Sandy • This narrative of contention was given credence on a Tuesday night in Arizona.
The still-evolving spat between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City had its launching point on March 8, 2011, in a preseason match in the desert, a few days before RSL was set to play Costa Rican club Saprissa in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal series.
It started with what was deemed a harsh tackle by former KC midfielder Roger Espinoza when he crashed into RSL star Javier Morales. It was the final straw in a match that got "way out of control," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
Benches cleared and a scrum ensued. The match was eventually abandoned before reaching the 90-minute mark, ending in a 2-2 draw. It was the beginning of what has become one of the more intriguing, fueled rivalries in Major League Soccer, a feud between clubs in different conferences.
"You could tell that Kansas City was just starting to implement a really competitive nature about themselves and didn't want to go into any match losing a game," Kreis said. "We were embarrassing them a little bit in the preseason 2-0, knocking the ball around and things got completely out of hand."
And in the meetings since?
"I feel like ever since then, there's certainly been a rivalry, physical confrontations between players and you can tell it means a little bit extra when these two teams play against each other," Kreis continued.
So as the two clubs prepare for Saturday's MLS Cup final at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., another chapter of the two small-market clubs meeting will be written. RSL has made it known that it must prepare for KC's physical brand of play. Sporting led the MLS in fouls committed in 2013 with 511 over 34 matches, 51 more than nearest club, Columbus, and 111 more than Real Salt Lake.
"When you look at the games we've had in the past against these guys, I just think they bring out the best in us in terms of our competitive nature and just their physical matchups and how they want to play," said defender Nat Borchers. "They can be pretty direct at times, and we have to be switched on with our set pieces and our physical play as well."
Since the ruckus in Arizona in 2011, Sporting Kansas City has gone 3-1-0 against RSL, and most recently, delivered a knockout punch in the 97th minute of play at Rio Tinto Stadium when KC beat RSL 2-1 with a late stoppage-time header by Ike Opara on July 20. Defender Chris Wingert was shown two yellows in the match, the first coming five seconds into the match when he leveled former KC star Kei Kamara. In that match alone, seven yellows were shown.
"I thought that we kept our cool really well, and I thought that paid off in the end, because obviously they got their red card and we didn't," said Sporting coach Peter Vermes after the match. "That was a good thing."
Against a club as physical, fast and athletic as Sporting, RSL must once again prove it will not be intimidated, this time on the league's biggest stage.
"We have to be smart, you know?" Morales said. "We have to know that they're going to be aggressive and it's going to be a physical game, so we have to be relaxed and try to play our soccer, try to possess the ball and try to win the game."
The two sides have similarities, too. Both have been rebranded by the infusion of a fiery former MLS player having taken the reins at each respective franchise. Kreis and several RSL players have been complimentary of KC's attack and form in leading up to cup final. But the battle wages on between the teams that clearly bring out the combative spirit each time they face off.
"What you have oftentimes is more physical affairs, so it's something we need to be prepared for," Kreis said. "We probably aren't going to get every call that we think we might deserve, and we need to react to that very quickly and move on. To be fair, I think our team is in a very good place for that. I think we've been doing it all year long and we will certainly need to be ready for that next Saturday."
P Real Salt Lake at Sporting Kansas City, Saturday, 2 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN