The pop of the ball as it’s booted down field. Shouts from the sidelines. Cleats kicking up clumps of grass.
Sound familiar? You might have played on a soccer team when you were growing up, or perhaps these are the sounds you hear when you shuttle your kids to practices and games.
Kansas City is no stranger to the "beautiful game." Just this past week, the Overland Park Soccer Complex hosted the 2013 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships. In 2010, the rebranding of the Wizards to Sporting Kansas City sparked interest in a then-nascent team that’s only going to get bigger, according to those who follow the game. And with the MLS All-Star Game coming up this week, it’s clear that Kansas City’s soccer star is rising.
And not just for men, either. From high school competitions to the premier and professional teams that both planted their flags in Kansas City just last year, girls and women are finding ways to make their mark on and off the pitch.
Shane Hackett is into his tenth year as the executive director of the Heartland Soccer Association, a league that covers more than 1,100 teams in Johnson County. Not only did Hackett play at William Jewell College in Liberty, he raised five players, too.
“The social side of soccer is huge. I think it plays even a larger role with girls and females,” he said. “You’re also talking to a father of five, and I have four strong girls.”
Starting a premier club for women
Another man, Shawn Daugherty, jokes that he blames his mom for getting him interested in starting his own team. She played college basketball during the Title IX movement. It was an experience that showed Daugherty that, if given the opportunity, everyone has the ability to be great, he says.
But at the professional level, he didn’t see a lot to aspire to for young women playing competitively.
“We all know that Kansas City has become a soccer mecca, but there were no women’s teams here at all,” he said. “There was nothing in Nebraska, Kansas or Missouri.”
About 18 months ago, Daugherty put into action a plan he’d been tossing around since 2009: the idea of starting a Women’s Premier Soccer League team right in his own backyard. And so, the Kansas City Shock was born. Daugherty is the chief executive officer.
“After the failure of the second women’s soccer league, it kind of created a vacuum of women’s soccer programs at an elite level in the U.S.,” he said.
Hackett knows the feeling. When he was playing, there wasn’t a professional outdoor soccer team in the city, and there weren’t many American players traveling overseas to keep competing.
“But now, there’s this ability for us to dream and aspire to become a Sporting KC player or an FC KC player, to be able to play on the women’s side,” he said. “I think it’s great for dreaming, and I think it helped shape the culture, and I think it redefined the culture.”
Hackett’s talking about FC Kansas City, the professional women’s team that was founded here last year. By all accounts, soccer is spreading. The simplicity of the game helps, as does the land around Kansas City to build fields. It's space some cities just don’t have, Hackett says.
“I see the women’s side and the girls’ side of soccer continuing to grow. It continues to get bigger,” he said. “When I started with Heartland Soccer about 10 years ago, Heartland Soccer had just around 400 teams. We just finished fall registration, and we now have almost 1100 teams.”
After scouting college and high school teams, the Kansas City Shock’s roster now sits at about 25 to 30 players, with 16 to 18 of those women traveling. But Daugherty says it’s a more diverse bunch than you might think.
“We got a ton of local players,” he said. “What we didn’t account for was the fact that we were going to be represented by seven different countries with our program. They came out of everywhere. We were fielding questions from Serbia, Jamaica, Australia, Mexico. Everybody came out.”
Bringing together female fans
Women are finding their niche on the sidelines, too. Barbara Goebel was one of the earliest members of Ladies of SKC, a supporter’s group for Sporting Kansas City.
“That very first year after the park opened, there were a lot of like-minded women who came together and said, ‘Hey, we not only like this sport, we like community interaction,’” she said. “Ladies of SKC is kind of built on that.”
Kristi Colvin was one of seven women who founded the Women’s United Football Club, or WUFC, which brings together women across the globe who love soccer – or, as Colvin calls it, “footie football,” not American football.
“Women who love soccer tend to be a little religious about it, and it takes over your whole life, often,” she said. “Sometimes you have your children playing, you’re married to a soccer player, or you just love the team and you’re a season ticket holder. A lot of your girlfriends don’t really relate to that. So we wanted to develop a community of people who related to both the love of going shoe shopping and the need to go and tailgate and support their favorite team every week.”
The two groups, while unique, pool their members from the same passionate soccer fan base.
“We want to be that safe landing spot where someone can ask the stupid question and get rooted to the right people to answer it,” Colvin said. “(WUFC is) sort of the online network whereas Ladies of SKC locally … do a lot of in-person things together.”
That includes cheering in the Cauldron (the name is a holdover from the Wizards days), the largest umbrella fan club for Sporting Kansas City, which occupies a consistently raucous section of the stadium. Even though they feel completely welcome there, Colvin and Goebel say that for them, enjoying soccer as women is simply a different experience.
“There is a very female way of communicating often where we try to soften our opinions a little bit,” Goebel said.
“And you don’t often see that on the predominantly male discussion boards,” Colvin added. “Women also have specific needs sometimes, sometimes as simple as a T-shirt being made in a women’s cut versus the men’s. How we support the sport is a little bit different. We have our own way of showing that may differ historically from what men have done.
“We’re probably not going to take our shirt off and paint someone’s number on our chest because, first of all, we probably wouldn’t be allowed in,” she said, laughing.
Much like the growth of premier and professional outlets for female players, the female fan base has seen development of its own, and recognition from the outside.
“It’s more integrated into our everyday lives than a sports passion is for a lot of other fans,” Goebel said. “We know who our fellow fans are in our community. If somebody is having a baby, we provide meals. If somebody has lost a spouse or a parent or a friend, everybody’s there to support them through that. There’s a lot of emotional connection that goes way beyond the sport.”
“I think these groups and their acceptance by the teams themselves, by MLS, by people who write about soccer in the industry – it has significantly given us the confidence to keep expressing ourselves,” Colvin added.
The league teams, the professional teams, the fans who welcome newcomers with open arms – they all come together to create what Barbara Goebel calls a “whole-consuming passion.” And now, she says, that’s spilling over into women’s teams, too.
“As my daughter was coming up, we didn’t watch any women’s soccer besides leading up to the Olympics,” Goebel said. “Now, especially with two women’s soccer teams in Kansas City, it’s very exciting. The possibilities for young women to see role models in their sport, to see where they could go with their athletic abilities – it’s awesome. It’s a fantastic thing.”
That’s the heart of what the sport should be, Kansas City Shock owner Shawn Daugherty says – a path for players like his to grow.
“I want them to say, ‘I want to play like that. I’m going to be an amazing athlete,’” he said.
It’s all about spreading the game – for everyone.