Kei Kamara, a Sporting Kansas City striker, trotted upfield, his eyes locked on the high-flying ball headed in his direction. As it seemed to be sailing way over his head, Kamara peeked to his left. In an instant, he was lying twisted on the field, gasping for air.
This July matchup between two of Major League Soccer's top teams was less than five seconds in when Chris Wingert, a Real Salt Lake defender, plowed his shoulder into Kamara's neck, whipping the tall striker's head to the left like a rag doll as he crumpled to the field.
Vancouver Whitecaps' Camilo Sanvezzo, of Brazil, celebrates his second goal against the Chicago Fire during the second half of an MLS soccer game in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday July 14, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS
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It was on.
Some Kansas City players saw it as a hostile act by their opponents.
"The guy just wanted to send a message to us that they wanted to break us," Aurelien Collin, a Sporting defender, said Thursday. "But nobody breaks us."
But Wingert said he was merely going for a long ball and accidentally collided with Kamara, who no longer plays for Kansas City.
"I wanted to try to get up and get into his shoulder and then find the ball before he could climb on me," Wingert said. "Unfortunately, I ended up getting a lot more of Kei than I wanted to."
Regardless of the intent, the play fuelled a perception - a flawed perception, some players on both teams say - that there is animosity between these two teams.
The country will get a closer look at the nature of the relationship on Saturday (4 p.m. Eastern, TSN) when they play for the MLS Cup title at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan. Each team will be vying for its second league crown: Kansas City won it in 2000, when the team was known as the Wizards, and Salt Lake won the title in 2009.
The teams will be battling frigid weather com code, with game-time temperatures expected to be in the low 20s.
But players on both sides said they were more concerned with their opponents than with Mother Nature.
In recent days, attention has been focused on a preseason match the teams played in Arizona in 2011 that ended with a bench-clearing dust-up because of a hard tackle. Players this week said their memories of it were vague.
Jimmy Nielsen, the Kansas City goalkeeper, said that he and Salt Lake's keeper, Nick Rimando, chatted in the centre circle while a mob of players pushed one another.
"It happens all the time," Nielsen said of the altercation. "They were just pushing."
Nonetheless, the episode, coupled with the opening tackle in this season's game, which Kansas City won on a goal in stoppage time, feed into a narrative that something deeper could be brewing. The matchup got a bit more fuel in recent days when many Salt Lake fans' ticket orders were invalidated because they used a code reserved for Kansas City season-ticket holders that was leaked on the Internet.
He added, "I think whenever we line up across each other, the other team wants to establish a physical presence as quick as possible."
But Kansas City snickered at its reputation for all physical play with little finesse, and coach Peter Vermes said nobody should be surprised when things become physical.
"It's not youth soccer," he said. "It's a man's game, and men are going to play."
Although Kansas City is known as the more physical team and Salt Lake as the team that can better control possession, Wingert said it did not mean that Sporting was "going to be fouling more and we're going to be completing more passes."
"Every game takes on a life of its own," Wingert added. "We're going to do our best to impose our will on the game, and they'll be doing the same."