Kansas City, Kan. It started right away, the singing.
Turned on like a light as soon as the first beer was cracked, a Midwesternized version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” rang out from a black bus that could have been carrying a crop of convicts.
Instead, it was a different type of mob: soccer fans. Specifically, the Mass Street Mob, a rowdy group of fans who call Lawrence home and Sporting Kansas City their team.
“Sporting, Sporting Kansas City
Sporting, Sporting Kansas City
Sporting, Sporting Kansas City
The Wiz go marching on. On! On! On!”
Formed by three Kansas University graduate students last year, the Mass Street Mob has grown from a small group of friends to include dozens of regulars and hundreds of followers across Twitter and Facebook.
And while the founders — Adam Crifasi, Daniel Novin and Drew Rich — always rooted for Sporting KC, they weren’t superfans.
“We watched the Wizards on and off,” Rich said.
“I like watching the English Premier League and (Spain’s) La Liga,” said Crifasi, but an avid Kansas City fan he was not.
Last season, as Sporting made a remarkable run to capture the Eastern Conference crown — eventually falling to the Houston Dynamo in the conference final — the trio thought Lawrence could bring its own flavor to the Cauldron, the boisterous fan group that loudly cheers Sporting.
“The whole mind-set was that we knew there were soccer fans and Sporting fans in Lawrence, and we wanted to get them in the same place and cheer (Sporting) on together,” Crifasi said.
Relying on Twitter and Facebook, the Mass Street Mob was born. And while its core consists of KU students, the founders say it’s inclusive.
“When you say you’re a Mobster, you like Sporting, you live in Lawrence or root for KU,” Rich said. “You’re one of us.”
The Mob is one of the newer pieces of the Cauldron, an overarching supporter group that takes its name from the days when Sporting was called the Wizards. Over the years, the Cauldron has spawned offshoots that show how varied and widespread Sporting fandom is.
There’s La Barra KC, Brookside Elite, the Kansas City Yardbirds, KC Futbol Misfits, the Wedge (named after the shape of the section in which they sit), Ad Astra KC (which advertises itself as being family-friendly) and South Stand KC (located in the south part of the stadium). And, of course, the Mass Street Mob, which occupies bar stools at the Red Lyon before home games and when Sporting is on the road.
The growth of supporter groups like the Mob has made an impression on Sporting players.
“There’s always been passionate fans, but it’s been in smaller numbers (in the past),” says defender Matt Besler, an Overland Park native who rooted for the Wizards as a kid.
“I wasn’t expecting amazing fans like that,” said French defender Aurelien Collin, who played in Portugal before coming to Sporting last season. “The love they give us, screaming and clapping and cursing at the referee — they are the 12th man on the field.”
Sporting KC is Kansas City’s Major League Soccer franchise, born as the Kansas City Wiz in 1996, one of MLS’ original teams. Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt and his family founded the team. In 1997, the club was renamed the Wizards, a name that more closely identified its regional roots; a rainbow was incorporated into the logo. The team called Arrowhead Stadium home until 2008, when it moved to CommunityAmerica Ballpark, home of the Kansas City T-Bones.
In 2010, under new ownership, the team announced two drastic moves. The first was dropping the Wizards moniker, under which the team won the 2000 MLS Cup, in favor of Sporting Kansas City, a nod to European organizations that include not only soccer, but other sports like boxing and swimming under the Sporting brand.
The second was the construction of a new soccer-specific stadium in the Legends complex.
Livestrong Sporting Park is so named because of a partnership with cyclist Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation. Its low canopy and compact seating is a far cry from the cavernous Arrowhead and the awkward configuration of CommunityAmerica Ballpark, far from ideal for a soccer pitch.
Early on, the rebranding met with resistance. After all, for 15 years, soccer fans rooted on the Wizards, with stars like Preki, Alexi Lalas, Tony Meola and Josh Wolfe. But fans and players alike say the efforts made by team owner Robb Heineman have turned a small but supportive fan base into a large and loud legion of supporters.
“I’ve played in three different countries professionally, and I would have done anything to play in front of a fan base and stadium like this one,” said head coach Peter Vermes, who starred for the Wizards from 2000 to 2002 after playing in Hungary and Holland and appearing in the 1990 World Cup for the U.S. National Team. “I don’t think you can compare it to the time I was here because it’s completely changed.”
Mobsters will tell you it wasn’t always this way.
Brothers Ben and Nathan Flures grew up rooting for the Wizards at Arrowhead.
“It was quiet,” Nathan, a 22-year-old Olathe resident, remembers.
“It just blew up,” said Ben, a KU student, donning a power-and-royal blue scarf that reads “Mass St. Mob” on one side, with the Campanile stitched on the other.
The ignition point, fans and players say, is when the Heineman group took over the team and moved Sporting to Livestrong.
“(The fans) feel home now. This is our home,” said Jimmy Nielsen, the hulking Danish goalkeeper and Sporting captain. “We can feel a huge difference. Right now, there’s not a big difference in how the fans are, our fans, the soccer fans in America, compared to soccer fans in Europe.”
Opposing players have taken note, too.
