting in November. A broken foot injury slowed the transition, but a now fully-fit Nagamura is adapting to the formations and tendencies.
He’s also quick to compliment the almost European mentality here with the rambunctious Sporting fans, even as the Chiefs, Royals and college sports vie for attention.
“I think it’s really tough to find that kind of crowd and fan support that we have here in different stadiums,” he says. “I played for Chivas for four years and we never had that kind of experience in that stadium like we have here at Livestrong.”
With his wife and child in tow, Nagamura did his research and asked his share of folks about where to move in town. West of Highway 69 was a bull’s-eye. He’s been trying out the restaurants like Nick & Jake’s and Salty Iguana on the 135th Street corridor. And Nagamura can already tell this is a place where he would like to retire.
“It’s a pretty quiet area, the way that I like,” Nagamura says. “There’s a lot of good schools here, everything that we need.
“It’s a great area to raise a family.”
When Eric Kronberg first came to Kansas City in 2006, the pickings weren’t lush around his motel.
“Eventually, of course, the guys took all the rookies out and showed us around the town and we were like, OK, this is not just a Subway and a gas station,” he says. “This is a really nice city.”
Kronberg, the backup goalkeeper to Jimmy Nielsen, is one of the senior partners in the Sporting firm. Nobody on this team has spent more years with the club than Kronberg, so he’s had a field-level seat for the extreme makeover: Wizards to Sporting, Arrowhead Stadium to CommunityAmerica Ballpark to Livestrong.
But before all the Sporting hubbub, the native Californian played against the team that made him a soccer fan in 2010: Manchester United. He made five saves in the Wizards’ 2-1 exhibition win.
“A little scary,” he says. “But once you get on the field, you realize it’s just 11 guys trying to score on you just like every day. I think we did a really good job of holding it down with 10 men that day, especially the second half. And we came away with the win, which is another dream come true.”
Battling it out with another offer, Kronberg and his fiancée closed on a house they were partial to in Prairie Village just last month. They enjoy the proximity to The Village Shopping Center, so the Blue Moose is a dining destination, and he’s on the Trader Joe’s brigade (as are Convey and Nagamura).
As the middle child of goalkeepers, Kronberg jokingly says he shows up Nielsen with the athleticism and Jon Kempin with age. But they’re all equals at the training facility on a team of best friends.
“I would compare this team to a childhood team when I grew up, that was a core group of guys that had been playing together from 8 years old to 18. It’s like everybody knows each other and you can see it on the field,” Kronberg says. “And it really translates into good soccer.”
On one of those infamous #FollowFriday videos, teammate C.J. Sapong makes a suggestion: “If you’re interested in ambiguous tweets about high school girlfriends, follow Jon Kempin.”
Kempin turned 19 in April, went to prom with a good friend and still looks like he’s fresh from rummaging through his locker at Blue Valley North High School, so there is some kernel of truth to the rim-shot. On the strength of his nine shutouts as a freshman, the Mustangs won state in 2007.
Ranking Tim Mulqueen, his first goalkeeper coach, and BVN soccer coach Tom Holland as important figures in his development, Kempin is also able to receive fine tutelage from Eric Kronberg and Jimmy Nielsen as the third-string goalkeeper. It’s a close-knit relationship with Nielsen for sure.
“We room together pretty much on every trip, more by choice than anything because we have a lot of fun watching all of these sports that are on TV at night,” Kempin says. “We like most of the same food, we like to go out to eat a lot together. To me he’s like a best friend, but to him I’m more like the son that he never had. He’s definitely a great mentor.”
One of Sporting’s homegrown players hasn’t deserted Leawood and Overland Park. Kempin plays golf with guys like Nielsen, Soony Saad and goalkeeper coach John Pascarella at Deer Creek and was a junior golfer at Leawood South, where his grandparents still live. The gargantuan Lifetime Fitness near 135th and Metcalf is convenient as his workout site when he’s not at the Swope Park training facility.
He’ll get his day between the sticks at some point. Until that happens, just being on the squad that’s practically in your backyard with friends and family within a corner kick’s distance counts as a real blessing.
“It’s unbelievable to be around these guys and be a part of a team that’s really special to me,” Kempin says, “and have guys who actually care to help you and care to help you be better. I think that it’s awesome to be able to do this every day.”