Sporting Kansas City and Livestrong Part Ways, with Both Sides Alleging Different Reasons, Neither of Which Is the One You’d Expect

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Both Sporting Kansas City and the Livestrong charitable foundation made separate announcements this week saying that they’ve terminated their naming-rights agreement for the MLS club’s stadium in Kansas City, Kansas, less than two years after the deal was struck.

According to Livestrong CFO Greg Lee, who spoke to Fox and ESPN, the decision was due to non-payment of funds by SKC, a detail he divulged while pretending not to divulge it:

“While we don’t talk about the specifics related to any of our partners, part of my role as the chief financial officer is to ensure compliance by our corporate partners. We strive to be great partners ourselves and expect the same from those we do business with. If a partner is struggling to meet the terms of our agreement, we do everything possible to reach a fair and reasonable compromise. If no compromise can be reached, as good stewards or our brand and mission, we have no choice but to bring that agreement to an end.”

On the other side of the dispute, Sporting Kansas City CEO Robb Heineman denied the club owed any money and expressed a disillusionment with the partnership:

“Our faith and trust in this partnership have been permanently damaged; therefore we are terminating our agreement with LIVESTRONG, effectively immediately. As a result of this decision, our stadium will now be referred to as Sporting Park. While we are ending this relationship, our support of the fight against cancer will endure. We look forward to introducing new initiatives to assist these efforts in Kansas City.”

In the entire exchange, there was only one, glancing reference to the yellow-shirted elephant in the room—the recent revelations about performance-enhancing drug use by Lance Armstrong, and the former cyclists’s own Oprah-administered confession. Here’s that reference, from Heineman:

“We are disappointed to learn Livestrong is deploying tactics designed to force us into an unacceptable arrangement, after months of good faith discussions in which we believed progress had been made. We were not expecting the foundation to treat a partner in this manner, especially given the tumultuous environment they have thrust us into over the past year—while we staunchly defended the mission of the foundation.”

That last “while we staunchly defended the mission of the foundation” has gotta hurt a little. But apparently, the timing is just coincidental. The dispute appears to be over money and the terms of the arrangement, and not the disgraced legacy of Armstrong.

But that can’t have helped, right?

MLS Playoffs: Josh Saunders Had a Robert Green Moment, Houston Had No Problem with KC

San Jose and Sporting Kansas City both began their playoff campaigns as the favorites to reach MLS Cup 2012. By the time they finished their first games, though, only one of them retained that status, as Kansas City was soundly beaten by Houston at BBVA Compass Stadium, and the Earthquakes caught a late (very late), lucky break to squeak past Los Angeles 1-0 at the Home Depot Center.

First up, the LA-San Jose highlights, wherein the hosts squander several chances before their goalkeeper (with a little help from defender Omar Gonzalez) squanders the game in the 94th minute:

The Quakes will take their 1-0 lead home to Buck Shaw Stadium, where the two teams will meet on Wednesday (ESPN2, 11:00 ET) for the second leg of their two-game, total-goals series.

Houston coach Dominic Kinnear has his team executing with precision at just the right time. Last Wednesday, they went into Chicago and smothered the Fire in the Knockout Round, exiting with a 2-1 victory after allowing Chicago very few chances.

This past Sunday, they disrupted the high-flying game of Eastern Conference champs Kansas City, and got two excellent goals—a scorcher from Adam Moffat and fine finish from Will Bruin, nicely served up by Calen Carr—en route to a solid 2-0 win.

Highlights here:

Kansas City will try to rally from the 2-0 deficit when the teams meet in the second leg at Livestrong Sporting Park on Wednesday (MLS Live, DirectKick, 9:00).

MLS Hedges, Suspends Henry One Game for Kamara Incident

The MLS Disciplinary Committee announced today that it has suspended Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry for one game and fined the French Designated Player an undisclosed amount “for violent conduct which endangered the safety of Kansas City forward Kei Kamara” during stoppage time of Wednesday night’s pivotal Eastern Conference game at Red Bull Arena.

