The U.S. men’s soccer team won’t be in this summer’s World Cup in Russia, and the organization is trying to figure out how to re-enter the world’s consciousness. In that, Kansas City plays a prominent role —in more ways than one.
Let’s start with the team’s friendly at Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia on Memorial Day, when the U.S. defeated Bolivia 3-0. The average age of the U.S. players was 22; one of them was 21-year-old Erik Palmer-Brown, who grew up in Lee’s Summit and graduated from O’Hara High School.
“I believe in U.S. Soccer, so I think with what we’re doing with the young guys, us, our group, is just starting over and we’re trying new things,” said Palmer-Brown, who signed with Sporting KC as a homegrown player at 16 and now plays full-time in Europe.
The Bolivia game was his second call-up to the men’s national team this year and his first time on the pitch. So he watched from afar in October, when the men’s team (which included then-Sporting KC teammates Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and the since-traded Benny Feilhaber) was eliminated from World Cup qualifying with a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, the 99th ranked team in the world. The average age of the U.S. players then was 27.
“It hurt to watch as a fan, as a friend,” Palmer-Brown said. “It sucked to see, but at the same time things happen.”
Things have changed. There’s a new U.S. Soccer president (Carlos Cordeiro, who replaced Sunil Gulati). And after the World Cup, which runs June 14 through July 15, there’ll be a new coach to replace Bruce Arena.
Interim U.S. men’s coach Dave Sarachan doesn’t know if he’ll be retained, but said his uncertainty about the future won’t hinder the rebuild.
“The one thing about our group, whether it’s myself, our staff, the players that are here, the task at hand is today, tomorrow and then the next day,” he said in Philadelphia.
There happens to be a coach in Kansas City who knows about building and rebuilding: Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes, whose team is atop Major League Soccer’s Western Conference and whose name has circulated in the soccer world as a possible coaching candidate.
That rumor’s already reached Sporting co-owner Mike Illig.
“We hear the same rumors everyone else hears. But I asked Peter, ‘Has he heard anything?’ His answer is no,” Illig said when Sporting announced Vermes’ contract extension last month, keeping him through 2023.
Can Vermes declare, unequivocally, that he’ll stay that long?
“No, I can’t say that and I’ll tell you why. Because there’s absolutely no 100 percent situation,” Vermes said. “I know everybody wants to draw me out and for me to say that I’m not going to the national team. I don’t think that’s even a discussion here because that’s all speculation.”
World Cup in Kansas City?
There’s also the possibility that the United States, Canada and Mexico will jointly host the 2026 World Cup. FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, will announce where that year’s tournament will be on June 13.
Kansas City is one of the 23 host cities included in the bid. And, according to Michael Kammarman from the U.S. Soccer communications office, the new national training center in Kansas City, Kansas, won’t hurt the city’s chances.
“The facilities are a big part of the strength of any bid city. The national development center that just opened in Kansas City is simply outstanding,” he said. “I think there’s nothing like it in the United States. I think it’s something that was very impressive to the people who are making these decisions.”
Already, Children’s Mercy Park will host a major international tournament: 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup, which involves 16 countries in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
By then, Palmer-Brown will be almost halfway through his four-and-a-half year contract with Manchester City in the English Premier League. Right now, he’s on loan in Belgium, but hopes to be in Manchester soon.
“Getting those game repetitions, there’s nothing like it,” Palmer-Brown said. “Training is training and it’s great and you push yourself every day, but (in) game situations anything can happen, so it’s really good.”
Chances are he’ll be back with the national team next year — maybe even on the familiar turf at Children’s Mercy Park.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.