A contingent of Saint Louis FC fans occupied a small corner in the southeast side of Sporting Park on Tuesday evening, and shortly after their arrival into a venue that labels itself America’s soccer capital, they hung a banner marking their territory.
“America’s first soccer capital,” it read.
A budding rivalry? St. Louis certainly hopes so.
But the first installment of it swung toward Sporting KC.
Sporting KC outlasted Saint Louis FC of the United Soccer League 1-0 in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Graham Zusi provided the lone goal in the 70th minute in front of a sell-out crowd of 19,298 fans at Sporting Park.
Sporting KC advanced to the Open Cup Round of 16, which will have its matchups decided via a random draw Thursday.
“It’s hard to call it a rivalry because it’s the first time we’ve ever played them, but at the same time, that was a lot of fun,” Sporting KC captain Matt Besler said.
“Those are the types of atmospheres that you want to play in as a player. We were definitely aware of the rivalry going on with a crowd.”
The match marked the first time in franchise history that Sporting KC has faced a St. Louis-based club in a competitive game — but it’s a matchup St. Louis fans hope is more than a mirage. A city with a rich soccer tradition is one without an MLS franchise.
Last month, MLS commissioner Don Garber met with public officials, including Gov. Jay Nixon and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, along with St. Louis business leaders, to discuss a potential MLS presence in the Gateway City.
“This is a city that just loves the sport and has so many people committed to it,” Garber told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The addition of a St. Louis club to the league would offer Sporting KC a geographical rival — something manager Peter Vermes says has been absent with the club’s shift to the Western Conference.
“At some point, I know that St. Louis is very interested in getting an MLS team, so maybe this starts the rivalry already,” Vermes said. “… Seattle-Portland (and) New York-Philadelphia, those rivalries are really good. We would like to continue to try to build (one).
“We kind of lost a little bit of that with Chicago. I thought we had a really good rivalry with Chicago, and now we’re not in the same conference anymore. It would be nice for us to be able to pick something like that up.”
If Tuesday was indeed the first episode, Zusi ensured Sporting KC struck first.
He scored once. But only after he threatened twice.
His first-half header was flicked off the goal line, and he was tripped in the penalty area shortly after halftime, only to see the referee keep his whistle silent.
It didn’t matter.
Zusi finally broke through in the 70th minute, when he made a run across the middle of the box and used his head to finish a hard cross from Benny Feilhaber.
“It was a very patient play on our part,” Zusi said.
After a nine-day break, Sporting KC used its regular starting lineup in the Open Cup match — even starting keeper Tim Melia, who recorded the shutout — with the exception of right outside back Chance Myers, who logged his first start since May 23, 2014, when he suffered a left Achilles’ tear.
Myers was part of a defense that held Saint Louis FC without a shot on goal.
That, however, did little to deter the St. Louis fans, who exchanged cheers with the Kansas City crowd for most of the evening.
“I have no doubt it would be a rivalry if they were in MLS,” Feilhaber said. “It would be a really good rivalry. Hopefully it happens. It’s great for the town and great for the city of St. Louis, as well.”
Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup
Sporting Kansas City 1
St. Louis FC 0
ST. LOUIS: Mark Pais, Jacob Bushue, Chad Vandegriffe, Sam Fink, Patrick Doody, Brandon Barklage, Parker Maher, Bryan Ciesiulka (Charles Renken, 69th), Jamiel Hardware (Jordan Roberts, 80th), Jermie Lynch (Kingsley Bryce, 80th), Mike Ambersley.
KANSAS CITY: Tim Melia, Chance Myers (Saad Abdul-Salaam, 56th), Kevin Ellis, Matt Besler, Amadou Dia (Marcel de Jong, 81st), Soni Mustivar, Benny Feilhaber, Roger Espinoza, Connor Hallisey (Jacob Peterson, 68th), Dom Dwyer, Graham Zusi.
St. Louis: None. Kansas City: 1, Zusi (Feilhaber), 70th minute.
Shots on goal
St. Louis: Barklage, 54th; Renken, 86th.
Kansas City: None.
St. Louis: None.
Kansas City: None.
Assistant referee: c.
Assistant referee: c.
4th official: c.
Announced attendance: 19,298.