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The Weekly Sort of Inspired by Sporting KC Post
I'm trying something new with my professional soccer team
I am switching up the way that I go about my weekly Sporting KC post. In previous weeks I’ve been trying to find so many ways to say “This team cannot score or win and I don’t like that” within a rigid structure and I’m kind of tired of doing that. Title will change. My thoughts are either “The Sporting Sauce Diaries” or “Score Secondary’s Summer and Season of Sporting Suffering, i.e. the 6S Diaries, i.e. The Success Diaries” or “Posts From The Official Soccer Capital of the United States According To The United States Trademark Office”
These will be closer to essays inspired by the match of the prior weekend than the blog-style posts I’d been doing here.
I had somewhere around three first-time sports experiences this weekend and somewhere around three sports experiences with which I'm familiar. We'll start with the latter.
Points have come at something of a premium to the teams I care about. The Royals, whose first games I didn't watch, continuing an unfortunate tradition that began with the great Bally Sports/Most Streaming Cable Services Split of 2020, were shutout in their first two games against Minnesota. The Current, who I watched on CBS on Saturday afternoon, managed to score a goal in a severe losing effort to Portland. Sporting KC, whose match I watched the bulk of on my friend Mike's phone balanced up against a salt and pepper shaker caddy on a table at a Buffalo Wild Wings, also failed to score a goal, but held firm defensively against a Philadelphia attack which had been so prolific before this year.
It is a strange experience, watching or otherwise following this offensive impotence. It's the whole point of the endeavor. You just have to do that. Every stadium I've ever been to has kept score on a big board somewhere within its confines. You're supposed to do the actions that increase the number above, beneath, or otherwise adjacent to your team's name. The teams aren't intentionally eschewing the scoring of points, either, it's not a political or artistic statement. They want to increase the number on the board, as much as or more than I do. They won't, though!
There is a real, palpable feeling to being at the home stadium to watch a team fail to score. The angst of everyone in the surrounding stands combines, quietly at first, but it grows in intensity with each inning, minute, quarter, whatever, to an acrid, nearly physical wall of discontentedness from people who each paid some amount of money and traveled some sort of distance to see the team increase the number on the big scoreboard. I recommend stopping and looking around next time you're at a game in which your team is getting shut out. We write poetry about the high fiving of strangers and the limbs and the singing and chanting in chorus, but really take the chance to feel what it means to share solidarity in mild to medium (or, in my case at the BWW on Saturday, Nashville Hot) frustration at your team's impotence next time that you get it.
Personally, that feeling of soft solidarity between us in the stands makes up for whatever cost was spent to be there. I've learned to find something resembling meaning, even fun, in losing over the years, a something which is much easier to tap into from the venue than it is from my living room. I much prefer feeling my resentment echoed from the people around me than reading the sour drip-feed of commentary from the posters in the Reddit threads or ranting quietly to myself as I wind myself down to bed by doing the household chores I put off all Saturday, and I was broadly disappointed by everything that I watched over a screen (this even includes the Loyal as well) this weekend.
This contrast was highlighted by the experiences that I had away from the TV screen this weekend.
I should preface the remainder of this entry, for those of you unaware of my situation, by saying that I don't live in Kansas City itself. I live in the outskirts of the KC metro in Lawrence, Kansas. It is about 40 minutes away from KC, a small college town, home to my alma mater, the University of Kansas.
I stayed in Lawrence and attended two sporting events this weekend. The first was Saturday’s Women’s National Invitational Tournament Final between KU and Columbia, held at Allen Fieldhouse.
This was one of the most unique events I’ve ever attended — A tournament final in Allen Fieldhouse. It highlighted a paradox for me: We have this famous, storied “Cathedral to College Basketball” on our campus, the one that ESPN goes to every year for College Gameday, the one routinely listed on those “Stadiums To Visit Before You Die” listicles, but all of our men’s basketball program’s highest achievements have come elsewhere – Seattle in 1952, Kansas City in 1988, San Antonio in 2008, New Orleans last year. We win conference championships at the Fieldhouse, but I doubt that we’ve ever won a tournament on that floor. I don’t think I’d seen a non-regular season men’s or women’s basketball game hosted there since the volleyball team last played a NCAA tournament game there in 2013. By the nature of the way that college sports work on the national level, few games with national-level stakes like that take place in that historic building.
This was my first tournament final that I’d attended since the 2012 US Open Cup final at Children’s Mercy Park, and the atmosphere was unlike anything I’d felt before in that stadium, especially for women’s basketball. Most KU Women’s Basketball games are relatively measured. Even well-attended games against rivals like K-State that I’ve attended didn’t really angry up the blood of many attendees on either side, I’ve seen neither fury nor the sort of edgy, cathartic celebration I come to associate with the men’s team from fellow attendees. Granted, for most of my career, I hardly saw anybody in the Fieldhouse for Women’s Basketball – and I’ve seen a lot of KU Women’s Basketball.
