KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Believe it or not, there’s some serious history between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City.
Yes, they play in different conferences and only meet once a year, but in these past few years the seeds of a highly physical, highly competitive rivalry have been sown, and this weekend it will culminate in the biggest game the two have played against each other. Here are three seminal games from this burgeoning rivalry.
Just because you can’t take much meaning from preseason results, it doesn’t mean you can’t take much from preseason games.
RSL head coach Jason Kreis pointed to this game when questioned last week about the origins of the rivalry between his team and Sporting. In what we will see as a continuing theme between the two sides, Kreis described it as a “very, very physical affair,” and the reports certainly corroborated that.
RSL took a comfortable 2-0 lead on Kansas City, who managed to pull both goals back as the game got more physical, eventually resulting in a brawl between the two sides, not helped by some cases of mistaken identity by the official.
“We had to stop the match and walk away,” Kreis told reporters last weekend. “And I feel like ever since then, there's certainly been a rivalry. Physical confrontations between players. And you can tell that it means a little bit extra when these two teams play against each other.”
The first meeting between the two sides since that infamous preseason brawl did not lack for fireworks.
Sporting were still riding the wave of Sporting Park’s opening, with a 13-game unbeaten streak on the line after struggling through a road-exclusive opening slate.
Sporting midfielder Roger Espinoza (pictured at right, now with English club Wigan Athletic) ended up all over the stat sheet that night, but not entirely for the right reasons. The Honduran international opened the scoring with a rocket of a shot in the 29th minute and Teal Bunbury put Sporting up by two just five minutes later.
However, things turned nastier in the second half when Espinoza saw straight red for a tackle from behind on Kyle Beckerman. Despite going a man up, though, RSL had no answer for Sporting’s rock-solid defense and Jimmy Nielsen in goal.
In the end, Sporting rode out the win to extend their unbeaten streak, move joint top of the Eastern Conference and further establish themselves as a legitimate contender in MLS.
This is the one that will be fresh in everyone’s mind, and for good reason.
One of the more controversial matches of the year got heated within the first minute after Chris Wingert leveled Sporting’s Kei Kamara, earning a yellow card in the process and setting the tone for the rest of the game.
What followed was a highly physical encounter that saw both sides trade second-half goals – Sporting’s coming immediately after Wingert earned his second yellow card – before heading into stoppage time tied at one.
Seven minutes into a physical period of stoppage time that saw Sporting flying in with physical challenges, Ike Opara – who RSL fans felt deserved to be sent off for his part in a shoving match a few minutes beforehand – rose highest to head home a Graham Zusi corner kick, winning the game and sparking a furious reaction from the RSL bench towards the referees.
It’s a game that once again solidified Sporting as an Eastern Conference contender, left a bitter taste in RSL’s mouth and offered another glimpse into the physical nature of the rivalry.