KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Most of the focus inside Sporting Park shifted away from the action on the field when MLS commissioner Don Garber announced his league would add four more teams by the end of the decade.
Garber's halftime declaration reinforced the true meaning of this gathering. The game - mundane and one-sided with AS Roma claiming a 3-1 victory at a canter - provided the purpose for the gathering, but it did not serve as the focal point of the proceedings.
Kansas City instead took center stage to offer another reminder of its remarkable transformation of this previously indifferent community into a soccer market over the past few years. The atmosphere for this exhibition match - loud and proud for the early stages before inevitably dropping off as Roma assumed unquestioned control and the tempo dropped in the second half - applied the perfect cap to the whirlwind proceedings over the past few days.
A town once devoted solely to baseball, college basketball and football now embraces soccer with open arms. This city is no longer a place where players dare to tread. It is a now a bustling, vibrant hub for soccer in this country. And its ability to stage an event of this scope without a hitch speaks volumes about the infrastructure created by the club and its investors and the cultivation of a devoted group of supporters capable of bringing it to life.
"The game didn't go our way, but if you look at the week as a whole and the experience, Kansas City was unbelievable," Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler said. "For me to see it first-hand, I knew they were going to be great. Everyone else coming in - at the meals, at the training, before the game - everyone was talking about Kansas City and how nice everything was and how much buzz there was about this game."
The entire experience - from the concerts during the week to the roar of the crowd at Sporting Park on Wednesday night - reflected Sporting's increasing stature within the league and showed the work done here over the past few years can supply an example worth modeling for other sides.
"The result wasn't necessarily the key focus for the past three or four days," Sporting and MLS All-Star manager Peter Vermes said. "It was really about, I think, a vision that now becomes reality. Our ownership group - it's amazing - made a commitment to come into this league, to take a franchise that was unfortunately under-performing in so many different ways and they've been able to follow through on every single commitment or goal they have set for this organization. This week was just another one of those."
Garber and the Board of Governors will embark on a search to cultivate similarly successful approaches in four more markets over the next seven years. Several interested candidates will vie for the opportunity to follow the successful examples in Montreal, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver or replicate the engagement created in a traditionally skeptical market like Kansas City.
No perfect formula exists to produce the sort of results created in those markets, but the diversity of those approaches bodes well for the league as it plots an ambitious course for the future and strives to expand its footprint without impairing its current brand.
"Soccer in this country is continuing to grow," Roma midfielder Michael Bradley said. "You look at the growth of MLS, the continued improvement of our national team. I think we're moving in the right direction. As the league continues to add more teams, as there continues to be more stadiums, as you continue to have atmospheres like you do in Kansas City or Portland or Seattle. These are all great things. I think the future is very bright."
The events in Kansas City over the past few days reinforce Bradley's point. If this club and this sort of event can thrive here given the history in this previously unsuccessful burgh, then the prospect of adding four more teams - complex and daunting as it is despite interest from several interesting candidates - constitutes an attainable goal during the remainder of the decade. And that sort of takeaway ensures this sort of event - if not the game itself or the missed opportunity to impress a few casual fans passing through - carries ample weight as MLS charts its course for the future.