I spent three years with the Women’s Basketball band at KU, my sophomore, junior, and second-senior years. I attended every home game, give or take a few given class conflicts or what have you, during that time, and those were dark times for KU Women’s Basketball, right in the middle of a six-year run of losing seasons. The best moments during my time with the band were somewhere between a December 2014 upset of an (at the time) tenth ranked CalIfornia Golden Bears team and the astounding win we notched as the last place team in the 2016 Big XII Tournament over TCU, the only conference win we saw, one so out-of-place that most people around me in the band had weekend plans ruined (A few trumpet players had to take Greyhound buses back from Oklahoma City to Lawrence for a Jazz band concert, everybody missed Perry Ellis’ Senior Night, and nobody got to vote in the 2016 Presidential Caucus) because the thought of that team breaking through in that game was so unbelievable.
If you’d gone through that season with us, you would’ve planned otherwise, too. They had gone winless in the regular season in-conference. 0-18, losing to everybody, TCU included, twice. They started 4-4, won in overtime over Navy after giving up a late lead and a running three-point buzzer-beater, footage of which I can unfortunately find nowhere online, and then lost the next 21 games in a row. From December 20th to March 4th, they lost every game. Eleven of those were in Allen Fieldhouse, and I was there for every one of them.
That was the season which immediately followed the 0-12 football season of fall 2015, the fall which contained the Royals’ World Series win, when I was twenty years old, junior in college, finally coming into something resembling a life socially and coming off of my first breakup, the fall in which I started trying to write with a purpose other than cheap laughs. I’ve referenced that football season in my writing so often, I’ve given it its place as the bizarre philosophy-bending coming-of-age era of low-stakes strife that it was, but the succeeding women’s basketball season presented a hell of its own, one closer to Huis Clos than anything biblical.
I and about 25 other people would walk into Allen Fieldhouse about twice weekly, typically Wednesday or Tuesday evenings and Saturday or Sunday afternoons, instruments in hand, and we’d watch this team lose. We all chose to be there, most of us had to audition to be there (I didn’t, I signed up at the last minute because they needed a fifth trombone), and ostensibly it was something we did for fun, through no external obligation. Students and the surrounding community didn’t put forth the time or effort to show up for the team – official tallies were that around two-thousand people showed up per game, but it never felt like that and even if it did initially, the competitive portions of each game was typically finished by halftime. We in the band, though, were obligated by the decision we’d made to join the band before the season, to stand there and play music and cheer and care. We were this little colony of people crammed together in this wedge, the only tightly packed section of the Fieldhouse during those games, playing fight songs and arrangements of 1980s pop hits, chanting and cheering, and I think for most of us honestly caring, to crowds which grew sparser and sparser over the course of the year.
It wasn’t feigned, dishonest support, either – We really wanted them to win. At least I did. The players were so likable, they earnestly tried, they cared, there was just a talent and depth disparity between them and the rest of the Big XII. They would walk up into the crowd after games and personally thank people for coming out. At the conference tournament, one of them came up to us in the band and thanked us for being there all year. I was so struck by one near-miss at home against Oklahoma that I wrote about it in the poetry writing class I took that spring:
Sidenote: While looking for this poem, I found a short essay I wrote as a part of an abandoned project involving attending sporting events over the course of 2017 that covered my experience with KU Women’s Basketball more immediately recently.
Even while things weren’t working, I thought that Brandon Schneider was putting down a good foundation from which on-court success could develop.
That season was seven years ago. Schneider’s KU teams slowly improved year-over-year, finally had their first winning season in 2019-20, then had their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2022. They spent a couple of weeks ranked in the AP Top 25 poll this year before faltering in the mid-season and eventually ending up right on the outside of the NCAA Tournament. I’ll confess I only made it out to two games in the regular season and didn’t get to the WNIT games until the “Great Eight” round against Arkansas, but I was there for each of the last three games. The “Fab 4” blowout of Washington was an especially unique experience, it tipped at 6:30pm on a Wednesday night, a time only pre-empted by three days, which meant that (and this could have been a stretch of an interpretation on my part) it felt like a Lawrence-heavy crowd, like more of a community event than anything else. I kept seeing people that I knew, some by name and some only circumstantially. My parents were there and I didn’t even know it until halftime. KU destroyed Washington, too, they just cruised for 40 minutes – a fun sight from a team for whom the bulk of my most affecting memories involve heartbreaking futility despite earnest effort. That game – a Wednesday evening game scheduled with short notice – brought the largest crowd out for KU Women’s Basketball since 2019.
The Saturday afternoon crowd was the biggest since the last time that KU hosted the WNIT final. I was among 11,000+ people out there on Saturday. I certainly watched the game and cheered on the team, but I spent a lot of time in awe scanning the crowd around me. I kept taking it in, comparing the sight and atmosphere surrounding me to the echoes off the bleachers and mottled crowds of friends and family to which I’d become so accustomed when I was with the band in my early twenties. I could not have appreciated that sight so much had I not put so much effort and time into that team during their most futile era. Knowing how badly as a student I wanted to see this team lift a trophy and cut the nets down in front of 11,000+ fans, to see them get the support that matched their effort, it pushed me to drink it in all the more fully.
