Defender Matt Besler and Sporting Kansas City have been chasing a rivalry with the Chicago Fire for some time now. Sporting even hosted the Fire in their inaugural match at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park last season.
The Chicago Fire v. Sporting Kansas City (formerly known as the Kansas City Wiz/Wizards) rivalry is odd from a number of standpoints. The most notable of those is that one of the club's fan bases refuses to acknowledge that any rivalry exists.
The Wiz were one of Major League Soccer's original ten teams during the inaugural 1996 season. After falling to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the first-ever MLS Cup, the club changed their official name to the Wizards.
One of the greatest moments in Kansas City sports history came on October 8, 1997 when the Chicago Fire Soccer Club was created. The Wizards were 1-0 winners in the first-ever matchup between the two clubs on April 8, 1998. The bragging rights were short-lived for KC though, as The Men in Red would go on to win the next seven matches in the series.
Overall, the statistics of the rivalry are heavily skewed in favor of the Fire. The Fire lead the series with 21 wins, 10 losses and 9 draws. Their record in home games be it at Soldier Field, Cardinal Stadium in Naperville or Toyota Park in Bridgeview is an overwhelming 14 wins, 3 losses and 2 draws. Their record in the Kansas City area, playing in Arrowhead Stadium on the Missouri side and CommunityAmerica Ballpark or the current LIVESTRONG Park on the Kansas side, is completely deadlocked at 7 wins, 7 losses, and *gasp* 7 draws. The Fire has scored five more goals than Kansas City in those road games, though.
Current Sporting fans will point to the fact that there are two matches that don't count in those regular season results.
The two clubs met in the 2000 MLS Cup at RFK Stadium in Washington DC. Miklos Molnar scored the only goal in the 11th minute for the Wizards, who were able to claim their first and only MLS Cup crown. The Fire have not won the MLS Cup since their inaugural 1998 season.
The Wizards also defeated the Fire in the 2004 U.S. Open Cup Final. Igor Simutenkov scored a golden goal off a free kick in added extra time at Arrowhead Stadium to give the Wizards their only Open Cup title (The Fire have won the Open Cup four times). So for Kansas City, arguably the two biggest wins in club history have come against the Fire.
Despite all of this, it appears most Fire supporters don't seem to care about Sporting KC or see them as a true rival. There are a number of reasons why this could be the case:
For starters, until 2005, the clubs were in separate conferences during the early days of MLS. The Wizards were in the Western Conference until 2005 until Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake bumped them over into the Eastern Conference with the Fire. Now, for the most part, the league has had balanced scheduling between the different conferences (this changed this year with the league adding Impact de Montreal as the 19th team), so the clubs still played regularly. However, being in different conferences meant the clubs could only meet in the playoffs for the MLS Cup Final. The Fire's rivalry with the New England Revolution grew exponentially more vicious as the clubs met in the playoffs every year between 2005 and 2009.
Those other rivalries the Fire have like the one with New England put the one with Kansas City on the backburner. The Columbus Crew are the Fire's closest geographic rival, and supporters from both clubs typically travel to see the clubs face off. By virtue of that awful Brimstone Cup, FC Dallas (formerly the Dallas Burn) is also considered a fairly large rival. There's even some bad blood with the Seattle Sounders, a club over 2000 miles away from Chicago, based on heated interactions between the clubs on the pitch, a similar reverence for the U.S. Open Cup and a shared history as immediately successful expansion clubs.
But the biggest reason really goes back to that head-to-head record. The Wizards were typically nothing more than a thorn in the Fire's side as they challenged for a playoff spot on a consistent basis. And who did the Fire rout 7-0 in the July 4th massacre? I think I can say this objectively: The Fire have owned Kansas City.
That last reason is the one that Kansas City can actually gain ground in.
This started in 2011 when the Kansas City Wizards rebranded themselves as Sporting Kansas City. More important than a new logo and shirt design was the building on LIVESTRONG Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas. Prior to LSP, Sporting/Wizards had used an NFL stadium in Arrowhead Stadium and a minor-league baseball stadium in CommunityAmerica Ballpark.
