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Did the “Nicest Rivalry” Take a Step Away From “Nice” Finally?

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Sporting KC and Minnesota United finally looked to take a step towards making their “rivalry” a rivalry.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Minnesota United FC Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday Sporting Kansas City competed in the latest edition of the “Nicest Rivalry in Sports” as they took on Minnesota United as part of MLS’s rivalry week. Since Minnesota entered MLS in 2017 MLS has pushed the rivalry between the two teams but it has yet to really click with several fans, including this one. Up until this Saturday the rivalry had just felt like league marketing, an attempt to have a rivalry between two teams that didn’t have a set rivalry in the league. But Saturday’s 0-0 draw that saw 28 fouls, six yellows, and a red card may finally be what can be looked at as the start of what could build a true rivalry between the clubs.

Up to this point when it came to playing Minnesota, I thought of them no different than almost any other team in the league. Peter Vermes comments about the rivalry before Saturday’s game was “Uh, rivalry, OK.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a “rivalry week” match up. Vermes did go on to say that he sees all teams Sporting plays as a rival, a team to beat to get points. But when a team doesn’t stand out above the rest as a team that stirs that extra little fire, is it really a rival? The rivalry with Minnesota felt as manufactured as Sporting’s attempts in 2011 to really push a rivalry with the Chicago Fire, that Fire fans really weren’t having much of. (Though I took advantage of the Firehouse Subs promo quite regularly that season.) The ‘2000 MLS Cup’ DVD that was actually the July 4th, 2001, 7-1 Chicago win at Arrowhead that they gave to the “Sporting 300” in 2011 would say the Fire fans cared a little about it though.

Just throwing two teams together and saying it’s a rivalry doesn’t make it happen. Without something to spark a true rivalry, it is nothing more than another game with a name for marketing purposes.

Rivalries tend to get built on things like proximity, cultural differences, or something on the field leading to a dislike between the clubs. The New York Red Bulls and New York City FC were naturally rivals because of they share the city same with the LA Galaxy and Los Angeles FC, it’s a similar story all over the world. Even a little bit further in distance can create rivalries by proximity if there’s something shared between the teams. You have the Cascadia rivalry between the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps that are regularly intense games that go back even before MLS was started. You have the Texas Derby with FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo (joined by Austin FC this year). You also have Orlando City and Atlanta United who came in quickly with a rivalry.

The proximity of those teams adds to the level of intensity in those games, making moments that may be great against another team become the stuff of legends against each other. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s debut for the Galaxy was an amazing moment for the Galaxy, but to have that performance and come back from 3-0 down against the new team in your city added an extra level to that performance for Galaxy fans. Similar feelings with the Red Bulls 7-0 win over NYCFC in 2016. Those great games, those great moments become even more spectacular when they’re against rivals. Even the rivalries with more distance have their moments and boiling points, like Ricard Clark kicking Carlos Ruiz in a game in 2007.

Sporting and Minnesota don’t have the local proximity of most of those teams, though the distance from Children’s Mercy Park to Allianz Field is only slightly further than the distance from Mercedes Benz Stadium to Exploria Stadium. The trip to Minnesota is the closest of KC’s four directional opponents as it’s 451 miles from CMP to Allianz field compared to 583 to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, 525 to Toyota Stadium in Frisco, and 524 to Soldier Field in Chicago.

Even though Minnesota is the closest to KC the distance still never helped it to develop among many KC fans. Instead during the time that MLS started pushing KC and Minnesota, KC fans were focused more on rivalries the club had developed with the likes of Real Salt Lake and the Dynamo. Both those rivalries came about due to on the field situations involving the teams. With Salt Lake it all came started in 2011 when the two teams had a preseason game ended early due to a fight between the two teams after a tackle by Roger Espinoza on Javier Morales. From there it built including in 2013 when a Chris Wingert shoulder into Kei Kamara probably should have seen the RSL defender sent off in the first minute to an Ike Opara winner in the 97th minute of the same game. That game turned out to be the main difference between the two on points that saw KC host MLS Cup 2013 over Salt Lake. Since that time the two have basically been on the field rivals with comments from both sides and both fan bases about the other. There’s also been meetings in knock out competitions like the 2015 US Open Cup semifinal and the 2018 Western Conference quarterfinal playoff match up to help keep the rivalry going. It has faded a little though as some of the key pieces from both sides have left/retired, though a handful like Espinoza and Peter Vermes remain.

