Five Things is a weekly series on SportingKC.com that highlights the top storylines, players to watch and matchday programming ahead of each game throughout the season.
Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City take a detour from their 2018 MLS campaign on Wednesday to begin their defense of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a prestigious knockout-style tournament that Manager Peter Vermes' won in 2017 for the fourth time in club history and the third time since 2012.
Sporting KC's bid for a second consecutive Open Cup championship will begin under difficult circumstances, as the side is faced with a road trip to rivals Real Salt Lake in Wednesday's Fourth Round. The showdown serves as a sparking fixture in the round of 32, with kickoff set for 9 p.m. CT at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Fans can catch a live stream of the match at SportingKC.com or join the official watch party at No Other Pub in the Kansas City Power & Light District, featuring $4 Bud Light drafts, $5 Corona cans and $6 Till Vodka cocktails.
Without further ado, let's jump into five compelling storylines surrounding the midweek matchup.
1. Kings of the Cup
For the last six seasons, Sporting Kansas City has ruled the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with an iron fist. Since 2012, Vermes has won the trophy three times and boasts a 15-3-3 tournament record. Those three draws account for penalty shootout victories in the 2012 and 2015 finals as well as the 2017 semifinal, which essentially means Sporting KC has prevailed in 18 of its last 21 Open Cup matches. The 2018 competition gives Sporting KC the opportunity to claim a fifth Open Cup championship, which would break a tie with the Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders FC for the most among MLS clubs.
The 32 teams still alive in this year's tournament lack no incentive to chase Open Cup glory: the winner of the 2018 edition will receive $300,000 in prize money, up from $250,000 last year, and the tournament runner-up will receive $100,000 (up from $60,000). The 2018 champion will also receive a berth in the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament for which Sporting KC has already qualified as last year's winner.
2. Two Teams in Form
Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake will square off in one of four all-MLS fixtures in the Fourth Round, pitting two teams who enter Wednesday in strong form. Real Salt Lake endured a rocky start to the 2018 campaign, going 3-5-1 through early May, but head coach Mike Petke's side has caught fire since then by winning four of their last five. RSL has been particularly excellent on home soil, claiming six straight victories at Rio Tinto Stadium since dropping their home opener to LAFC on March 10.
On the opposite sideline, Sporting KC leads the Western Conference in points (28), wins (eight), goals (28), goal difference (plus-14) and fewest goals allowed (14). The club has allowed just five goals in their last 10 games since March 31, the fewest in MLS during that time, while a balanced attack has seen 12 different players find the back of the net, more than any other team. Vermes' men have lost just once since dropping their season opener to New York City FC and and sit one point behind Atlanta United FC in the Supporters' Shield race.
3. Besler Brothers
For the first time in their professional careers, a distinct possibility exists that brothers Matt and Nick Besler will go head-to-head. Matt, the 31-year-old captain of Sporting KC, has plied his trade in MLS for the last decade as a defensive mainstay and one of the premier center backs in the U.S. Men's National Team setup.
At age 25, Nick entered MLS in 2015 but didn't earn his league debut until April 21 of this year. Nick's breakthrough into the RSL rotation, however, has coincided with the team's improvement over the last month. He has featured in RSL's last eight games, serving primarily as a defender, during which time the Claret and Cobalt have gone 5-3-0.
Matt and Nick's professional paths have yet to cross, but that could change Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium.
4. Rivalry Renewed
The secret is out: Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake don't really like each other. The roots of their shared resentment are somewhat tied to the 2013 MLS Cup, a frigid and epic encounter at Children's Mercy Park that saw Sporting KC prevail in a 10-round penalty kick shootout. Kansas City supporters also have fond recollection of the 2015 U.S. Open Cup semifinal in the same stadium, a gripping affair in which the hosts rallied from behind to prevail 3-1 en route to winning the title the following month.
However, Real Salt Lake has held an upper hand in recent regular season battles. Sporting KC are just 1-5-3 in the last nine MLS meetings, including a five-game winless run at Rio Tinto Stadium.
5. Know Your History
The 2018 U.S. Open Cup began May 6 with 97 teams from all levels of American soccer. The 105th edition of the storied tournament features a single-tiered bracket with eight rounds of single-elimination play until a champion is crowned in September.
The U.S. Open Cup, named in honor of the late soccer pioneer and former Kansas City Wizards owner Lamar Hunt since 1999, is the oldest ongoing national soccer competition in the United States and the world's third-longest-running open soccer tournament. An Open Cup champion has been crowned every year dating back to 1914.