A day before Sporting Kansas City was set to travel west in search of extending its MLS unbeaten streak to eight matches, midfielder Benny Feilhaber walked into a media press conference with a smirk across his face.
Only two months earlier, he had spent a few minutes articulating his hatred for Real Salt Lake — comments that quickly reached his adversaries. On Friday, as the team prepared for its latest meeting with Real Salt Lake, Feilhaber knew exactly what was on the way.
"You're going to ask me about that Salt Lake stuff, aren't you?" he asked.
For the first time since he uttered, "I've never liked Salt Lake," Feilhaber will march into the enemy territory Sunday at Rio Tinto Stadium. Kickoff is set for 9 p.m.
Never miss a local story.
He doesn't expect many cheers.
"I had some fans of (Real Salt Lake) tell me some things on Twitter," Feilhaber said of the reaction. "They're funny. I think it's great. I'm not going to say they have better fans than us — we have the best fans — but those fans are always good when somebody talks bad about their team. They're going to stand up for them."
Feilhaber isn't alone in his opinion.
Real Salt Lake represents a team that Sporting KC players have labeled the club's biggest rival. The classification stems from a series of hard-tackle incidents over the past four seasons, and it reached its peak when the clubs met for the 2013 MLS Cup Final, a match Sporting KC won with an MLS-record 10 rounds of penalty kicks.
After the two teams' only meeting last season, Sporting KC striker Dom Dwyer and Real Salt Lake keeper Nick Rimando exchanged jabs on Twitter.
The contention took on yet another added dimension this season, when Sporting KC migrated to the Western Conference, joining Real Salt Lake.
"It's a team that we've competed against in big games in the past, so I think it's a rival that's been forged in the last couple years," Feilhaber said.
But over the past two months, the two teams have trended in opposite directions.
While Sporting KC hasn't lost since April 18, a stretch that spans seven MLS matches and one U.S. Open Cup victory against Saint Louis FC on Tuesday, Real Salt Lake has won only twice over its last 11 matches to fall into ninth place in the conference.
And as Sporting KC starts to welcome back a handful of its previously-injured players — Chance Myers, Dom Dwyer and Jacob Peterson — Real Salt Lake has three defenders unlikely to play Sunday.
That doesn't make for great timing against a Sporting KC club that leads MLS in goals per game (1.57).
"I'd say I think we're starting to hit our stride offensively," Sporting KC forward Dom Dwyer said. "Whether it's Benny or (Graham Zusi) or myself or Krisztian (Nemeth), we have a lot of guys who know how to put the ball in the back of the net. That makes it hard for teams. I think you're starting to see the benefits of that."