This action is dubious for (at least) two reasons:

1. If they’ve decided that Henry intentionally head-butted Kamara—which they must have, or else why suspend him—then doesn’t a head butt warrant more than a one-game suspension?

2. The Red Bulls’ next match is on Saturday night at New England, where the field is artificial turf. Henry is well-known for not liking to play on artificial surfaces—he’s done it just once in his MLS career so far—and chances are he would have skipped Saturday’s game anyway.

Did MLS just compromise with one of its biggest superstars? How much longer would the suspension have been if Kamara had been cut by Henry’s fake accident?

The league hasn’t posted video of the incident to YouTube, but you can see a clip of it here.

Several things to note:

• The first thing Henry does after collapsing melodramatically is to grab the back of his head. Pretty flimsy: the video clearly shows that he hit Kamara with his forehead.

• Check the reverse-angle replay of the incident. Why is Henry even starting his run at this point? Teammate Sebastien Le Toux is going to take a corner kick, but he’s not ready to do it yet—he’s not even close.

• There have to be better, and more subtle, ways to get a dig in at an opponent, right? This is just weird, and, his ludicrous pantomime aside, Henry did run the risk of hurting himself as much as Kamara.

Sigh. He’s a great player, but an odd duck.

How Do We Know It Was a Big Game for RBNY Last Night? The Team Came Out Flat, and Henry Lost His S***

Sporting Kansas City came to Red Bull Arena last night, and the stakes were high: Six games to play, and just two points separating the teams at the top of the Eastern Conference table.

The winner of the game would be posting a direct message to the other team’s feed: 14o ALL CAPS characters of we-want-the-conference-title-and-the-playoff-homefield-advantage-that-goes-with-it.

The Red Bulls were coming off a solid 3-1 win over the streaking Columbus Crew, they were riding a five-game unbeaten run, and they were playing at home, where they hadn’t lost all season (10-0-3).

So naturally, they gave up two early goals and produced a sloppy performance en route to a 2-0 defeat. And at the end of the frustrating night, superstar Thierry Henry pulled one of his unhinged, poorly-disguised cheap-shot moves that might (should) get him suspended for Saturday’s important game at New England.

It’s not in the highlights below (c’mon MLS), so continue reading after the clip to find out what happened:

The Henry Incident

Late in the game, as the teams lined up for a free kick, Henry came charging through the top of the box and clipped Kei Kamara’s head with his own, sending the KC big man down, and then—and here was where it got rich—clutching his own head as if he’d been gonged by the “accidental” collision as well.

There were two flaws in the Frenchman’s charade, though: First, he was holding the top/back of his head in “pain,” but the replays showed he made contact with his forehead (the proper place to head the ball, and—if that’s how you roll—to head butt someone, because your forehead is hard and heading with it doesn’t hurt).

Second, the incident itself is just not plausible. You came running through a not-all-that-crowded part of the field and conked heads with an opponent? It wasn’t avoidable? You didn’t see the biggest man on the field directly in front of you? For real?

The incident is also strikingly similar to Henry’s 2010 kick of FC Dallas keeper Kevin Hartman (which happened two years ago to the day; see it here), and his 2011 knee to the back of the head of Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza (click here).

Henry suffered no repercussions for the Hartman incident (even though Hartman missed several weeks with an MCL sprain), but he did see a straight red for the Espinoza knock, as the ref judged (correctly, we’d say) that Henry could have avoided the contact and instead engaged in it deliberately.

What will happen in the wake of this one? Fortunately, Kamara was unharmed. Fair or not, if Henry had opened up a cut on the KC striker’s head (head wounds bleed a lot, remember), a suspension would’ve probably been a lock. As it happened, there was some grey area—a hallmark of all three incidents—that could produce enough doubt for him to benefit from. Or not. We shall see when the MLS Disciplinary Committee releases its report.

Some more thoughts on the Red Bulls’ biggest game of the year so far:

Dax McCarty has been one of New York’s best players all season, but he had a stinker last night. Loads of giveaways, overwhelmed by KC midfield.

