Part 1: Pinnacle Spotlight – Sporting KC and Children’s Mercy to share world-class Sports Performance Gymnasium

In part one of NTCDC Spotlight, we focus our attention on the spacious Sports Performance Gymnasium.

Over the next several months, the newest crown jewel of American soccer will take shape right here in Kansas City, Kansas.

The construction of the National Training and Coaching Development Center fulfills a vision shared by Sporting Club, U.S. Soccer and Children’s Mercy to build a first-class environment to develop elite players, coaches and referees of all ages. 

Set to open in January, the state-of-the-art NTCDC will become the new, expansive training home of Sporting Kansas City, capable of hosting clubs and national teams from around the world thanks to its stunning facilities and countless cutting-edge amenities. It will also accommodate the Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine Center at Village West and the U.S. Soccer National Coaching Education Center, making Kansas City the hub for youth athlete sports medicine services and overall soccer development in the United States.

Day by day, month by month, the NTCDC will inch closer and closer to completion — consisting of five full-size fields, an 80,000-square-foot building and the nearby Wyandotte Youth Soccer Complex. As this exciting process unfolds, will provide a feature series showcasing the various components of Kansas City’s latest flagship soccer venture. In part one of NTCDC Spotlight, we focus our attention on the spacious Sports Performance Gymnasium.

A row of exercise bikes stretches along the side of a sprawling, high-ceilinged gymnasium. Two are occupied by athletes, peddling away side-by-side through heavy inhales and exhales.

It’s a unique pairing: one is a 12-year-old girl recovering from a knee injury. The other is Graham Zusi, improving his fitness as a professional soccer player for Sporting Kansas City and the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Two people, both inspiring the other, but in completely different ways. Sporting Club and Children’s Mercy have carried this dream for more than two years. And by the end of 2017, that dream will come to life.

When the NTCDC opens next winter, Sporting Kansas City’s new training facility and the Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine Center at Village West will, in a sense, overlap. The shared space that connects the two will be the world-class, 12,870-square-foot Sports Performance Gymnasium.

Some areas will be used primarily by Sporting KC, while others will cater to Children’s Mercy sports medicine patients. In certain instances, however, the crossover will create a special if not unprecedented connection.

“The child will look up to the athlete, who may already be their hero, and see how hard they’re working. And I think, quite frankly, the player is going to look at the child and say, ‘Look at this kid, they’re working just as hard as me. That’s really spectacular,’” said David Ficklin, Sporting Kansas City’s Vice President of Development who has overseen the NTCDC’s development since the project was first envisioned in January 2012.

“This is incredibly unique, and who’s to say whether there’s anything else like it. The players will see the bravery of the kids and the tenacity that they have, and it’s going to impact them in ways they don’t even know yet.”

Ficklin has served as the club’s VP of Development since 2007, when Sporting KC built its training facility in Swope Park in Kansas City, Missouri. And while Swope remains one of the premier soccer training facilities in the U.S., a move to the NTCDC will give players more indoor space than ever before.

Sporting KC’s current gym at Swope Soccer Village is 1,280 square feet. The NTCDC gym will cover 12,870 square feet — a staggering 10 times that size.

“It’s one of the single greatest game-changers for us when you think about the fact that since 2007, we’ve been training in a space where we can only have three or four guys working out at once,” Ficklin said. “We generously called it a gymnasium, and even when we increased its size two years ago when we expanded Swope Soccer Village, it was still only 1,280 square feet.”

In fact, the gym at Swope was never designed to be a gym in the first place. Team officials had planned for players to perform workouts at a local health club, but it just so happened that the space was barely big enough to fit every piece of exercise machinery the club owned.

Perhaps no one has overseen Sporting KC’s training and sports medicine evolution quite like Chet North, who has been with the club since its inaugural 1996 season. He was Head Athletic Trainer for 18 years until the NTCDC was announced in 2014, at which point he became Director of Sports Medicine at Sporting KC.

Since then, North has directed his entire focus on research and development of the NTCDC. He will work at the facility full-time when it opens in December.

