The running soap opera that is the Red Bulls (nee MetroStars) notwithstanding, perhaps no MLS team that has attained some success earned less respect than the Kansas City Wizards.
Despite winning an MLS Cup title in 2000 and reaching the final again four years later, Kansas City has always struggled at the gate, and renovations at Arrowhead Stadium have forced the team to play the past two seasons at a minor-league baseball park.
Despite efforts of the team's ownership group, OnGoal, LLC, which bought the team three years ago from Hunt Sports Group, to launch a development project that would have included a stadium on the site of an abandoned shopping mall, severe economic conditions have stalemated that project for the past year.
And despite reaching the playoffs the past two seasons under the guidance of former Coach Curt Onalfo after three straight postseason misses, OnGoal LLC fired him in early August after a humiliating 6-0 loss to FC Dallas. In its first three games with his replacement, technical director Peter Vermes, Kansas City failed to earn a point or even score a goal.
These setbacks have sharpened the comments of some critics, to whom Kansas City hasn't been just a backwater MLS franchise, it's been a dead zone, one that should be shipped elsewhere as soon as possible.
Hunt Sports Group ran the franchise frugally, to say the least, maintaining a small staff and "borrowing" employees from its "other" team, the NFL Chiefs, as much as it could. Despite a low cost of living attractive to players with families who don't make a lot of money, Kansas City is rarely mentioned elsewhere as a desirable place of employment.
However, in the past few weeks, both on the field and off, the Wizards have shown some mystical powers of recovery.
It has won two of the past three games - all on the road - to edge back into the playoff frame, and a proposal for a stadium across the state line in Wyandotte County, Kansas, has been drawn up by the developer, Lane4 Properties Group, chosen by OnGoal to manage its stadium project.
The development would include a sports complex with athletic fields for soccer and other sports, and an office complex that would house Cerner Corp., the Kansas City-based medical software company co-founded by Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig, who are the lead investors in OnGoal. It would be partially funded by sales tax revenue bonds (STAR bonds) that have been issued for a retail district, called Village West, selected for the project to be built near Kansas Speedway, which opened in 2001 with an additional 400 acres set aside for further development.
Kansas City officials approved a plan to redevelop Bannister Mall in December, 2007. The $1 billion project was to include a stadium and offices for the Wizards, retail and office space, a sports complex, and a hotel. Early this year, work began to clear the abandoned, fenced-off site, but foreboding economic conditions prompted Lane4 Properties Group to suggest reviving the projects financial formula, and the Kansas City Council has declined to do so.
The land for the project is owned by Nebraska Furniture Mart, one of the primary tenants of Village West, which according to officials is generating about $40 million in sales tax revenue each year. It is well ahead of schedule to pay its STAR bonds, which funnel 100 percent of new state and local sales taxes produced by the project to pay certain development costs.
Both the team's playoff push and stadium quest have a ways to go. Kansas City is tied for 12th place with FC Dallas, which it hosts next weekend, with both teams a good seven points out of the playoff tier. Kansas City has only six matches left.
"I am a pretty competitive guy and I am going to compete every game," said goalkeeper Kevin Hartman to mlsnet.com after the Wizards beat New York, 1-0, Saturday in Giants Stadium, where they had failed to win in a dozen visits. "Right now, until we're mathematically out of it, we're going to keep plugging away."
The ambition shown by OnGoal, by firing Onalfo and shifting gears to find a suitable facility, just wasn't present when HSG ran the show.
On and off the field, MLS is a much more competitive league, and a few newcomers are providing strong impetus: Toronto FC has sold out just about every game since it joined the league in 2007, Real Salt Lake moved into its own stadium in 2008, its fourth year of operation, and this year's expansion newbie, Seattle, has already won a trophy (U.S. Open Cup) and is on pace to set a league record for attendance.