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Peter Vermes on World Cup in Kansas City: “It would be wrong for it not to be here”

Sep 11, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Fans tailgate in the parking lot before the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium. (John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Years ago, the thought of Kansas City hosting World Cup matches would have been … well, not realistic. But as cities across the United States close in on the final phase of bidding to be a 2026 World Cup host site, those involved with the Kansas City bid feel good about its chances this time around.

The city’s facilities and its location (smack in the middle of the country) are the two aspects the executive committee hopes to hammer home. Transportation, which has long been a Kansas City bugaboo, will be the main hurdle to clear.

Sporting Kansas City president and CEO Jake Reid and executive director of the Kansas City bid, David Ficklin, spoke Friday at Children’s Mercy Park – the epicenter of those facilities the committee is peddling. Down the road is Pinnacle, SKC’s brand-new, 81,000-square foot training facility. And 20 minutes away is the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium, which is also part of the bid.

“That’s one of the great things about Kansas City,” Ficklin said. “We have spent, as a region, over the past decade building the finest soccer facilities in the nation, and some of them in the world. So we don’t need a new stadium.”

Still, some renovations will be necessary. Arrowhead Stadium will require work, for example, to fit the FIFA-imposed specifications. For men’s World Cup venues, FIFA requires a pitch that’s 68 meters wide, 105 meters long, and that has 10 meters of space between the end of the pitch and the field boards.

“What that really means architecturally is we have to cut out the corners of Arrowhead,” Ficklin said.

Which might sound drastic – but several other stadiums in the bid process nationwide would need the same work. Namely, Ficklin listed AT&T Stadium in Dallas and MetLife Stadium in New York – sites that are all but assured to host World Cup matches – as needing the same work if FIFA doesn’t relax its specs.

Stadium specs in the United States are more unique than FIFA is used to dealing with. (Many of the stadiums in this country were built for the NFL, not soccer). So for many American cities wanting to get in on World Cup hosting duties, a change in FIFA stadium requirements would be welcome.

“It makes sense for FIFA to be flexible, because the worst thing that FIFA can do, in my opinion, as a lover of the game for close to 50 years now, is to continue to ask countries to build white elephant stadiums,” Ficklin said. “And so that means use the existing facilities and make some accommodations. You can host a World Cup in these stadiums without having to do $100 million renovations.”

For Kansas City, what might require some more financial investment will be transportation. The fact that a 2-mile downtown streetcar route a couple years ago was a big deal in Kansas City speaks to the lack of easy public transportation across the metropolitan area (compared to cities like Seattle or New York, which offer lightrail or subway systems).

Getting to the stadiums might be more difficult in Kansas City, unless strong strides are made in the transportation area. But for people driving, the parking situation is likely better than many other cities. Arrowhead Stadium is basically surrounded by a sea of parking lots, with very little else in the area.

“You’ve got to have free transportation from the city center to the stadium,” Reid said. “You’re talking about multiple matches of 75,000 people – it’s a lot of transportation. And certainly the parking out there is fantastic and I think that’s actually an advantage of the bid.”

And while metropolitan-area transportation concerns are a major factor, Kansas City does boast a different advantage when it comes to fans getting to potential World Cup matches here. It’s one of the most centrally-located American sites.

According to Ficklin, Kansas City’s bid initially focused on bringing together Missouri and Kansas in a united effort to bring in the World Cup (the city’s metropolitan area sprawls across that state line). But those on the committee quickly realized a united effort could come from even beyond those two states.

“We’ve really changed the focus of the bid in this final stage from ‘bring the World Cup to Kansas City’ to ‘bring the World Cup to the Midwest,’” Ficklin said. “There are 50 million Americans within a one-day drive.”

A decision on U.S. host sites is expected in late 2020. Each city chosen would host between five and seven World Cup matches in 2026. Kansas City is one of 17 finalists, which are all vying for 10 spots.

It’s a big jump for Kansas City in particular, from the last time the U.S. hosted a men’s World Cup (1994). The city has grown since then, both in population and size, and in its interest in soccer.

“Years ago, ’94 or whatever, there’s no way that I would have ever thought that Kansas City should have this be a site, right?” said SKC manager Peter Vermes. “But today, going forward to the next World Cup that we have here, it would be wrong for it not to be here. The facilities, the groundswell of support for the game – we have everything.”

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