In just two years, three prominent soccer teams here in Kansas City have won championships; Sporting KC, FCKC, and the Missouri Comets. This is a soccer town.
But in the Kansas City area, it starts with 8 year olds. Overland Park Soccer Complex, Heritage Soccer Park, and the new Swope Soccer Village are three soccer venues that draw hundreds-of-thousands of fans and players every year.
What keeps these three places so busy on the weekend? Well Kansas City is home to a youth soccer league that is recognized as the largest in the country: Heartland Soccer Association. The non-profit organization represents more than 1,150 league teams and nearly 17,000 players. This is just league play; the association also holds some of the nation’s largest youth tournaments… eight a year, in fact.
Think about these numbers: 390 teams, 636 games, 58 divisions, 28 fields in three locations. Yes, this was a youth soccer tournament in Kansas City last weekend. It’s called the KC Champions Cup and the tournament grew by 30 teams from last year. In the KCCC, teams traveled from 9 different states… booking more than 2,000 hotel rooms. The use of fields in three different locations and on both sides of the state line still couldn’t accommodate this enormous tournament — as many as 80 teams had to be turned away for lack of available soccer fields.
Executive director at Heartland Soccer Shane Hackett said, “We’ve seen both pro and youth soccer explode with growth over the past 6 years. Sporting KC has created a great product on and off the field on the pro side. On the youth side, we have grown into the country’s largest soccer league and one of the top tournament operators. Much of that growth is due to the world-class soccer complexes of Overland Park and Swope Soccer Village. On a regular basis, we have teams traveling from a 16-state area to play here in Kansas City. And it’s continuing to grow each and every year.”
The numbers are astonishing. What is more astonishing is how all these teams are accommodated. Her name is Dana Parry, and I have seen her in action. I have been fortunate enough to be associated with Heartland for 6 years now, and I can confirm that she is pretty much a super hero around the office. She is in charge of game scheduling for all league and tournament teams. In the last year there were just under 5,000 games scheduled each season, while there were 4000+ tournament games scheduled. Obviously, the Heartland schedule is incredibly complex.
“Not only do I have to schedule almost 1200 teams, I have to avoid coach conflicts, give requested days off, schedule out of town teams with multiple games a day, use multiple venues…etc. I have actually tried to computerize the process but it’s too complex for any existing programs. I do fulfill all requests within our guidelines, but beyond that I really try to meet the team’s special requests,” said Dana Parry. You would think it just isn’t possible, but somehow she always finds a way.
So looking at some total numbers, when you add up league and tournament teams Heartland represents more than 2,500 teams. Heartland league has grown by approximately 650 teams in a decade. Why such a jump in interest? I say look to the role models at Sporting KC, FCKC and the Comets. I took my nephew to a Sporting game a few years ago and as we walked out of Sporting Park he looked at me and said, “I want to play soccer.” Sure enough, his parents signed him up for a Heartland team the next week.
Many of the players that have come through Heartland have grown up to be some of the best high school soccer players in the metro, and quite a few have even gone on to play pro. Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Jon Kempin. Those three names ring a bell? Well, they all played for a Heartland team. A FIFA World Cup player started his soccer career right here in Kansas City for a non-profit league. Now that’s pretty cool.
The Kansas City Goalkeeper of the Year from 2012-2014, Anna Lillig, currently plays for both Pius X High School and Futura Academy. It is her league team that has been one of her biggest inspirations. Lillig said, “My coaches have definitely developed me and made me into this player. I wouldn’t even consider going to college (signed to play with UMKC next year) if it weren’t for Futura. They are such a great organization that has made me so much better.”
In the Kansas City metro area, there are currently three boys and six high school girls’ teams that are ranked among the top 50 in the country. Much of that talent began with this 10-employee operated organization in Overland Park, Kansas.
In no time, Kansas City will be pegged as the country’s soccer capital. Sports fandom is generational. A majority of sports fans inherit the teams and sports they love from their parents and grandparents. We are now into the second generation of MLS fans and moving into the third. Soccer will continue to grow in this city, and it starts with these 8 year olds that strap on their cleats and walk onto the largest all turf soccer complex in the world.