“I have immersed myself in (the NTCDC) so as to not miss one detail in making this the premier, state-of-the-art facility for soccer in America and known throughout the world,” North said. “We have a wonderful facility at Swope Soccer Village, but with a senior team, the Swope Park Rangers and five Sporting KC Academy teams, we have simply out grown it.

“With the senior team coming to the NTCDC, that will free up room for the Rangers and the Academy at Swope while giving Sporting KC the unlimited ability to train at the highest level. The impressive size of the gym will make it easier to work with the number of athletes we have, and our cutting-edge equipment should give the club every opportunity to compete for championships year after year.”

Children’s Mercy sports medicine patients will also benefit from the expanded space at the NTCDC, says Kevin Latz, MD, Director, Center for Sports Medicine at Children’s Mercy. The new facility will compliment the hospital’s existing sports medicine gym at Blue Valley, which opened in 2013, and its facilities at Children’s Mercy North and the Adele Hall campus. The new gym at the NTCDC will optimize a student athlete’s rehabilitation in a myriad of ways.

“We will have much more machinery and a tremendous amount of free space where we can work with groups of six or eight athletes and put them through drills together as a team,” Dr. Latz said. “More than ever before, we will be able to simulate the game environment prior to the athlete returning to the real field of play.”

The gym will have 2,000 square feet of synthetic turf and a variety of equipment for all Children’s Mercy sports medicine patients — not just those who play soccer. There will be a basketball hoop with a small court, sleeves for a volleyball net, and a pitcher’s mound situated below a batting cage that drops from the ceiling.

“Our partnership with Sporting Kansas City has helped bring us into the major league, and this will be no different,” Dr. Latz continued. “What we’ve done is married a true physical therapy gym with a place where athletes can exercise as well. It’s a unique area that allows us to rehab a student athlete from an injury or a surgery, but also work on a healthy athlete’s fitness.”

Sporting Kansas City, meanwhile, will have access to more squat racks, benches, dumbbells and rowing machines, just to name a few. Players will also have plenty of open space for stretching and explosive bodyweight exercises.

“The baby has grown,” said Sporting KC Head Fitness Coach Mateus Manoel. “We’re at a point now where we’re logistically going to be able to handle a large volume of athletes, which we haven’t been able to do in the past. We’ll also be able to do some things that we’re not currently able to do today.”

Manoel is well-traveled as a fitness coach. He’s spent the last seven seasons in Kansas City, but was previously head fitness coach for the Mexico Men’s National Team in 2009 and an assistant fitness coach for the U.S. Men’s National Team in 2010. In 2007 and 2008, he held a position with esteemed Athletes’ Performance, training professional athletes from the NFL, NHL, MLB and MLS. Thus, his praise for the NTCDC carries significant weight.

“I’ve seen a lot of places, but I am very excited about this project,” Manoel said. “I think it will be the best. I haven’t seen anything to this scale that is focused on soccer anywhere else in the country so far.”

North echoes these sentiments. As a member of the organization since its infancy, he remembers the early days of training at cavernous Arrowhead Stadium. North “never had a day off during the season from 1996 to 2006,” often serving as the head trainer, strength coach, traveling administrator and equipment manager all at the same time.

Fast forward a decade, and the club has multiple employees in each position as well as a stunning, soccer-specific stadium that presently boasts an 87-game MLS sellout streak.

“You have to understand the culture of this organization: we are visionaries and try to stay ahead of the curve,” North said. “This is why the NTCDC is being built. We are again setting the standards for Major League Soccer, just as we did in 2011 when we opened Children’s Mercy Park. Sporting Kansas City has come a long way over the last decade, and we will continue to be a leader into the future.”

The NTCDC is another visionary endeavor for the Sporting Club ownership group, which purchased the team in 2006. Sporting Club has transformed Sporting Kansas City into a model MLS franchise over the last decade — making definitive waves with a rebrand and a new stadium while also prioritizing youth development via Swope Soccer Village, the Sporting KC Academy and Swope Park Rangers.

