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Better days ahead for Kansas City?
by Ridge Mahoney, September 14th, 2009 11AM

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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.

 



0 comments
  1. David Sirias
    commented on: September 14, 2009 at 12:02 p.m.
    Thanks for the update. I was one of those critics who scratched his head over the years wondering why MLS put up with KC all these years. The assumption was that other cities would give the team the love it deserved. But these new owners seem deadly serious about soccer and its presentation, which they know is critical towards long term growth. (Are you listening Dallas and Colombus) Fan support appears to be pretty strong in that tiny baseball venue they play in. Perhaps all KC needs is a competitive team, even better coordination with its ultras, and most importantly, a real soccer venue--all seater 18K with a FIFA grade pitch.

  1. Patrick Shea
    commented on: September 14, 2009 at 10:03 p.m.
    When the Colorado Rapids moved to Dick's Sporting Goods Park, everything about the club improved. In Westminster, they shared space with a rec center and used the same fields and parking lots as the great unwashed (myself included). It seemed rinky-dink. Now in Commerce City, they occasionally share the complex with tournaments and leagues (and one concert weekend a year). But they have all the training facilities a team could want, and they have a true home. The only negative is parking. Optimized for tournament entries and exits, traffic flows fine when people come and go, but it doesn't work well for Rapids games. Would it be possible to calculate the number of empty seats resulting from traffic hassles? Now, with the steadiness of Gary Smith and staff, the Rapids have developed into a more mature club that won't need Cinderella's dress to make it to the Final again. Like other teams, the Rapids have beaten everyone at some point in the past few MLS seasons. The stadium deserves some credit for the position they're in today.


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