Founded by United States soccer pioneer Lamar Hunt during Major League Soccer's inception in 1996, the Crew and Sporting Kansas City [originally The Wiz, then the Wizards] have built a healthy rivalry over the years. Now, with both teams in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, a new chapter in the rivalry begins on Sunday [4:00 p.m. ET/FOX Sports Ohio].
"It's a game that's going to be special because [SKC] is playing well," Head Coach Robert Warzycha said following Thursday's training session at Crew Stadium. "The games against them are always going to be important, and they are always very difficult."
The Crew and Sporting both have plenty on the line on Sunday afternoon. The Crew remains in a dogfight with D.C. United and the Houston Dynamo for a spot in the playoffs. While Sporting Kansas City has already clinched a place in the postseason, the Supporters Shield remains in sight. In the two past meetings with Sporting this season, the Crew has split the results. The road team has won each match.
"[SKC] is one of the better teams in the League," Crew midfielder Eddie Gaven complimented his opponent. "You always want to play against the best to see how you measure up. So far this year, we've won one and lost one. It's been pretty even. Playing here at home, we want to take three points. Last time we played them at home, they beat us. It definitely leaves a bit of a sour taste in out mouth."
The Black & Gold own the all-time head-to-head record against Sporting with 21 wins, 19 losses, and six draws in the clubs' 17-year history. Warzycha recorded nine assists himself against the clubas a player for the Crew from 1996-2002.
Numbers aside, the two sides share plenty of connections. Crew Technical Director Brian Bliss helped deliver an MLS Cup, a Supporters Shield, and a Lamar Hunt US Open Cup to Kansas City while serving as an assistant coach and interim head coach with the organization from 2000-07. Likewise, Columbus goalkeeper William Hesmer spent the first three seasons of his professional career playing for the then-Kansas City Wizards.
Kansas City is led in scoring by former Crew striker Kei Kamara. What's more, Robert Warzycha's son, Konrad, plays midfield for Sporting. Former Ohio State Buckeye Roger Espinoza is a key part of Kansas City's midfield and helped lead the Buckeyes to the 2007 NCAA College Cup.
When the Crew hosted Sporting on July 14, two costly defensive errors led to disappointing home defeat. Avoiding those lapses will be key on Sunday.
"We've got to limit our mistakes," Crew Captain Chad Marshall said. "I think that's what hurt us here last time. We had two giveaways, and [SKC] has guys that can capitalize when you do that."
"We have to learn from our mistakes," Warzycha added. "We have to make sure we are confident going into the game and we have to believe we can win."
The Crew skipper continued, "I think [the fans] are going to be very important. They've been so good all year for us. Hopefully, they bring the same intensity and support they have all year."
Sporting Kansas City enters Sunday's match with the lowest goals against total in MLS. Sporting's success this season has been due in-part to possession in midfield and pressure from Peter Vermes' forwards. The Crew will look to impose its gameplan early to put Sporting Kansas City under pressure.
"Everybody can tell you that the best defense is offense," Warzycha explained. "That's what [SKC] is doing. For us, I think we will have some good players on the field that can really score goals and hopefully we score some."
"We have to put [SKC] under pressure," Gaven added. "We can't make it too easy for their backs to play. We have to try to force them to hit long balls and we have to win the second balls. Once we do that, then we can play a little bit, knock the ball around, make them chase, make them tired, and hopefully it opens up some gaps to get some goal-scoring chances to finish off."