Sporting KC bring their own hellish brand of football fandom to Major League Soccer, writes Maurice Brosnan of Balls.ie.
In Dante’s Inferno, Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century divine comedy, the Italian poet details the journey through his own creative version of hell. From the moment he approaches the gates which read “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”, or in English “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” Dante constructs a view of hell that is instantly terrifying.
He chronicles how the air is filled with the wails and blaspheming of those forced to commit to a life in hell while Charon, the first character Dante encounters who also steers the ferry to hell, is portrayed as a truly terrifying figure. He looms over Dante, noticeably missing limbs, and possesses a frightening ability to summon demons at his will.
There is a strangely similar arena in 21st century mid-western America. Upon entering this dome a flag hangs dominantly at the North End, “Welcome to the blue hell.”
The air is filled with the wails of an unrelenting, large faithful gathered below this generous banner. Drums and trumpets are the backing track to the persistent chants of the cauldron.
At the front of the mob a striking character looms. He is familiar to any regular visitor to the boisterous cauldron. Dressed in a multi-coloured vintage jersey while wearing a Native American headdress, he stands on the billboard passionately bellowing to the crowd in a collective mantra of unyielding support.
Welcome to Children’s Mercy Park, the home of Sporting KC. Upon entering for the first time, you start to wonder would a ticket in the family section would have been a wiser choice.
Then, the picturesque chieftain is handed a mega-phone, to further volumize his rallying call. His pending contribution must surely be the cherry on top of the elaborately decorated, beating stadium now full with swirling smoke from recently desisted firework machines.
He winds back his decorated head, as if preparing to unless an ear-splitting exclamation and declares to the anticipating faithful “you guys should give yourselves a pat on the back for coming out here in such numbers on a Sunday, I know ye all got work and school tomorrow.”
A perfect blend of brash passion with stereotypical mid-western hospitality.
How is it possible in a country that actively rejected soccer in all its forms for so many years, which for so long produced numerous false dawns only for them to falter, has produced a throbbing, defiant soccer community in its heartland?
The most vocal section of the stadium is consistently the Cauldron, a capacity of 2’000 fans in a designated members section to the North. But support extends beyond that segment. Sporting’s recent home victory over Orlando City was the sides 76th consecutive sell-out.
In 1995 when the MLS began and the Kansas City Wizards began to compete in the league, a small group of just over 30 college students decided to support the team. Rather than instruments and megaphones their simple cheers mixed with the clearly audible shouting of the players involved in the game.
Yet as many elsewhere can testify to, it takes more than fan-driven support to create a community. From their origins of playing in a near-empty Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the Kansas City Chiefs, a mutually beneficial relationship between the fans and the club evolved.
While the fans began watching European football stadiums and replicating the chants, the club strove to integrate itself in the city. In 2006 Robb Heineman was appointed CEO and instantly began working with fans.
He canvassed local municipalities and worked to get a specific soccer stadium. The result is Children’s Mercy Park, a 21’000-seat ground situated in Kansas City alongside the Kansas speedway.
Heineman, who last year was linked with a takeover of Everton, is active on social media interacting with fans and invites them to email him with any concerns, questions or issues. He hosts Reddit and Twitter Q & A’s. Under his reign Sporting KC has developed a wide-ranging scouting network in Europe including links to Barcelona’s B team. But Heineman is more concerned with sustainability, as he told NBC.
“We are not signing Pirlo, we are not signing Gerrard, that is never going to be our deal in the current cap structure of MLS where we are going to be signing 5-million-annual-salary-guys. This is just not our formula.”
Soon the south stand also formed a group to complement the boisterous cauldron. The fans tailgate, gathering hours before games and welcoming any new visitor with open arms. Chant sheets are circulated and designated cheerleaders patrol the stadium with megaphones in order to orchestrate maximum support.
The development of a heavily manufactured support base would wrongly imply it is not authentic. Yet there is a humble appetite that differs from the typical English support base.
At White Hart Lane, they play an expertly produced montage just before kick-off. ‘We are Spurs’ offers motivational theme music mixed with flashing images of Paul Gascoigne, Ledley King and Jürgen Klinsmann. The type of rousing production that over-involved football fans develop and publish on YouTube.
Last season in the thick of their ultimately futile title challenge, Tottenham played Watford at home. The montage rolled and was greeted by profuse apathy. The residents in Bill Nicholsan Way released a collective sigh, rolled their eyes and took to chanting the Benny Hill theme at Heurelho Gomes.
A very similar film plays at games before Children’s Mercy Park. A dong rings out as it would before the Undertaker enters another action-filled WWE contest, the fireworks begin and up on the screen pops Dom Dwyer. “Nobody likes us, and we don’t care.”
The footage rolls, and clips from their 2013 MLS Cup win and US Open Cup wins in 2012 and 2015 pop up on screen.
Without fail, this procession is greeted with wholesome delight. Chants of “Sporting” ring around the stadium.
The volume and variety of the chants are also impressive, as is the fans conduct. As part of the Sporting Kansas City’s Victory Project the club honour children who are suffering from, or have overcome, cancer before home games.
Their name is called out, the crowd applauses and then the cauldron reacts, stridently chanting the child’s name and signing “we love you, we love you, we love you. And everywhere we’ll follow…’
They are not the only well-supported MLS team. The Seattle Sounders frequently come close to filling an NFL stadium, while there are repeated comparisons between Borussia Dortmund fans and those at the Portland Timbers.
Sporting KC boast some truly distinctive features including a simultaneously ardent yet refined atmosphere, a contemporary stadium and capable leadership. Beyond that the MLS, despite all the pretentious ridicule it receives from fan bases abroad, extends some superior aspects.
It is a league full of enthusiasm and acceptance. There is no ludicrous belief that they are of a better standard than they actually are, no prehistoric perceptions of what their national style represents, and one can only hope the small number of recent clashes between fans isn’t some senseless, low-rent Green Street move towards European fan rivalries. The lack of segregation between home and away fans is a truly encouraging feature that needs to be protected.
In reality, when one enters Sporting KC and inspects the domestic league it is more likely to encourage, not erase, hope. Sporting’s home is a welcome insight into what this league could become. With progress towards more fan groups and cultures such as this one, the league has the possibility to become something truly great. In actual fact, it has the possibility to prove Dante was right with another statement: “the path to paradise begins in hell.”