A win for Kansas City Current, and a new chapter for the NWSL

Kansas City Current wins thrilling NWSL opener 5-4 (2:11)

Kansas City Current survives a late Portland Thorns rally to win the NWSL curtain-raiser 5-4. (2:11)

KANSAS CITY, Missouri -- Only 11,500 people could fit into CPKC Stadium for its grand opening on Saturday, where the Kansas City Current defeated the Portland Thorns 5-4, but it felt like the entire city knew about the history taking place.

CPKC Stadium is the first stadium purpose-built for a National Women's Soccer League team, setting a new standard that serves as a tangible turning point for the 11-year-old league.

Arriving passengers at Kansas City International Airport had to walk over the Current's crest, and between two walls adorned with Current branding and stadium messaging, to reach baggage claim. Teal billboards towered over highways entering and running through the city, their messages alternating between game information and simple lines like "2.5 miles from history ... Experience CPKC Stadium." The messaging was ubiquitous.

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"There's teal everywhere now," Current captain and midfielder Lo'eau LaBonta said ahead of Saturday's match. "I've only heard people talk about our game [Saturday] and not about Sporting [Kansas City, playing a MLS home game later that night]. Don't get me wrong, I love Sporting as well and I've been related to them [through marriage] for a while now, but that's what I'm hearing, and that's already different. Our faces are in the airport, on the streetcars. That would have never happened [before]. I bet you back in the day, not one person could name the team or when our game was gonna be on the weekend."

This is the new normal: women's soccer as a watercooler event, the ticket that everyone wants. For at least a few days, the city that just celebrated another Chiefs Super Bowl victory was not adorned in red and yellow. Instead, downtown buildings and bridges glowed in teal and fans flooded the streets with Current kits.

CPKC Stadium's grand opening is about resetting the narrative -- not just in Kansas City, where the previous team that LaBonta alluded to (and once played for) folded in 2017, but about the investment in and standards for women's soccer globally. The NWSL continues to be a leader in raising the bar for the sport, and an ambitious Kansas City ownership group is atop that list. A stadium dedicated to an NWSL team is the new standard.

"Honestly, as kids, that's what we thought the expectation was," Current goalkeeper and Kansas native Adrianna Franch said. "When I [was] like 5 to 8, I was like, 'I want to be a professional soccer player.' This is the standard that you expect it to be. I think what that represents and means is everyone who wants to be a professional will know what this standard is."

Facilities are among the biggest challenges in the NWSL even for the most successful teams. Most NWSL teams are second- or third-priority tenants in stadiums built for men's teams. NWSL teams without their own venues miss out on business opportunities, from the inability to choose prime dates and times for home games, to restrictions on sponsorships -- not to mention paying rent.

Current majority co-owners Angie and Chris Long rushed the launch of the team in late 2020 out of necessity. They had been looking into joining the NWSL and the process accelerated when the league needed to add a team to replace the original Utah Royals. The Longs had a team (but not even an official name or brand) ready in a few months. Just over three years later, CPKC Stadium hosted its first game, and the Current brand resonates throughout the community.

The Longs planned to build the team its own stadium from the beginning as part of their pitch to the league, originally exploring a site farther outside of downtown.

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Angie Long remembers the first questions she got about the idea: "'Why do you guys need your own stadium? Can't you just go play in someone else's stadium?'

"I kind of would like to know what major successful sports franchise in the world is just happy to sit back and be a tenant in somebody else's stadium? And the fact that everyone is asking this question is a little bit ironic, I think, but it speaks to the incredible opportunity and one of the reasons why the growth potential is there."

The Longs don't invest in things lightly. They founded Palmer Square Capital Management, which claims to manage $29 billion in assets for investors. These are highly successful businesspeople who see an opportunity for a return on investment, just like Sixth Street Partners, the majority owner of expansion team Bay FC. They see women's soccer as an undervalued asset.

Angie Long said that if they waited around for public funding to build their own stadium, they'd still be waiting today. Instead, they spent $18 million of their own money on a training ground for the team that opened in 2022. It is one of the best training centers in the NWSL and plans to expand it and develop the area are already underway. They funded most of the $120 million-plus bill to finish CPKC Stadium.

CPKC Stadium is a mid-sized gem crafted with attention to detail to make it a first-class experience for players and fans alike. The Longs toured over a dozen different stadiums and sports arenas in search of inspiration and best practices for CPKC Stadium. They borrowed subtle touches like mesh seating (instead of the usual plastic seats) from Austin FC's Q2 Stadium, and a curated local food experience from the Golden State Warriors' Chase Center. Just like the signage around the city, everything is teal, from the seats and the under-roof lighting to the hand soap and countertops in some of the bathrooms.

The stadium sits on the southern bank of the Missouri River. It is unmissable from the adjacent Bond Bridge, a major Interstate-29 crossing that had also been lit up teal during recent evenings. It is part of a larger development project meant to revitalize Kansas City's waterfront, the Longs hope.

NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said that the legacy of the Longs will be that they won't be the last to build their own stadium, and that they shared their successes with other NWSL owners.

"For decades, it has been true that there haven't been any questions asked about the use of not just public funding but public influence to be able to get a stadium built," Berman said at half-time on Saturday. "Although this stadium was privately financed, they needed a lot of support and trust from the city, and that has happened for men's stadiums and arenas for decades without question.

"That's what I describe as seed funding. It has allowed for those businesses to not only survive but thrive for the long term, and none of that has ever been available to women's teams. I think that's the wholesale change that we're going to see going forward, because we're getting calls not just from owners around our league but also from city offials to say, 'How can we think about this differently for our community? Because we do actually recognize now that this is a community asset and we want this to be a thriving business like the men's teams.'"

This weekend in Kansas City was a party, from the Friday night VIP launch event with drones that lit up the Kansas City skies, to Saturday's pregame music festivities and an entertaining game that brought nine goals, tying an NWSL record. It was a party celebrating how far the league has come, but it was also an inauguration.

Thirteen years ago, the former Kansas City NWSL team debuted in a high school football stadium. Today, the NWSL is a big-time league with teams worthy of their own stadiums. As Current coach Vlatko Andonovski -- who coached in that inaugural NWSL game in 2013 -- put it: "Completely different worlds. There's nothing that happened that day [in 2013] that you can compare to what happened today."