WASHINGTON — Growing up in Hazleton, Chris Long made many trips to Philadelphia for the Big 5 on winter nights at the Palestra and Phillies summer nights at Veterans Stadium. As Long learned how to become a sports fan, he also learned how sports teams build communities among players and in the stands.
“The Big Five, you think about tradition, multigenerational, something that becomes part of the fabric of your community,” Long told The Inquirer. “We want to do that with the women’s side in Kansas City and we’re already seeing it.
Long was given the opportunity to build such a community from the ground up when he brought an NWSL team to Kansas City last year. And in just two seasons, Current has become a huge success.
In addition to their performances, the club broke the previous local attendance record for a women’s soccer club three times, with a peak of 10,395 in mid-August – miles behind the low of 1,312 who attended former FC Kansas City’s last match in 2017 before they folded that winter. .
Now there’s a new $18 million practice facility in Riverside, Mo., that opened this summer. In 2024, the team will open its own $120 million, 11,500-seat stadium — the first stadium built specifically for an NWSL team — on the banks of the Missouri River, just north of growing downtown Kansas City.
And on Saturday night, the Current will compete in the NWSL championship game (8 p.m., CBS3 and Paramount+), coming off playoff wins over No. 4 Houston and No. 1 Seattle.
» READ MORE: Crystal Dunn’s latest heroics are back in the spotlight — and back in the NWSL title game
Long’s co-owners include his Kansas City-born wife Angie, whom he met at Princeton, and Brittany Mahomes — a public figure in town who is also the wife of Patrick Mahomes.
They’ve put their money where their mouth is, and nowhere is that more true than the team’s backfield. A lot of NWSL teams play in nice stadiums, but Current will be unique in having one that is truly their own.
“We’re having conversations all over the world about bringing players to Kansas City,” Long said. “What do you want to be when you’re a professional athlete? You want to improve and you want to win. And it’s hard not to when you don’t have the right equipment.”
Long values centering players in part because he has been one himself, though not in football. He played basketball at Princeton in the mid-1990s and still remembers the duels with St. Joseph’s and La Salle at Convention Hall and Penn’s Dynasty on 33rd Street.
So he knew to focus on something that many NWSL teams overlooked: having a high-level practice facility. Even now, expansion candidates talk a lot about stadiums and fan bases, but not much about practice facilities.
“Not providing an appropriate training environment in which athletes have a sense of ownership is a huge competitive disadvantage,” Long said. “The fact that we can give players the ability to train, walk and hit weights, recover, waitress and eat, have a lounge after meeting with their team — literally spend almost all day there honing their craft — that’s a big advantage. And I think over time you’ll see people see that on the field and off the field.”
» READ MORE: Jill Ellis offers NWSL expansion lessons for Philadelphia after San Diego Wave launch
Indeed, several players pointed to the team’s 9-2-4 record since the Current opened in late June.
“They put everything we need in there,” said North Jersey-born midfielder Kristen Edmonds, a veteran of three NWSL teams and two European teams. “The only thing we have to worry about is getting on the pitch and performing. … Focusing on being a professional athlete is amazing.”
Goalkeeper AD Franch, a former Thorn with 10 U.S. caps, agreed.
“Chris, Angie and Brittany all wanted KC to be a place where players wanted to come,” said Franch, a Kansas native. “The investment they are making – and have already made – is a standard that should already be there. And I think they realize that and that’s what they’re trying to help with.”
It’s also shaped by the knowledge that FC Kansas City has had two ownership groups embroiled in scandal. The franchise then became the Utah Royals, which also fell into scandal. So how did Long command the Current players to get things right?
“These are investments in equipment. It’s flying with the players’ families for certain games,” he said. “Make sure you take care of every bit of medical care. [work] which the player needs right in our backyard and spares no expense. We really put the player at the forefront of everything we do in terms of decision-making.”
» READ MORE: Why Philly doesn’t have a major professional women’s sports team and how that could change
Then there are the waves of abuse allegations that have rocked other NWSL teams. When Long meets with the team’s other owners, he knows that some have been named complicit in the Yates investigation — notably Portland’s Merritt Paulson and Chicago’s Arnim Whisler.
Long did not directly criticize any other owners. But when asked if he was in favor of greater transparency in the league, he did not hesitate to answer yes.
“It was a disturbing time to read these reports,” Long said. “Our mission – that’s clear, it’s everywhere – is to be the best women’s football club in the world.
“We cannot do this without being transparent. Whether it’s sharing how we made our facilities, whether it’s sharing financial best practices, whether it’s workplace safety and making sure everyone feels comfortable going to work every day, we want to to be at the leading level, not following. “
Long also pledged that his team would lead the push to raise player salaries.
“We are big supporters of further increasing compensation levels [and] benefits,” he said. “If you have a player-first mentality, you have to think in that direction because that’s where it’s going.” “
If the Current succeed, they will likely have fans far beyond Kansas City cheering them on.
» READ MORE: US Soccer vows action after Yates probe details abuse, sexual harassment in NWSL