Rebuild or business as usual for FC Kansas City?

Jeff Kassouf January 21, 2016 45
Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has masterfully managed his FC Kansas City roster through three seasons, but how will he deal with losing legendary Lauren Holiday? (Photo:  FC Kansas City)

Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has masterfully managed his FC Kansas City roster through three seasons, but how will he deal with losing legendary Lauren Holiday? (Photo: FC Kansas City)

Change is nothing new for FC Kansas City. The two-time defending National Women’s Soccer League champions have overcome important personnel changes each of the previous two offseasons only to lift the league trophy at seasons’ ends.

Some three months after beating Seattle Reign FC in the NWSL Championship for the second year running, FC Kansas City is now without 2013 NWSL MVP Lauren Holiday, defenders Amy LePeilbet and Leigh Ann Brown (nee Robinson), and forward Amy Rodriguez. The former three retired — center back LePeilbet and right back Robinson after playing every minute for the club in 2015 — and Rodriguez is pregnant with her second child and due to miss most if not all of the upcoming NWSL season.

After a second-place finish and a semifinal exit in 2013, midfield stalwart Desiree Scott left FC Kansas City and Lauren Sesselmann, her teammate for club and country, was taken by the Dash in the expansion draft. Both were full-season starters for the Blues. FC Kansas City also traded away starter Kristie Mewis in a deal which brought them Rodriguez, who returned from her first pregnancy to net 13 goals, second-most in the league.

And heading into 2015, the Blues lost half of their starting defense. Kassey Kallman was traded to Boston to acquire Heather O’Reilly and Nikki Phillips took the year off. So did midfielder Jenna Richmond.

[MORE: Will NWSL’s new allocation ranking system create fairness, transparency?]

But this offseason is the biggest hit yet for FC Kansas City, a franchise which few knew anything about when the NWSL announced its founding members late in 2012 but one which has since blossomed into the most consistent team throughout the first three seasons of NWSL. How will the champions deal with the loss of four core players and stay near the top of a league which has seen aggressive movement by competitors this offseason?

“I don’t necessarily want to say rebuild, because every time when people say rebuild it’s almost like they are looking for an excuse not to win,” FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski says when presented with that ‘R-word’ so many teams in the offseason. “No, there is no rebuild, just a couple of changes. If you look at our roster from year two to year three, there are just as many changes, maybe, but not big names like this. We make changes every year, whatever we need to do to make the team better. This year, we were forced to make the changes. It’s not because we wanted to, but still I think that we are already on the way to create this good team.”

Sydney Leroux has been traded to FC Kansas City, her fourth team in four NWSL seasons. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Sydney Leroux has been traded to FC Kansas City, her fourth team in four NWSL seasons. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

In the past week, FC Kansas City acquired two 2015 World Cup participants: U.S. striker Sydney Leroux in a three-team trade and New Zealand defender Katie Bowen in the 2016 NWSL College Draft.

Leroux is the most important piece of the puzzle for FC Kansas City, who traded Sarah Hagen — a forward trying to fight her way back into the picture of the U.S. national team — to Orlando Pride just weeks before learning of Rodriguez’s pregnancy. Acquiring Leroux is clearly an answer to the sudden void at the forward position for FC Kansas City, but the move isn’t as reactionary as it appears.

“It took almost a year, the Leroux trade,” Andonovski says with a hint of relief. “I think that it if it wasn’t for Huw, it wasn’t going to happen.”

“We worked awfully hard on it,” Williams interjects.

He continues: “Every team in this league wants a Sydney Leroux. She’s a player that can be an absolute, immediate impact and sure, it became more viable and more important perhaps after the A-Rod situation, but we were far, way along before that. We were close a couple of times and then it fell through and we had to start all over again. But it was a lot of people working awfully hard to make it happen.”

