It's rivalry week in MLS this weekend. Many of the leagues marquee rivalries will be taking place this weekend, including Seattle vs Portland and New York vs DC. Both of those games will be on the NBC family of channels this weekend. Sandwiched between these two matches is another rivalry match between Kansas City and Chicago.
But how much of a rivalry is the KC vs Chicago match? Since the team's rebranding to Sporting KC, Kansas City's front office has made a concerted effort to push the rivalry against the Fire. From deals with Firehouse Sub to donating money to Livestrong each time the Fire are scored on, the KC front office tried to push the rivalry with Chicago by making it important to Kansas City fans. On the Chicago end, many Chicago fans scoffed at the attempts by Kansas City to manufacture the rivalry.
To be fair the rivalry has started to build on the field. Since the rebranding of KC, there's been a grand total of only 1 game in the series (of 5) that has been decided by more than 1 goal, that KC's 2-0 at home last year. The other 4 games (3 Chicago wins and a draw) have all been close. As Scott from On the Fire said, "despite the clever PR, most of the growth has been driven by highly competitive matches between the two clubs. Let's be honest, you can give away all of the free subs you want, and coin imaginative ads all day long, but at the end of the day a true rivalry is built on the field."
That competition has been supplemented by some villains as well four of the last five games have seen a team go down a man due to a red card. Roger Espinoza earned one last year in Chicago, while Gonzalo Segares earned one in the team's last match up.
It's not just red cards though, most KC fans have not forgotten the team's first meeting at Sporting Park last year that Chicago won 1-0, when Fire forward Chris Rolfe got injured off the field then crawled onto the field in an attempt to get play stopped for his injury.
To be fair, up until recently Chicago hasn't had much reason to consider KC a rival. While rivalries are built on the field they're also built through the fans and up until recently KC hasn't had the fan support to really get the attention of the Fire. And recently the growth of KC's fan base has seemed a bit like a little brother trying to hang out with their older brother.
But the growth of the fan base in KC can certainly help the development of the rivalry as well as continuing to see tight games on the field. While many older KC fans will consider Chicago a rival because of the wins in MLS Cup 2000 and the US Open Cup in 2004, few fans were around for that from the KC perspective and there's a disconnect from that because of the history. But if the two teams can continue to have competitive games, both sides will see it grow. If KC were to knock Chicago out of the playoffs, or "if the competition between Sporting and the Fire continues to be tightly hinged upon playoff positioning for a number of years in a row" as Scott put it, younger fans, specifically Fire fans may look as the KC rivalry instead of another team. The same way younger fans in KC's fan base are starting to push towards a different rival.
KC's record against the Fire has probably helped to contribute to a bit of the apathy. KC is a miserable 11-23-9 against the Fire in their history in the regular season, including a horrible 3-15-2 on the road. Giving the other team a reason to hate you for winning in their house is certainly a good way to get a rivalry going, but KC hasn't been able to do that.
While the league and team may be publicly pushing the KC-Chicago rivalry, Kansas City fans seem to be pushing towards a different rivalry more. The last two years, KC's season has ended thanks to the Houston Dynamo.
The games with the Dynamo have been close as well, fourteen of Kansas City's twenty games in all competitions against the Dynamo have been draws or decided by one goal. And each side has it's villains, Aurelien Collin for getting two Houston players red carded in the same game in the 2011 season and a player like Carlo Costly, who even though he's no longer with the team drew plenty of ire after scoring the second goal in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals at Sporting Park.
Public opinion even seems to be leaning towards the Dynamo being KC's rival instead of Chicago. I took an informal poll yesterday on Twitter asking KC fans who their top 3 rivals were in order. The top two were no surprise as it was Houston and Chicago. But there was a large difference when it came to fan opinions on it. Of the 57 responses I received the Dynamo appeared on 54 of them and the Fire on 48. Houston though ranked as the number one rival on almost 60% (34) of the votes I got. Chicago had just over half of that with 18, the second most first place votes.
The Houston rivalry also seems to be gaining some traction the other way as well, and has been helped by off the field incidents involving fans from both sides, from the smoke bombs and throwing stuff on the field at the 2011 Eastern Conference finals that helped to get some away privileges of Dynamo away support restricted to reports that the Cauldron bus was surrounded by Houston supporters after the first leg of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals.
So while the league and Sporting may be pushing the KC-Chicago rivalry, right now I'm not sure that the majority of either fan base (especially Chicago) consider the other to be their main rival at this point. For Chicago that main rival is Columbus or one of the other East coast MLS originals (DC, NY, NE). For KC at this point that rival would seem to be Houston, based on recent history. Again that's not to say KC and Chicago can't become a rivalry, or aren't on their way to becoming more of a rivalry, it's just that right now it's not at the level that the league is trying to make it out to be. There have been some good wins for each side (KC's two 1-0 wins in cup finals, Chicago's 7-0 win in KC on July 4, 2001) but as a whole the rivalry has lacked real drama, as Scott said, "it's easier to create or fuel a rivalry when matches are bitterly contested, when something's at stake."
Lately that hasn't been the case with KC-Chicago.