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Soccer surging in K.C.

July 20, 2011

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— Davy Arnaud remembers gazing into the stands at Arrowhead Stadium on a crisp March day and nearly being able to count the number of fans.

The midfielder was playing for the Major League Soccer club in Kansas City against Costa Rican club Deportivo Saprissa. It was a quarterfinal of the CONCACAF Champions League, and Arnaud estimates there were about 400 people that day — which means nearly 80,000 empty seats were staring right back at him.

“I’ve seen it in a lot different times, for sure,” Arnaud said with a smile.

Fast forward six years, and Arnaud’s place on the team is about all that’s remained the same.

The club has changed its name from the Kansas City Wizards to Sporting Kansas City, a rebranding this season designed to forge a new identity while emulating its European counterparts. The team practices in a plush facility in Kansas City, Mo., and its home games are played in Livestrong Sporting Park, a $200 million stadium on the Kansas side of the state line that opened last month to rave reviews.

Just about every game at the soccer-specific stadium has been close to a sellout, a far cry from when their games were played at the home of the NFL’s Chiefs. Local television ratings are booming, sponsors are coming on board and the club is becoming a fixture on talk radio shows.

“There’s no doubt in my mind how far we’ve come just in the time I’ve been in the league,” said Arnaud, the club’s captain and elder statesman. “It’s pretty phenomenal when you look at it.”

The success on the business front has translated to the pitch, where Sporting Kansas City is riding an 11-match unbeaten streak against MLS teams. Omar Bravo and Matt Besler were recently selected as All-Stars, and Brazilian standout Jeferson arrived this week from Brazil as only the third designated player in club history.

He’s expected to debut tonight when Sporting plays a friendly against Premier League club Newcastle United, which has embarked on a preseason tour of the United States.

“I feel very fortunate to be in Kansas City, where the infrastructure is laid out for you,” said Jeferson, who had offers to play for other clubs in other countries but chose Sporting in part because of the facilities. “Myself and many other players in Brazil don’t have that available to us.”

After averaging 10,287 fans for 15 home dates last season, when games were played in the cramped confines of a nearby minor league baseball stadium, Sporting Kansas City has averaged 18,107 through the first five games in its new digs. And for the first time since 2004 — and the second time ever — the club is averaging more fans for its home games than for those played on the road.

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