Like Salt Lake, the rivalry with the Dynamo has faded over the last few years, in part because of a lack of intense games between the teams. But from 2011-2014 the two were as intense as any rivalry on the field. This time it mainly came from the playoff matches between the two that saw Houston knock KC out of the playoffs in 2011 and 2012 for KC to finally get by them in 2013 on the way to MLS Cup. It is still there though among the fans, and you’ll see it any time the Dynamo or Salt Lake come out on the schedule there’s that little bit extra desire to get the win in those games. The rivalry though has been dulled a bit in knock out competitions as Sporting was matched up with the Dynamo four straight years in the US Open Cup from 2015 to 2018 (two fifth round match ups and two quarterfinal match ups).

KC oddly has a number of the things stated above with Minnesota United, but it hasn’t translated to really build the rivalry the way it has with RSL and Houston. KC had a preseason game against Minnesota back when United was still in the NASL ended early because of a fight, just like KC and RSL did, but that hasn’t seemed to extend to their move to MLS. KC has a small playoff history with Minnesota United as the Loons came into Children’s Mercy Park in the 2020 Western Conference semifinals, but maybe because of the limited capacity and the feeling of the pandemic effected 2020 season as a whole the 3-0 result for Minnesota didn’t seem to move the needle that much for KC fans in terms of the rivalry. Maybe the RSL and Houston rivalries were just born because of the perfect storm of timing and intensity of the games along with the personalities on both sides, players like Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Nick Rimando for RSL, Boniek Garcia and Brad Davis for Houston, and Roger Espinoza and Aurelien Collin for Sporting.

One thing that could be argued hurts a SKC/MN rivalry is the regularity that they face each other. Since US Soccer really went to the regional pods for the US Open Cup the running joke, I’ve always made is the expectation of playing Minnesota early in the competition. When Minnesota was in the NASL it was always a matchup between them and either the Des Moines Menace or St. Louis FC that would play Kansas City. This happened in 2014 and 2016 (Des Moines beat Minnesota in 2013, Saint Louis beat them in 2015). Then when Minnesota made entered MLS KC again was matched up with them in 2017 and 2019. All four of those match ups have been in the fourth round of the competition (maybe we can rename the rivalry the “USOC 4th Round Cup”).

Since Minnesota entered MLS in 2017, KC has played no team more than Minnesota United, counting the rest of the games in the 2021 season, Sporting will have played Minnesota 17 times in the Loons five seasons in MLS. That’s one more than KC have faced the Dynamo over the same stretch. It’s also the same number of times KC faced the Tampa Bay Mutiny in their six years of existence, and that was when league had just 10-12 teams. Facing the same team over and over gets tiring, it reduces the importance of those games against those teams. It’s made worse when there’s really no spark to the games between the two teams. Of the 12 league games over that stretch, KC is 6-3-3 in those games.

Maybe after Saturday though it will finally change. Saturday’s game was the kind of game that can at least begin to build something. You had some hard tackles, you had a red card, you had a villain on both sides (Bakaye Dibassy for his horse collar type tackle on Alan Pulido and Tim Melia for his gamesmanship and time wasting late in the game). It had the post-game comments from players talking about tactics from the other team, like Michael Boxall calling out Melia taking his “sweet-ass time” to play the ball as the game ticked by.

While this game may be the start of something, it may also be coming a little late and be hurt by timing and the upcoming MLS expansion of Saint Louis City SC. Saint Louis entering the league will certainly pull more eyes of KC fans to the team just four hours away across the state of Missouri as a rival. As I said above, proximity can play a huge role in helping establish a rivalry and one that is half the distance can certainly pull more interest.

If a rivalry does develop, maybe the playoff game last year can be considered the prologue, something that really announced that Minnesota was ready to compete with Sporting. Before that game in all competitions, KC held a 7-3-2 record across all competitions against the Loons. A rivalry needs to be more back and forth to really establish itself and maybe the playoff match up was the start. If the playoff game was the prologue, then maybe Saturday was chapter one of the rivalry. The beginning of the end of “the nicest rivalry.”