The parking department did not prepare for this game to be as well-attended as it was, meaning that there was no staff to assist with directing people out of the lots, which put me and my friends into a period of about twenty minutes of slowly idling before we could even get out of the fitness center lot. We turned on the AM Radio feed of the Men’s Final Four game between San Diego State and Florida Atlantic to hear the call of the end of that game as we idled in Lot 90. My relationship with San Diego State athletics is a unique one. I wasn’t raised into the program from youth like I was with KU, and I always heard that “Rep your undergraduate” truism from people I’d talked to about the concept of supporting a graduate school’s athletic teams.
I attended a few football games and basketball games as a graduate student at SDSU, but only a handful. I never had that season-long game-in-game-out connection I’d developed with the band at KU, it was more like in-person entertainment than true connected fandom like that. I grew to appreciate their styles of play, a very conservative run-first style in football which contrasted well with the impotent air raid of KU at the time, and an emphasis on stoutness on the defensive perimeter in men’s basketball. That connection grew over time once I was physically disconnected from the school. I never felt like I properly ‘finished’ my time at San Diego State, graduating remotely in the summer of 2020, my last action with the school being an e-mailed manuscript of my thesis from my parents’ house in Overland Park.
It’s odd, because there are ways in which I care about San Diego State in ways more intensely than I do KU. I had new responsibilities at SDSU that I never had in Lawrence. I took my first instructing roles there, as a tutor and a graduate teaching assistant, and I found myself flourishing in them. I taught freshman-level composition there, RWS 100 and 200, and I recognized early on that I had a role in helping my students not just grow as writers, but become comfortable and confident as students at the university. I ran with that responsibility, an invigorating sensation after so often shying away from any sort of responsibility like that in my life to that point. It’s a much more pragmatic love that I have for that institution compared to the halcyonic nostalgia I have for KU. It was in small ways – diligent attention paid to growing as a writing center tutor and careful empathy enacted as a teacher – but I felt like I helped make that institution better. I cared about KU innately – I was wearing Jayhawk onesies as a baby and carrying around a Sports Illustrated with Jacque Vaughn on the cover everywhere I went as a toddler, but I chose to put myself fully into SDSU.
I realized as I watched that team run to the final four that the freshman class I taught in Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 would be in their scheduled senior year now. I saw first-hand how those freshmen had their lives upended in March 2020, forced to move out of student housing and pushed into remote education for such a significant chunk of their time there. When we went remote in March, my only priority was doing as much as I could to help with the transition for my class. Looking back at it, that was probably the hardest I’d ever worked on anything. I tried to balance the lenience that I knew they weren’t getting from every teacher with a sense of structure that many students told me they needed in such a fraught moment. I know that I did it imperfectly, everybody did, but I wanted to show them that they mattered to me, that their well-being was as much of a priority to me as their growth as writers.
I only heard it initially, but when I got to see the replay of Lamont Butler’s game-winning shot I found myself most happy for the student section that had made the trip down to Houston to which the broadcast cut after the shot. Every college student (and every student, and every person, of course) was forced through such strife over the course of the pandemic, but this is the student body that I tried so hard to help through it. It was so good to see those kids joyously celebratory, knowing what they’d been through.
These experiences culminated at Rock Chalk Park on Sunday. Sporting KC II, the MLS Next Pro affiliate team of Sporting Kansas City, is playing home games for a large chunk of the season in Lawrence this year. I didn’t go to any of their games last year, and honestly I’m a bit surprised that they’d choose to come back here given that they could probably play at a closer venue like Swope Park, but I was there for the first game of this year after missing every one of their games last year. I had more fun than I thought I would watching the unproven players on both sides. I have a love for the earnest but unpolished sort of soccer that played out in front of us, and there were these flashes where the potential which got these players into the MLS system really showed itself. There was a sequence in which an Austin forward had a run in on goal and took a shot that required an impressive save from the SKCII goalkeeper, one he parlayed into starting a counter-attack. A reserve winger for SKCII, Andrew Draper, picked up the ball around the top of our own box, with a lot of space, and dribbled his way across nearly two-thirds of the pitch to where he found striker Pau Vidal at the top of the box, who took a shot through a crowd of Austin defenders that found the net. It wasn’t the sort of orchestra-swell meeting of technical skill and athletic prowess that I might typically associate with a great moment in soccer, but it got me to my feet. I found myself paying very close attention over this match, trying to pick out where those flashes of excellence might come from. This is exhilarating, and I want to be out there to see how these players develop over time. I want to be out there more over the rest of this year.
Last weekend, seeds that were planted by effort I’d put in years ago finally flourished. Work I’d put in at age 20 with a trombone in Allen Fieldhouse and work I’d put in at age 25 for San Diego State unlocked emotions that I wouldn’t have otherwise felt had I not done that at those ages. I am 27 now, turning 28 later this month, and I don’t know when or if or how any efforts that I put in right now will culminate, but I know that it can, I’ve just felt it. I have to find a way to put in effort, to act out support and love like that now.