Last time FC Kansas City played Portland Thorns FC they put together a 3-2 victory at JELD-WEN Field that was not as close as the score would indicate. The Blues left the Rose City as the toast of NWSL and by all accounts the Thorns were in shambles.
But a funny thing happened on the way to first place. FC Kansas City dropped their last two matches, including the season finale at home against Chicago when a 92nd minute goal sunk them and knocked them out of 1st place overall in the league. Their 2nd place finish earned them another match against the Thorns in Saturday’s semifinal at Verizon Wireless Field (2pm EDT, Fox Sport 2 or Foxsoccer2go.com).
“The 10th of those games was against Portland,” FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski, referencing the team’s 10-match unbeaten streak, said on a national conference call. “(That game) kind of drained the players both physically and mentally. So the first thing we have to do is refresh them both physically and mentally and remind them what our style is and what our goals are and how to we get (there.)”
Andonovski and FC Kansas City desire to play possession soccer. And not just the hyperbolic, “attractive, attacking soccer” all incoming coaches preach upon being introduced. The Blues bought into Andovoski’s system of playing short passes to sustain possession while maintaining a dangerous shape. It was a style Andonovski said could only be implemented if his brand new team bought in.
“I had to prove myself to the players and to our squad, especially the more experienced players who are on the national teams,” the coach said. “It seems like very quickly they were on board with the ideas that I had. After they bought in and they believed in what I had in mind they just did it themselves.
“I got to give a lot of credit to our captains, both Lauren (Holiday) and Becky (Sauerbrunn), who were my biggest advisers when it came down to managing personalities.”
Holiday reiterated what she said in the days following allocation: that she relished a fresh outlook on soccer from a coach who few people knew when the Blues named him head coach last Dec. 5.
“I think that was actually a positive thing for me, I know for Becky and Barnie (Nicole Barnhart) also, kind of having a fresh start,” Holiday, who led NWSL in goals (12) and assists (9), said. “Having a fresh start in Kansas City with a new organization and a new coach, that was something we were excited about. Obviously Vlatko is a good person so immediately it was easy to adjust and to want to work hard for him. I think he’s done a great job with his vision and what he wanted to do with our team this year.”
The vision was on full display almost from the moment the Blues helped christen the league with a 1-1 draw against the Thorns in the first ever match on April 13. The vision was enhanced as Lauren Cheney became Lauren Holiday and morphed into the best player in the league. And then 2nd round pick Erika Tymrak forced her way into the lineup as Andonovski pushed for a daring trade that sent Renae Cuellar and her five goals to Seattle in exchange for Teresa Noyola. The deal left the team without a forward who has scored a goal and they remain that way ahead of Saturday’s semifinal. Andonovki is not worried.
“Early on I was constantly asked the question who is going to score goals,” he said. “One of my answers is we had one of the best midfielders in the world. That’s where the goals are going to come from. Obviously that’s where the goals came from. I don’t think very many people believed in what I believed. But I’m so happy that Lauren had a chance to prove herself and show her quality and who she is.”
More concerning than lacking goals from forwards is whether the Blues can finish off a big game without leaking goals. June 26 in New Jersey they took a 2-0 lead to the 85th minute but left with a 2-2 draw to Sky Blue. July 14 in Chicago they took a 3-1 lead in the 87th minute and wound up 3-3 despite the Red Stars finishing the match with one of their center backs off injured. And then there was Sunday’s late concession. That adds up to five points washed away in the 85th minute or later.
“I think that’s obviously something that we can control,” Holiday said. “That’s something that we have to control. I think that’s just a mentality. Saturday, if we do get a lead or even if we’re behind the mentality has to be to close the game. That’s been something we’ve struggled with all year. I don’t think physicality is necessarily our strongest attribute. So I think just staying in the game and staying mentally focused no matter what is going on in the game is going to be huge for us in the playoffs.”
Andonovski pointed to the team’s 11 shutouts in 22 regular season matches. “Bottom line is we believe we are a very good defensive team. We’ve kept teams from scoring on us for 11 games. We can do it for 11 minutes when it comes down to it.”
Andonovski said he expects—but is not 100 percent certain—that right back Leigh Ann Robinson to start Saturday, six days after coming off the field for the first time all season due to a knee injury.
The Equalizer will profile each of the four NWSL playoff teams ahead of Saturday’s semifinal games. Later today: Kansas City’s opponent, Portland Thorns FC. Tomorrow: Western New York Flash and Sky Blue FC in the other semifinal.