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The Lowdown: KC’s risky off-season pays off with title

FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski took risks in building his 2014 roster, and it paid off with a championship. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski took risks in building his 2014 roster, and it paid off with a championship. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

TUKWILA, Wash. — To properly trace the roots of the 2014 FC Kansas City team, you have to go back to last fall, when Lauren Holiday was boarding a bus following national team practice. She received a call from her coach, Vlatko Andonovski. The club was considering a trade to acquire Amy Rodriguez and Andonovski wanted Holiday’s input before he pulled the trigger. Holiday decided to step off the bus.

The conversation went something like this as recalled by Andonovski in the hour after the Blues won the NWSL Championship on Sunday with a 2-1 victory in Seattle Reign FC.

VLATKO: I have to make a decision. You have to say it now. ARod. Yes or no.
HOLIDAY: Oh my goodness, I would love to play with her.
VLATKO: Is she going to score goals with you?
HOLIDAY: She’ll score tons of goals.
VLATKO: I know you’re friends. I want you to talk like a captain, not like a friend.
HOLIDAY: Vlatko, she’ll score tons of goals. She’s awesome.

And with that assurance in his pocket, Andonovski traded Kristie Mewis to Seattle for Rodriguez (Mewis was later flipped to Boston for Sydney Leroux). It seems routine now, and will go down as a stroke of brilliance, but there was an element of risk in acquiring Rodriguez. She skipped the 2013 season to have a baby and by most accounts was heading the wrong way on the U.S. national team depth chart before that.

“She was actually in very good shape,” Andonovski said about his first impression of Rodriguez when she came in for training camp. “We were in close touch with (U.S. national team trainer) Dawn Scott. She probably came hungrier than any time before.”

[MORE: Andonovski’s game plan pays off  |  Seattle misses opportunity  |  Complete coverage]

Lauren Holiday backed friend and U.S. teammate Amy Rodriguez to FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski, and it paid off with a title. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Lauren Holiday backed friend and U.S. teammate Amy Rodriguez to FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski, and it paid off with a title. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

For Rodriguez’s part, when she got pregnant there was never a doubt she was going to come back and play. But she left herself few expectations in terms of how well she would play. “I always had it in my mind that I wanted to come back, I just didn’t know how my body was going to respond. I had low expectations. I think most people had low expectations when I came back from my pregnancy.”

The 2013 Blues played with a style that backed up soccer’s moniker as the beautiful game. Scoring was an issue though. Holiday led the league in goals but did much of her work hitting golazos from outside the 18-yard box. Once Renae Cuellar was traded midseason, FC Kansas City did not get another goal from a forward until Melissa Henderson got one in the playoffs. And when the 2-0 lead evaporated in that semifinal game against Portland there was not much by way of bench options.

“When we went down 3-2 with 10 or 15 minutes to go (in extra time) there was nothing we can do,” Andonovski said about that game. “Who do we bring from the bench to give us that punch? Right now it’s a little different.”

He went on to discuss the forward depth created by the additions of Sarah Hagen and Liz Bogus, but depth only matters when it sits behind quality, and Rodriguez was fantastic in 2014. She scored 13 goals and was in the Golden Boot race until the end, when Seattle’s Kim Little pulled away. Andonovski said he acquired Rodriguez to “score goals” but even his best-case scenario did not include a bakers’ dozen.

“She did an unbelievable job. Was the expectation to score as many as she did? To be realistic, no. But I’m glad that she did.”

Rodriguez had a bit of a star-crossed playoff history in WPS. In 2010 for the Philadelphia Independence she scored a sensational goal in the 119th minute, the only goal of an intensely played semifinal match against the Washington Freedom in blistering conditions. The next year she had more than a few looks at the championship winner in extra time against the Flash before the Independence lost in penalties. This season was different. Rodriguez scored the decisive goal against Portland in the semifinals and the only two goals against the Reign in the championship match. She was a finisher in her element, making the most of limited opportunity.

“One thing I love about Amy is she’s not scoring the 4th goal when it’s 3-0,” Andonovski said. “When it’s 0-0 she scored a big one. When it’s 1-0 against Seattle in Seattle, she scored the first one and the second one. That’s what I love about her. She steps up in big games and makes it happen.”

***

Putting the onus on Rodriguez to come up with important and plentiful goals was not the only risk FC Kansas City took on the 2014 season. From Sunday’s starting XI, center back Nikki Phillips sat out 2013 to focus on starting married life; Kasey Kallman was a rookie playing a different position from college ball; and Jenna Richmond was a rookie asked to step into the biggest void left by offseason departures (Desiree Scott). From the three who came off the bench Sunday, Hagen began the season under contract at Bayern Munich and Amy LePeilbet missed all of last season and part of this one recovering from ACL surgery.

“We had some plans and ideas and we took some risks,” Andonovski said.

Nikki Phillips came back after a year off to be an essential piece of FC Kansas City's defense. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Nikki Phillips came back after a year off to be an essential piece of FC Kansas City’s defense. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

On Phillips (nee Nikki Krzysik), the club picked up her rights in the Cuellar deal last summer, but did not know until the offseason whether she would return to play. “It was up in the air,” Phillips said during championship week. After a stint playing for Poland, she said, “I definitely wanted to come back in and give it another go. When you leave it you miss it. Just being out on the field and being part of a team, you definitely miss being around your friends and making a living doing something that you love.”