This time, Sporting Club’s commitment to innovation is manifested through the NTCDC, a meticulous undertaking involving several vested parties. Among them, Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes has been thoroughly involved in the project since it began, overseeing all aspects from branding and design to floor planning and selection of manufacturers.

“We had weekly meetings for months in a row: discussions about the exact numbers of exercise bikes, treadmills, what the designs would look like,” Dr. Latz said. “I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say we took hundreds of hours going back and forth. When you’re having to meet all those needs, it takes a tremendous amount of prep time. Every single square foot will be put to use.”

From the start, one primary goal was to create a roadmap for the gymnasium — and the entire facility — that optimized player flow from one location to another. This was of particular interest to Kenny Ishii, the club’s head athletic trainer and rehabilitation coordinator.

Ishii joined Sporting KC in 2008 and has rehabbed dozens of players within the confines of Swope Soccer Village. His job will become easier when the team transitions to the NTCDC at the end of the year. The days of utilizing carpeted hallways for rehab exercises and sending players to health clubs for aquatic therapy will come to a welcome end. Training room overflow, now a daily occurrence before and after training sessions, will dissipate entirely.

“I’m a pretty active guy in terms of how we treat injuries, so the ability to use that extra space and equipment in the gym is big,” said Ishii one afternoon in mid-January, just minutes after demonstrating a vigorous leg exercise to forward Dom Dwyer. “Having everything in-house will make things so much better. Now we have options. We don’t need to fit one player into one way of doing things. We have a lot of different ways to solve a problem, and that’s something I’m looking forward to.”

In addition to more floor space, Ishii will have seven training tables for his players; he currently has four. The flow of players from the gymnasium to the training room will be seamless — one open space to another, no more narrow hallways dividing two separate rooms.

“There are a lot of great training facilities in the United States, but, sometimes there’s not enough thought coming from the people who actually are working there,” Ishii said. “We have a clear input and influence. From the small adjustment to the height of the walls to how much space we’ll have for weight training or stretching — those small details and small changes that we discuss are going to make this place very special.”

If sheer size and attention to detail make the NTCDC special, it’s the relationship between Sporting KC and Children’s Mercy that will make it unlike any other athletic venue in the world.

In effect, the NTCDC gymnasium will be the element that brings Sporting KC and Children’s Mercy together. The two-story building will have a Sporting KC entrance at the upper level of the northeast corner and a Children’s Mercy entrance at the lower level of the southwest corner. As Ficklin describes, “It’s like the state line that connects our two states.”

Ficklin’s comparisons didn’t stop there. When clubs and national teams of all ages visit the NTCDC, they will need a space for indoor training and rehabilitation. When the U.S. Soccer Coaching and Education Program is in session, many coaches and referees will want to train.

“It might be safe to say that everyone who comes into the building — this might be the one space that every single visitor has a chance to use,” Ficklin said. “So the gym is kind of like the Plaza at Children’s Mercy Park — it’s the one space where every fan is welcome.”

Indeed, the gymnasium provides a perfect snapshot of what the NTCDC embodies: a first-of-its-kind collaboration between a professional sports team (Sporting KC), a national sports federation (U.S. Soccer) and a sports medicine provider (Children’s Mercy). All three tenants will use the gym in different ways, allowing for wonderful instances in which professional soccer players draw inspiration from children half their age.

“It’s completely unprecedented and incredibly visionary for Sporting KC and Children’s Mercy,” Dr. Latz said. “When I’ve interacted with the Sporting KC players, what I’ve noticed that is very different than the typical professional athlete is there’s not this barrier between them and their young fans or all these young kids playing soccer. They really seem to get it.”

Manoel spoke more poignantly to Sporting Kansas City’s long-term ambition associated with the NTCDC.

“There are some international complexes that resemble what we’re doing here, but the great thing about our facility is the fact that we have a city that backs us up, we have an ownership that backs us up, and we’re going to be able to have a real, long-term impact on the growth of soccer in town and across the country,” Manoel said.

“We have a vision, and our vision is to grow the sport and to integrate society while doing so. Our connection with Children’s Mercy is very special. I don’t think that happens everywhere else in the world.”

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