This team is probably better without Rafa Marquez in the lineup. The high-priced former Barcelona man lends a touch of class on the ball, and he had a good game against Columbus last week, but last night, he was back to his lackadaisical, turnover-prone  ways.

New York’s tendency to concede early goals is alarming (and oddly reminiscent of the U.S. national team under Bob Bradley). They’ve surrendered 11 goals in the first 15 minutes of games this year. Yikes.

Kenny Cooper gets in good spots, but usually muffs his plays from those spots. He was part of several promising moves last night, but came away with nothing to show for them. He should have scored on a header from Henry’s brilliant cross, and he played an inexplicable ball directly to KC keeper Jimmy Nielsen when he had wide-open spaces in front of him, and Joel Lindpere streaking down the middle toward goal.

Hey, Lloyd Sam looked pretty good. The speedy former Charlton Athletic winger livened up the Red Bulls’ attack as a second-half sub. A bright spot for New York.

Seattle’s Patrick Ianni Channels Ibrahimovic for Equalizer vs SKC

Sporting a new, late-1980s-style soccer haircut, and returning to the starting lineup for the first time since injuring his back on May 5, Seattle Sounders center back Patrick Ianni scored on an acrobatic side volley in the 15th minute to lift Seattle into a 1-1 tie with visiting Kansas City last night.

Here it is:

Kansas City’s Jacob Peterson had opened the scoring in the eighth minute, taking a pass from Aurelien Collin after a KC throw-in into the Seattle box, and hitting a deflected shot past the Sounders’ third-string keeper, Andrew Weber.

The result extended the Sounders’ winless streak to a franchise-record six games, while stretching Sporting’s unbeaten run to four matches.

Both teams return to action this weekend as Kansas City visits Philadelphia on Saturday night and Seattle heads down I-5 for a meeting with Cascadia archrivals Portland on Sunday (5:00 ESPN).

Soony Saad Steals the Show in Episode 2 of ‘Collin’s Corner’

The second episode of Collin’s Corner, the Eiffel Tower–side advice forum with Sporting Kansas City defender Aurélien Collin, went up today, and while the host himself continues to charm with Gallic flair, we were partial to second-year striker Soony Saad’s delivery of his question. See it here:

Yeah, we’ve watched it three times and Saad still cracks us up. The 19-year-old forward is supertalented with the ball at his feet, but if the soccer thing doesn’t work out, he may have a future in sketch comedy or John Hughes–style teen flicks.

Also: Collin cannot—will not—disrespect the cat.

H/T: MLS Insider

Kei Kamara is the Al MacInnis of MLS, and His Team Is On the Rise

They don’t have a skills competition at the MLS All-Star Game, but if they did, we’d put money on 26-year-old Sierra Leone international Kei Kamara to win the Hardest Shot contest. His shot is anvil-heavy, and all he needs is a sliver of space to get it off. Case in point, versus DC United on Sunday:

That was Kamara’s seventh goal of the year (in 22 appearances) and he and his team are peaking at the right time. After a miserable 1-6-9 road trip to start the season, Sporting Kansas City opened their state-of-the-art new stadium, Livestrong Park, on June 9, and reeled off a 14-game unbeaten streak. That run was broken by a stomach-punch loss to Seattle on Aug 6, but SKC has bounced back with two wins in a row since then, cruising past Portland 3-1 two weeks ago and dropping DC this past Sunday on Kamara’s strike. They’re currently 9-7-9 and in second place in the East.

In addition to the 6-3, 185-pound Kamara, SKC lines up Mexican star Omar Bravo, U.S. international Teal Bunbury, and our pick for 2011 Rookie of the Year, CJ Sapong (who has a U.S. national team call-up in his future if he keeps progressing).

Coach Peter Vermes threw all four of them at DC on Sunday, and despite the presence of (essentially) four strikers, and attacking midfielder Graham Zusi (five goals, four assists this year, and, according to Mrs. BP, not unpleasant to look at), his team was still solid defensively: they got a shutout, and they surrendered just a couple of clear chances. (Kansas City lines up the pedigreed Julio Cesar at centerback, with solid Americans Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, and Chance Myers following his lead on the backline.)