Since its debut, LSP has been a tremendous advantage for Sporting Kansas City. The stadium opened in June 2012 (against the Fire of all teams), and Sporting have lost only four MLS matches in their new home. Attendance is high, and passion for Sporting KC is arguably at its highest point.
"It was kind of a perfect storm with the rebrand, the opening of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park and certainly the performance on the field," says Andy Tretiak, Vice President of Marketing for Sporting Kansas City. "It was a complete change from where it started before."
The Kansas City Cauldron is Sporting's main supporters group and typically stands on the North Side of LIVESTRONG Park. Sean Dane is part of the Cauldron leadership and believes the group has grown due to the new stadium the support of club management.
"It just shows that, given the right environment to participate in the game and a willingness from the front office to get behind supporters, great things can happen," said Dane.
When asked if there was equal animosity between the Fire and Sporting KC, Dane admitted that Sporting has to do more on and off to build that rivalry.
"Talking to friends from Chicago, it seems they have just overlooked us for years," said Dane. "I think we woke them up last year when we filled an entire section for their home opener and we are bringing more this year."
Dane added to that, taking a shot at the Fire's struggles to attract fans: "It's a good thing there are plenty of open seats."
As of now, Sporting's attendance is over 4,000 higher per home game than the Fire.
(It should be noted that the Fire have much more competition in the Chicago sports market. Chicago has two baseball teams that both have higher attendance figures than the Kansas City Royals. Chicago also has NBA and NHL franchises while KC has neither.)
For one Sporting player, Toyota Park will always remain a special place. Matt Besler was born in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City and is now playing for his hometown club. His first MLS goal came against the Fire in Bridgeview on March 26th of last year.
"I'm really excited to go back," says Besler. "That goal will always go down in my memory as my first career goal, so that was an exciting day."
Besler says he believes the Fire-Sporting rivalry will continue to grow as the clubs continue to play each other in a crowded MLS Eastern Conference.
"I think it's going to get better," he says. "We understand that Chicago is consistently going to be a big rival for us and they're going to be one of the teams that are pushing towards the top of the conference."
Sporting has done their best to make the Fire care about them. They had them open their new stadium. They partnered with a local sandwich chain to give out free sandwiches after every Fire loss. Their CEO Robb Heineman offered to make a donation to charity for every MLS goal scored against the Fire in 2011. They've used a Fire scarf to clean up fake urine. They've referred to regular season, reserve and youth matches against "rivals" Chicago Fire as a way to build more interest.
"We went into last year with the idea of trying to increase that level of rivalry among the two clubs," says Tretiak, the VP of Marketing. "The more we talked internally about it and looked at our history, the more we felt that Chicago was a natural for geographical reasons and it just felt like it made a lot of sense."
It appears Section 8 Chicago (S8C), the Independent Supporters Association for the Fire, is not impressed.
"I think that KC are silly and going the route of Seattle (Sounders FC) Jr. in trying to market their way into relevance," said Dan Martin, the Director of Communications for S8C. "There's no denying the team they've assembled is doing well, and as such, I don't see the need for their goofy antics."
It can be lonely in the Midwest for MLS clubs. The East Coast has the I-95 rivalries, the Pacific Northwest has the Cascadia Cup and California has three teams. The chances of MLS team #20 being in the Midwest appear to be very slim.
In the meantime though, both the Sporting front office and supporters believe the rivalry with the Fire will continue to grow in the future.
"I think, from our standpoint, we'll always try to educate our fans on who we perceive our rival to be," says Tretiak. "But, the big thing is, we need to have some matches between the two clubs that are meaningful and have a lot on the line."
"For the fans rivalries, happen naturally over time," says Dane. "Now that we have their attention, we will see what happens."
Martin of Section 8 agrees, adding that potentially playing Sporting in the playoffs would certainly help the rivalry grow.
"That'd probably do a lot to make more fans on our side of the field sit up and take notice beyond making fun of the name 'Wiz' and requesting they choose a state."
The Fire and Sporting face off this Saturday at Toyota Park. They also play each other twice more at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park on Friday, June 29 and Friday, September 28. Both of those matches are scheduled to be nationally televised on the NBC Sports Network.