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Sporting KC vs. St. Louis City SC: ‘Soccer capitals’ to meet in inaugural ‘Heartland Derby’

War of words, lawsuits, legitimacy underpin Major League Soccer's newest rivalry
MLS Whitecaps Sporting KC Soccer
Posted at 6:38 PM, May 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-19 12:11:53-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sporting Kansas City and its new geographical rival, St. Louis City SC, meet for the first time Saturday at CityPark in St. Louis in a game that’s been dubbed the Heartland Derby.

We'll get to the name momentarily, but the rivalry already has some heat.

There have been lawsuits, non-legal claims and counterclaims to the "soccer capital" moniker, and some good, old-fashioned pettiness.

St. Louis fans, as they are wont to do, will pretend to be above the "little brother" rivalry fray, but the reality is that before a single ball has been kicked, the fans are getting fired up — and that's a pretty critical step in fomenting a truly bitter rivalry.

Let's start with "Heartland Derby" — which is widely viewed as a flawed name for the budding rivalry, one of the few things both fan bases can agree on judging by the comments.

St. Louis City SC, which shaded Sporting KC with a SpongeBob SquarePants meme and seemed to suggest that the plan was to let fans determine the name, seemed nonplussed with "Heartland Derby" as well.

For those unfamiliar, "derby" is a British term for a contest between local teams and is used across the globe to denote soccer rivalries.

Even Minnesota United FC, which Sporting KC trounced 3-0 last Saturday at Children’s Mercy Park as MLS Rivalry Week got underway, got involved by taking a shot at both sides in the “Heartland Derby.”

As others noted, St. Louis City doesn’t appear to have embraced the name and hasn’t referenced “Heartland Derby” on social media.

To be fair, Twitter is an inherently critical space, but “Heartland Derby” lacks cachet, though it’s a tough tightrope to walk.

Missouri-specific references — like Show-Me Derby, Missouri Clasico, etc. — don’t work with Sporting KC calling Kansas home.

River-themed references — like the Missouri River Derby, River Runner Derby, etc. — also fall flat unless Sporting KC wants to trample on its NWSL cousin’s toe. The Kansas City Current have claimed river-themed marketing in the Kansas City region.

Maybe Big Muddy Derby, though it’s still river-related, might work — and provides a more authentic connection to both cities and their fan bases.

But beyond that we’re left with I-70 references, which were first used in a sports context to describe the 1985 World Series:

Or a clever play on the Los Angeles MLS derby, “El Trafico,” between LAFC and the LA Galaxy:

Apparently, there are some people in St. Louis who desire to make it about barbecue — the BBQ Derby or Der-B-Que — but that ignores the fact their barbecue is so vastly inferior to Kansas City’s barbecue that such a name is clearly a nonstarter.

But it’s not just the rivalry’s name that has sparked controversy.

Sporting KC trademarked the term “The Soccer Capital of America” more than a decade ago and has aggressively defended its intellectual property in the years since.

That included earlier this year when Sporting KC forced a St. Louis City fan podcast to change its name, alleging trademark infringement.

The “River City Ramble” originally was known as the “Soccer Capitol” podcast* before cowing to pressure from SKC in March, the podcasters announced.

*I guess we’re just supposed to ignore the obvious grammatical error — a “capitol” is a building where a legislative body meets, while ”capital” indicates a seat of power or place of importance/influence.

In the spirit of the rising tide of pettiness, before the rivalry has even commenced officially, some offered an amusing suggestion — The Cease-and-Desist Cup.

Another suggestion was the Trademark Derby, with the winner earning the right to dub itself the “soccer capital” until at least the next meeting.

St. Louis City went to great lengths to explain why it’s really the nation’s soccer capital — or at least “America’s First Soccer City” — despite not having a franchise in the most successful and important soccer league in U.S. history for the first 27 years of Major League Soccer.

There are a series of billboards between Kansas City and St. Louis that tout The Lou’s rich, storied and absolutely legitimate soccer history.

The St. Louis Soccer League, which was founded in 1907, soon began producing Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champions.

Five clubs — Ben Miller (1919-20), Scullin Steel (1921-22), Stix, Baer and Fuller/St. Louis Central Breweries (1933, 1934, 1935), St. Louis Simpkins-Ford (1948, 1950) and St. Louis Kutis SC (1957) — won a total of eight U.S. Open titles from 1920 to 1957.

Six clubs — Scullin Steel (1920-21, 1922-23), Buick Vesper (1923-24), Ben Millers (1925-26), St. Louis Madison Kennel (1928-29), Stix, Baer and Fuller/St. Louis Shamrocks (1932, 1936, 1937) and St. Louis Kutis SC (1954) — also racked nine runner-up finishes from 1921 to 1954.

St. Louis Kutis also won in 1986 and reached the final in 1983 and 1985, while the St. Louis Seniors won the 1988 Open Cup.

St. Louis University also reached the first NCAA men’s soccer national title games, winning four (1959, 1960, 1962, 1963).

The Billikens reached 13 of the first 16 NCAA finals, winning nine — including 1965, 1969, 1970, 1972 and 1973 — and finishing as the runner-up in 1961, 1971 and 1974.

The 1967 final against Michigan State was canceled by weather, so it’s SLU’s 10th title — a co-championship with the Spartans — while Howard’s 1971 win against the Billikens was later vacated.

St. Louis certainly has a fair claim to the historical capital claim.

Kansas City's claim is much more modern, but Lamar Hunt — who helped found MLS and once owned three teams in the league — has a massive place in the undisputed BBQ Capital's lore.

Sporting KC has been a model and title-winning franchise at a level no St. Louis team can claim.

Jimmy Nielsen
Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen acknowledges the fans after spray painting on the MLS Cup wall at Sporting Park after defeating Real Salt Lake in a shoot out in the MLS Cup final soccer match in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013.

The Current are building the first purpose-built stadium for a women's professional sports team, which should open next year, while St. Louis doesn't have an NWSL franchise.

Kansas City's youth soccer scene, especially for girls soccer, is as good as any town's pound for pound; the top-tier facilities, like Compass Minerals Park, are as good as anywhere; USMNT has used Kansas City as a fortress in the recent past; and, a little soccer organization called FIFA saw enough from the Fountain City to award it as a host city for their quadrennial tournament.

Perhaps you've heard of the World Cup, which is coming to Missouri (but not St. Louis), in 2026.

Maybe it's best to tap into the fan angst and just call the budding Sporting KC/St. Louis City rivalry “The Soccer Capitals Derby,” which would roll up all the things that rile up fans in one neat little package, then let the teams sort it out on the field.