Coming back to play was one thing. Doing it effectively was another. Phillips and Andonovski sat down prior to the season and had a frank discussion about expectations. “I said, ‘Okay, I know what you do and I know, that you are not doing it now,” Andonovski said. “If you get it by the middle of the season, we’re going to be good. The middle of the season is where you’re going to play your best game.’ That’s what she did.”

Kallman was the 5th pick in the January draft and spent most of the season at left back. Richmond was the 16th pick—the second straight year Andonovski has put one over on his NWSL rivals after he snatched Erika Tymrak at No. 11 in 2013.

This was not by accident. Andonovski got his interview with FC Kansas City because he was an assistant with the indoor men’s team, the Comets, owned by the same group. The group had little thought he would be the guy until he arrived at his interview armed with reams of research about potential players. Included were detailed notes on several hundred college seniors. This preparation went a long way in landing him the job.

[MORE: NWSL Championship notebook — behind-the-scenes look at the final]

As for Richmond, she was not the best player on the team in 2014, but in one way she was the most important. The offseason loss of Desiree Scott compelled Andonovski to alter the team’s shape and play 4-4-2 out of a midfield that looked more like a diamond. It didn’t work. “It was tough. The things that Desiree brought to our team were not easy to replace,” Andonovski said. “The physical presence, the mentality, and the ability to win balls in the middle, not many holding midfielders can do it.

“We tried something, and as a coach sometimes you try things and they work and you’re a genius. Next time you try and it doesn’t work. I was the first one to admit, hey it didn’t work. We gotta find a way to make it work.”

Enter Richmond. Andonovski reverted to the 4-2-3-1 that played to such rave reviews a season ago. But the move was dependent on the rookie Richmond being able to play next to Jen Buczkowski in defensive midfield. Everyone knew it would not be a seamless adjustment but Andonovski made sure the 22-year-old knew she was not playing for her job with every touch, or even with every game.

“They knew that I trusted them,” he said, referencing Richmond and Kallman. “I told Jenna, ‘Regardless of what happens whether you score or not, whether you play good or not, I trust you and you’re going to be in that position.’ I think that boosted her confidence.

“As much as I trusted her, she trusted me and believed in what I had in mind and it worked out.

“She doesn’t have the physical presence that Desiree has, but she brings more finesse and helps us possess the ball a little bit more and helps connect with Lauren a little more.”

Richmond made her first start on April 26 in Portland. The Blues lost that game, dropping them to 0-2-1. But according to Becky Sauerbrunn, “It was the first time that I had seen the fight that I thought the team lacked last year. I finally saw it. We still lost, but it was a good sign leading into the next few games and I don’t think we lost that (fight).”

***

The trust word was thrown around quite liberally during Sunday’s postmatch media availability. Andonovski called Holiday to solicit her advice about the Rodriguez. And he said he has asked Holiday and Sauerbrunn their opinion on significant decisions throughout their two seasons together. He acknowledged that, “It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m agreeing with what they say or I’m doing what they say, but I want to see how they feel.”

Lauren Holiday and Becky Sauerbrunn receive the NWSL Championship trophy from league executive director Cheryl Bailey. Holiday and Sauerbrunn are FC Kansas City's leaders. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Lauren Holiday and Becky Sauerbrunn receive the NWSL Championship trophy from league executive director Cheryl Bailey. Holiday and Sauerbrunn are FC Kansas City’s leaders. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Holiday and Sauerbrunn have been invaluable resources to Andonovski, who was a relative newcomer on the women’s soccer scene when he took the FC Kansas City job. He credits the oft-understated Holiday as a key reason why the team has successfully integrated younger players into the team for two consecutive seasons.

“When you have leaders like Becky and Cheney (Holiday’s maiden name) they help them out. They welcome everyone on the team. I call Cheney, ‘Robin Hood’, because she’s that type of player that she fights for the underdog. She’s there for the young players and the newcomers, welcomes them to the team and tries to help them out any way she can.”

That said, Andonovski likes to seek out the opinions of all of his players, not just the veterans.

“We all have big egos. You can’t be a coach if you don’t have an ego,” he said. “But I know that I’m new into this. I need to hear what people that have been into this think about it and I’m willing to take advice and talk to players. So far it’s worked great.

“One of the things that helped this team to play like a team is the family atmosphere that we have. I can go and talk to anyone. I can talk to Jenna and Kassey even though they are rookies. It doesn’t mean that I am going to do what they say, but I want to see how they feel. I think the players like it.”

[MORE: FC Kansas City’s 2014 NWSL Championship victory in photos]

In winning the NWSL, Andonovski completed a coaching double destined to be buried in the annals of the niche sports in which he works, but is about as impressive a balancing act as a professional sports coach could pull off these days. In March he led the Missouri Comets—a men’s indoor team—to the MISL championship (they will compete in the newly formed MASL this year). Sunday night, with the NWSL medal on his neck, he said both titles were very satisfying but leaned towards NWSL as being more meaningful because of his relative inexperience.

“There were times when I was questioning myself whether I can do it or not. These girls helped me so much and helped me to become a better coach.”

And the most satisfying part, Andonovski said, is hearing how much the players want to succeed for him.

“When we play games they say ‘Hey we want to win this game for you. We want to do this for you.’ I’m so thankful to have a group like that that want to do things for me. I want to do even more for them.”

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