I didn't expect Sporting to win in Salt Lake Friday night, so I can't say Sporting's 1-2 loss to RSL disappointed me. The third game in seven days against a team playing on normal rest rarely goes well, especially when the tired team has to travel. Sporting's tired legs showed last night. I know Sporting didn't need to win or even draw in Salt Lake. That wasn't a result we needed. We lost, but we remain squarely in the playoff picture and, better yet, are contending for the Supporters' Shield. Even with the loss, Sporting is a mere 0.01 point per game behind Dallas before they play Portland tonight (go, Timbers!), and we still have one game in hand as I write this (and two games in hand if your read this on Sunday, but the points per game will be different by then). We dropped all of the points last night, but our position on the table wasn't harmed much at all. That's all good.
The loss still hurts.
Over the years I've been in Sporting Park to watch my Boys in Blue play every team in the league other than this year's two new expansion teams. The rhythm is similar for every close match: all of us in the stands get mad at this or that player on the other team who tackles hard or wastes time or generally behaves like a smart ass, but then when the game's over we all laugh about it and kind of respect the other team, even if we lost. It doesn't matter if the opponent was supposed to be a rival, like the Chicago Fire used to be. Sure, we found Chris Rolfe and his time wasting antics deplorable, but it's hard to muster sustained hatred for someone who has spent most of his career playing for teams that don't matter to us.
Rivalries in sports are funny things. You can't force them into being; they just kind of happen organically. There was a budding rivalry between Sporting and RSL before the MLS Cup match, but since we beat them to win the championship a full fledged rivalry has developed between us. That's what makes last night's loss hurt so bad.
The rivalry between the players for Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake has been pretty well documented this year, but I don't think the rivalry stops with the players. That typical rhythm of fans getting over whatever transpired on the pitch doesn't hold with RSL. There's just something especially contemptible about that outfit in the eyes Sporting Kansas City fans. I know they view the Sporting KC Kingdom pretty much like we view them.
I loathe RSL's shameless alignment with Real Madrid. Remember that "Real" means "Royal." Remember that we fought a war to get rid of royalty on our shores. Consider what a ridiculous name "Real Salt Lake" is. I know that the "Sporting" moniker my team uses is a Euro-soccer dog whistle, but it's not like my team is obviously glomming onto Sporting Lisbon's identity (the most famous "Sporting" in Europe) or harkening to a discredited system of hereditary government like RSL is.
I hate the ceaseless preening from the RSL ownership, staff, and fans about how they play beautiful soccer. They've even whined about Kansas City being thugs for playing a high pressing style that produces exciting end-to-end action. For the record, no team that employs Kyle Beckerman can take the moral high ground against rough soccer. I respect the hell out of Beckerman, the career he's made in MLS, and particularly his play for the National Team, but the guy's made a living out of committing tactical fouls, many of them harder than strictly necessary. He's not the only practitioner of the Dark Arts on the RSL roster. I was going to work down the list of the other players on the RSL roster and explain why I think they are dirty players, but then I realized that I'd be writing 15,000 words about Jaime, Mansally, Morales, Olave, and Sandoval while still leaving out players deserving of a shout-out for their shady talents. That's a roster chock full of hard tacklers and tactical foulers. There's no sin in that. Closely contested games are won and lost based on what we euphemistically call "tactical awareness," but I'd respect RSL and their players more if they would just accept that they are among the foremost practitioners of the very tactics they decry. RSL apologists are a lot like the anti-gay fundamentalist preachers who rant and rave about the evils of homosexuality because on some level they yearn for man-flesh; RSL blusters about the evils of physical soccer to hide the fact they can't win a game of solely skill and finesse. The anti-gay bigots in the pulpits do a lot more harm to our society than the faux-soccer purists in Utah do, but both are hypocrites.
I can't stand the fake cleverness out of Salt Lake. Those "FU KC" shirts they think are so funny are just so damned obvious. Be as mean as you want in chanting and name calling and making signs and cheap t-shirts, but at least be clever. It's not like the Cauldron takes it easy on visitors, and the Timbers Army doesn't pull any punches either, but they (and most other supporters' groups around MLS) at least try to provide something more sophisticated than a middle school putdown.
I despise the pretension of calling their colors "claret and cobalt." I think their stadium is chincy and looks uglier than homemade sin on television. Hell, it's not like I know the man, but every time I've heard the RSL owner interviewed he sounds like moralizing jerk. Other than a handful of RSL players while they are wearing the USMNT uniform, there's not anything about RSL I can like.
I would dearly love to beat RSL 13-0 every single time we play them. Fortunately, Peter Vermes is more pragmatic than I am. I'm glad that Vermes rested Chance last night, because we need him down the stretch way more than we needed the points against RSL. The same goes for Benny, who only played the second half last night (but who totally changed the game to our benefit when he came in). Giving Kevin Ellis time to recover from injury and abstaining from throwing Okugo into the lineup was the right call, even if it was a tough assignment for the 18 year old EPB. We could take our lumps with a makeshift lineup full of kids last night. We didn't need a point out of that game, so taking a long view and resting guys was the right call.
Losing to those jerks in Salt Lake still hurts, though. We just need to beat them 13-0 in the semi-finals of the US Open Cup now.
Go, Sporting! (and crash and burn, RSL!)