National Writer: Charles Boehm

Why Minnesota United FC are forging new ground in the “Nicest Rivalry in Sports”

Maybe we can consider it the “Fargo” effect.

Denizens of the upper Midwest are traditionally known for their kindness and dry wit, a combination that helps explain why Minnesota United FC, Sporting Kansas City and their supporters have dubbed their face-offs the “Nicest Rivalry in Sports.”

Technically rivalries aren’t supposed to be “nice,” of course. But a quick examination of the old term “Minnesota nice” reveals that in that part of the world, being nice isn’t always all that “nice,” either. And the origins of this one – which date back to well before the Loons entered MLS in 2017 – are laced with some bad blood.

“It was 2014 or 2015 in Arizona, there was a preseason game,” recalled Minnesota defender Brent Kallman, the only player remaining from the club’s NASL era, in a phone conversation with ahead of Saturday’s MNUFC-Sporting clash at Allianz Field as part of Heineken Rivalry Week (3:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes).

“There were like two or three fights in the game against SKC. And the last one, the last one was pretty bad. So they ended up stopping the game about 10 minutes early. My brother [Brian, who played for Minnesota from 2010-15] and Roger Espinoza were absolutely throwing haymakers at each other. And the ref was just like, ‘You know what? That's it, the game’s done.’”

Thanks to the US Open Cup’s regional bracket structures, the two sides met during the 2014, 2016 and 2017 editions of that tournament, which quickly became key measuring sticks for the underdog Loons – especially once they earned an expansion berth in MLS and began evaluating their NASL roster to decide which players would get a shot in the top flight.

That made their 2016 Open Cup fourth-round matchup at the National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota something of a street fight, marked by 11 yellow cards and a trip to extra time after a 1-1 draw in regulation, where Kansas City escaped via a 109th-minute Diego Rubio winner.

“Back then, we always knew that if we won in the first round, that we were going to end up meeting KC. That was just going to happen no matter what,” said Kallman. “A player like me trying to really prove themselves and show that I can play at the next level, especially with the club making the jump in the following year, there was something a little extra in that game, it felt like. And it was a really good one.”

In the bigger picture, Sporting have been role models as much as antagonists for Minnesota. Loons leadership cited the success and longevity of SKC manager and sporting director Peter Vermes as they kept faith with Adrian Heath through their bruising early years in MLS, respectful of their Kansas counterparts’ ability to cultivate a devoted following and punch above their weight against bigger markets.

“They’re a club that we looked up to, especially as we entered the league those first couple seasons, a team that we wanted to aspire to be like – they win trophies, they make deep runs in Open Cup, they're always up near the top of the standings,” said Kallman. “So there was a little bit of a big-brother complex there, I think. But there's definitely respect.”

In 2017, Heath wisecracked to the Pioneer Press that “if that is going to be our rivals, we could have picked somebody a little bit easier.” MNUFC tended to get pummeled when they visited Children’s Mercy Park, most painfully in back-to-back 3-0 and 4-0 losses in June 2017, the first in league play and the second in Open Cup.

“We got absolutely spanked,” remembered Kallman.

Until their stunning 3-0 upset in the Western Conference Semifinals of last season’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, that is. That watershed result punctuated Minnesota’s climb into the ranks of legitimate contenders and showed how they closed the gap on their near-neighbors to the south.

“Everybody knew the history, we talked about it leading up to that game as a group. But Adrian would tell us that whole week: 'This team is not the team from 2017-2018, this group is different. We have nothing to fear, we can go in there and get a result.' And the guys believed it, and then they went out there and did it,” said Kallman.

“For our group to go in there and in the playoff game last year and take it to them like we did was pretty special. And I think it did kind of lay down a marker that this club was turning a corner, or that we had turned a corner.”

Older siblings often grant the younger ones respect only grudgingly, and such may be the case here. Vermes did little to hype this matchup in his pregame press conference on Friday, saying, “I think we have a rivalry with every team in the league, because we always want to win. That's the bottom line,” before conceding that the Loons are “a very good team, they're playing very well.”

If Minnesota prove they’re on level terms with SKC in 2021, at least in the regular season, they need to get after it. Sporting sit 11 points ahead of them in the table with 14 and 15 matches to go, respectively. That adds to the stakes riding on all three of their meetings, starting on Saturday afternoon in St. Paul.

“If you look at the standings, how close everything is, we have no choice. Every game is like that now,” said Kallman of the importance of a victory. “We definitely see it as an opportunity, them having to travel, both teams having a midweek game. We're a little banged up at the moment, but we know we have nothing to fear at home. We can beat anybody, even if we're rotated.”