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  • Writer's pictureRichard Fleming

What makes a sporting rivalry and does Real Salt Lake versus the Colorado Rapids meet the requirements?

According to those clever chaps at Harvard rivalry in sport has been defined as "a fluctuating adversarial relationship existing between two teams, players, or groups of fans, gaining significance through on-field competition, on-field or off-field incidences, proximity, demographic makeup, and/or historical occurrences."

Let’s apply those qualifying elements to the Rocky Mountain Cup, which brings together Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids.

  1. Fluctuating adversarial relationship existing between two teams, players, or groups of fans. It’s tough to argue that the Rocky Mountain Cup has fluctuated enough to truly label it a rivalry. Of all the supposed rivalries in Major League Soccer, this one has been the most one-sided. Since the two teams first met in the 2005 season, RSL has held the trophy 14 of the 19 seasons! Compare that to the Atlantic Cup, played between D.C. United and New York Red Bulls, or the Brimstone Cup involving FC Dallas and Chicago Fire, or the Texas Derby with Dallas and Houston, or even the Trillium Cup that brings together Toronto and Columbus, all of which are much more balanced than the Rocky Mountain Cup.

  2. Gaining significance through on-field competition, on-field or off-field incidences The flare-up following the Rocky Mountain Cup decider of 2006 involving former Rapids captain, and now RSL head coach, Pablo Mastroeni, and then RSL owner Dave Checketts lit a flame under the rivalry and kept it ticking along for a few years, until Salt Lake began to dominate. There has not been such a high-profile incident, though the late goals from RSL to snatch a 2-2 draw on the final day of the 2010 regular season allowed them to retain the Rocky Mountain Cup but subsequently sent the Rapids into the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffs, from where they found a path through to MLS Cup and battled to a famous 2-1 win over FC Dallas. The previous two seasons (2008 and 2009), the Rapids were eliminated from the playoffs on the final day of the season in meetings with RSL. The fact that RSL would win MLS Cup a year before the Rapids will also have been noted.

  3. Proximity, demographic makeup, and/or historical occurrences The Rocky Mountain could probably only hold its hand up to one of these, the proximity. From Commerce City, Colorado it is 536 miles to Sandy, Utah and the home of Real Salt Lake. It is 597 miles from Commerce City to Kansas City, Kansas and although a little further than RSL, the historical occurrences run deeper. The Rapids and the then-named Kansas City Wiz faced each other on April 13, 1996 at Arrowhead Stadium in what was a first-ever MLS match for both league originals. There have been players to switch back and forth, and of course coaching staff. Robin Fraser was an assistant coach at RSL between 2007-11. He was head coach at the Rapids from 2019-2023. Fraser was also a former player with the Rapids, but departed two years before RSL entered the league, in 2005. Mastroeni was a player and head coach with the Rapids. He has been charge the other side of the Rockies since August 2021 (initially as interim). Other players to serve both masters include Mehdi Ballouchy, Kyle Beckerman, Nat Borchers, Jeff Cunningham, Luis Gil, Atiba Harris, Richie Kotschau, Jasper Löffelsend (yet to make his Rapids debut), Clint Mathis, Nathan Sturgis, Seth Trembly, Collen Warner and Chris Wingert.

Ask Rapids fans who they see as their most fierce rival and a good many may point toward Real Salt Lake purely because of proximity and the supporter-led trophy on offer. But there are also those who would view Sporting Kansas City as a rival due to them meeting in that first-ever match, and the sheer number of matches down the years.

There are also many who deem FC Dallas as a team to loathe. The Rapids met then-named Dallas Burn in their first-ever home game, on April 21, 1996, and enjoyed a 3-1 win. They, of course, met in the 2010 MLS Cup and have also – as with Sporting KC – had their fair share of back-and-forths with players.

Ultimately, a rivalry is determined by fans, just in case you’ve been told otherwise.

The Rapids (0-1-1) head to Real Salt Lake (1-1-1) this Saturday for their third match of the new season, still seeking a first win. They are 15-28-13 all-time in the regular season, with a 4-17-7 record on the road.

Their most convincing win in Utah came on September 12, 2020 when they overhauled a 4-1 deficit from the home meeting to reclaim the Rocky Mountain Cup with a first win inside Rio Tinto Stadium, as it was then known, by an unthinkable five goals to nil! That match produced a first-ever MLS goal for Sam Vines, who is expecting to face RSL in Utah for the first time since that encounter three-and-a-half years ago.

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