“I think having the new stadium … has helped quite a bit,” said Matt Reis, goalkeeper for the New England Revolution, who entered the league in 1998. “The last couple of years playing at the baseball park really didn’t do a whole lot for the soccer community in Kansas City, and now having the great facility that they have there has really allowed the fans to come out and enjoy and embrace their soccer team.
“It’s a great environment to play in.”
Anecdotally, the surge in support took off after the rebrand. But the numbers bear that, as well.
While the club would not provide specific figures, it said season-ticket sales have grown by 475 percent since 2010. Single-game revenue has increased by more than 325 percent in the last two years. More than 20,400 fans watched Sporting play its last home game against the Montreal Impact. This season, the club has averaged 19,017 in a stadium that has a seating capacity of 18,467.
Mobsters say the new stadium has drawn new fans and brought back others who had drifted away.
“When they moved to the baseball stadium, the games weren’t as enjoyable,” Novin said.
But when Sporting moved into its new home, “the excitement just grew,” he said.
Livestrong was designed for fans, from a low roof that insulates sound to wide-screen televisions throughout the park, including the restrooms. The architect, Kansas City, Mo., firm Populous, built it with a decidedly European flair, from the sleek design to the “SPORTING” spelled out in the seats, calling to mind a similar feature at Old Trafford, home to the famed English club Manchester United.
“My feeling is the fan base has turned into a cult following. I think coming out to our games now is the thing to do in Kansas City,” Vermes said. “It’s more than just a soccer game. It’s an atmosphere.”
It’s an atmosphere that has transcended the soccer pitch.
“The rebranding has revitalized the organization,” Novin said. “That’s why we started to get more people out.”
But for all the European influences apparent at Livestrong, make no mistake: This is Kansas City. The stadium is draped in KC imagery, with banners depicting the scout statue that surveys downtown Kansas City and the iconic Western Auto building. You’re just as likely to see a powder blue Alex Gordon T-shirt as a Kei Kamara shirt. “Welcome to Blue Hell,” reads one banner.
The team has also worked to build a close relationship with fans. During pregame introductions, players’ Twitter handles are displayed on the Jumbrotron. There are regular meet-and-greet sessions with fans. The team’s practice sessions at Swope Park are open to the public. During a recent visit to Lawrence, players hung out with fans after a special training session at KU.
“We understand how much (the fans) give us, and we try to give something back,” said Besler, who has cousins that attend Free State High.
Game day for Mobsters begins at the Red Lyon, 944 Mass., and this night, May 5, Sporting took on the lowly Montreal Impact. From the pub, the group took a chartered party bus, singing and throwing back beers the entire 30-minute trip to the stadium. They tailgated in the parking lot before entering the stadium. They were well behaved, but well lubricated.
Sporting KC went into that game against the Impact with the league’s best record, having won an MLS-record seven straight games before dropping two in a row.
After dominating the first half, Montreal surprised Sporting by punching in a goal before halftime. That was followed by a second-half penalty kick, and the Impact upended Sporting. The Kansas City club would drop the following game against the Chicago Fire, a disappointing series of losses that followed a strong start.
But these losses didn’t diminish the enthusiasm of the Mob.
Even before the pregame pyrotechnics and player introductions, drums pounded. Massive banners were unfurled, displaying the various logos of supporter groups. The Mob’s crest — a shield dissected into four parts — features a red KU “K,” Sporting’s cursive “SC” logo,” the Campanile and the Red Lyon’s rampant lion.
That set the tone for the rest of the game, during which the Mobsters and their Cauldron cohorts stood for the entire 90 minutes. The Mob handed out chant sheets to those unfamiliar with the rituals. They read, and they sang.
Occupying the north end of the stadium, the Cauldron provided constant energy that feeds the rest of the crowd. While most fans sat politely, the Mobsters joined in chants and songs that range from the humorous (“Bring out your dead!” rings out when a Montreal player is carted off the field) to the R-rated (which can’t be printed in a family newspaper).
Even as it became apparent Sporting wouldn’t win, the Cauldron continued to sing and drum and shout. And still, with its team down two goals with minutes to play, the crowd could be heard a mile away.
In Lawrence, more than 2,500 kids are signed up to play in the Kaw Valley Soccer Association, said Marcus Dudley, executive director. The league was one of the first organizations Sporting partnered with for its Sporting Club Network, which works to grow interest in the sport and identify players who might have professional potential.
Dudley said there are only two other organizations in the junior affiliate program, one in the Blue Valley school district in Overland Park and one in Tulsa, Okla. The Lawrence league, he said, was chosen for its size and because it retains players as young as 3 until they are 18.
“Our youngest kids have some idea they’re connected to the major club,” he said.
In the last year, Dudley said there’s been a huge uptick in interest from girls; last year, for the first time, KVSA offered girls-only leagues, and 165 players signed up.
“The numbers show there are more kids staying (with the league), we’re seeing an increase in girls, we’re seeing a huge resurgence in high school” students that play for the league’s club teams, Dudley said.
While soccer has yet to match baseball, football or basketball in American hearts and minds, it’s growing, helped out every few years by the World Cup and the Olympics (though the Americans failed to qualify for this summer’s Games).
Still, Vermes said soccer players must also be ambassadors for the sport. Not that he thinks it will be difficult to win over pigskin-minded fans.
“If you’ve never been to a game and you come to a game, I know you’ll be a fan from there after,” he said.