SKC also has more home games remaining (7 out of 9) than any other team in the league. You have to like their chances heading down the stretch. Judging by this clip from after the DC game, they do too:

Stadium Sparkles, Game Fizzles in Livestrong Sporting Park Opener

Watching last night’s historic home opener for Sporting Kansas City, we were reminded of something Billy Bob Thornton said in Bad Santa: “They can’t all be winners, can they?”

After spectacular stadium openers in Vancouver and Portland earlier this season, we got a dud of a game in the debut of Livestrong Sporting Park. While the stadium looked terrific, the two bottom-sitting teams in the Eastern Conference, SKC and Chicago, played to a choppy 0-0 draw.

Both sides entered the game with just one win on the season, prompting many observers to say that something had to give last night. Surprise: nothing gave—though something probably should have in the 85th minute, when Kansas City’s Omar Bravo was scythed down in the Chicago box:

ESPN announcers John Harkes and Adrian Healey claim that the referee got it right, but we beg to differ. Chicago defender Bratislav Ristic may have gotten some ball there, but he definitely clipped Bravo’s foot on arrival.

Put it this way, if the ref had given a penalty, would anyone have complained? No. And the home crowd would have gone home happy—doubly so since KC was playing with 10 men at the time of the above challenge.

Goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen had been red-carded in the 67th minute for handling the ball outside the box while stopping a Dominic Oduro breakaway. Nielsen was the last man back, and the ref had no choice but to send him off.

KC had a goal by midfielder Graham Zusi called back for a close offside in the 15th minute, and later in the opening half, Zusi struck a fizzing drive just over Chicago keeper Sean Johnson’s crossbar.

But nobody found the back of the net, and the draw extended both teams’ winless streaks into double digits.

(Sidenote: the U.S. will play Guadeloupe at Livestrong Sporting Park on Tues., June 14—9:00 ET, Fox Soccer Channel. Check out this edition of MLS’s The Daily for a glimpse at some of the slick details inside Kansas City’s new stadium.)

Livestrong Sporting Park Opens Tonight

And not a moment to soon for the home team. Sporting Kansas City were burdened with a 10-game road trip to start the season while workers finished up their $200-million soccer-specific stadium, and it was a rough ride.

They went 1-6-3 and sit dead last in the Eastern Conference on the night they finally open their brand-new home, which is sponsored by former cyclist Lance Armstrong‘s cancer-fighting organization.

Kansas City will also be without Craig Rocastle (Grenada), Roger Espinoza (Honduras), Stephane Auvray (Guadeloupe), and Shavar Thomas (Jamaica) due to international duty—and first choice goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen is unavailable due to illness.

Yes, it’s been a tough couple of months for SKC. But they can take heart in the boost they’ll surely get from the occasion, the crowd, and the fact that their opponents are the eighth-place Chicago Fire (1-4-7), who are just four points ahead of Kansas City in the standings despite having played two more games.

Whatever the challenges, though, it’s undoubtedly a must-win game for coach Peter Vermes’s team. As club CEO Robb Heineman told the league website:

“It’s a massive game. It’s the biggest game in the history of the franchise since we’ve owned it. It’s not MLS Cup. It’s not a US Open Cup final. But it’s right there, number three probably in the history of the franchise. We’ve got to win. Everybody knows that. It’s a big summer for us.”

Most of that summer will play out in the state-of-the-art confines of Livestrong Sporting Park, where 17 of Kansas City’s remaining 24 games will take place.

The field is natural grass, and the stadium has a capacity of 18,500, expandable to 25,000 if needed. There are luxury boxes, field level seats, and two massive HD video screens. The two-story Victory Suite contains a pizza oven where fans can pick their own ingredients, and a well-stocked wine cellar.

Membership in the team’s Sporting Club is free, and all those who join will have access to the Members’ Club section of the stadium, where they can get a beer, burger, and a bag of chips for $5.

SKC has sold more than 11,000 season tickets to the new venue.

Click here for a virtual tour of the stadium.

Tonight’s game is on ESPN2 at 10:00 p.m. ET.