[REPORTS: Teenager Pugh turning down college to go pro, play for Thorns, USWNT]

Leroux has been public over the past year about her desire to play in Kansas City, where her husband, Dom Dwyer, players for Sporting Kansas City. She inquired about a trade to Kansas City last year while in Seattle, which the Reign took as a sign that she wasn’t as committed to them as they were to her, and so they traded her to the Western New York Flash.

Seemingly the biggest challenge for FC Kansas City is fitting Leroux’s preferred direct style of play into the possession-oriented brand of soccer the Blues have trademarked through the first three years of the league. Andonovski offers a strong rebuttal to any concerns about Leroux fitting into the Blues’ system.

“She’s not any more direct than Amy Rodriguez was, but our style didn’t change and A-Rod was the leading scorer in the league,” he said (Rodriguez’s 13 goals in 2014 were second to Kim Little’s 16). “My point is that I think she will adapt the style very well and she will enjoy it and she will be very successful.”

Leroux played in only three games for the Flash, scoring once. She hasn’t played in a competitive match since June at the World Cup after undergoing surgery on her right ankle in July. She scored five goals in 22 games for Seattle in 2014 after netting 11 goals in 19 games for Boston in 2013. Leroux will be expected to shoulder much of the scoring load in 2016, but the club is high on former No. 2 overall draft pick Tiffany McCarty, who was also acquired in that Leroux trade.

Still, FC Kansas City’s biggest challenges remain in the back and in midfield.

LePeilbet helped anchor a league-best defense which gave up only 20 goals in 20 games last season, even without U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn — voted defender of the year all three seasons of the NWSL thus far — for almost half of the regular season due to World Cup duties. It was LePeilbet who returned to playing like her days in WPS — when she won back-to-back defender of the year awards of her own in 2009 and 2010 — to hold down the back line.

Brown exits NWSL as one of the all-time underrated players, playing 6,192 of a possible 6,420 in club history, including the playoffs.

And Holiday took the league by storm in 2013, leading the NWSL in goals (12) and assists (9) en route to MVP honors. She returned from Canada this summer as a 2015 World Cup champion and exited on top of the NWSL as well in October. For both FC Kansas City and the U.S. national team, she is irreplaceable.

“It’s going to be more adapting as a group than it is one player,” said Huw Williams, director of soccer operations for the club.

“Filling in for Lauren is not easy. I don’t think anyone will be able to do for us what she did.”

[MORE: NWSL Draft analysis  |  Sonnett No. 1  to Thorns |  Rodriguez No. 2 to SBFC]

Andonovski and Williams speak of a system and fitting players into that FC Kansas City way. Young midfielders like Mandy Laddish, Frances Silva and Erika Tymrak — whose play in 2013 earned her looks from then-U.S. coach Tom Sermanni — will need to take on larger roles. Shea Groom must also take on a larger role in the absence of Rodriguez, who is due in mid-July and could miss the entire season. (Rodriguez said through a club representative, “If I can, I will be back this year.” But even if she returns in 2016, her time will be limited with the season likely to end in late September or early October.)

Midfielder Katrina Gorry could return to the club — FC Kansas City still holds Gorry’s rights — depending on Australia’s plans for the year (the Matildas still need to qualify for the Olympics). FC Kansas City is also currently out of open international spots after acquiring one for Bowen.

Stalwart and all-time underrated midfielder Jen Buczkowski will likely only be available for the first half of the season as she begins physical therapy school. Richmond is unlikely to return to the team after a year away.

Defensive voids are a point of concern as well, but the acquisition of Brittany Taylor — who earned caps with the U.S. in 2010 and 2011 — will fill the need for a starting center back. Williams calls her one of the best non-national team players in the NWSL.

Taylor should adapt well to Andonovski’s defensive style and system which has proven to work with multiple personnel.

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Phillips will not be returning to play this season. Brianne Reed, the Blues’ other second-round draft pick, was part of a historic Rutgers defense which brought the program to its first College Cup.

“We feel like both players have the potential to be starters on our team, and now it is up to them and how they are going to compete against other players on the team,” Andonovski said. “Both of them are great defenders and that is definitely a position that we needed.”

Still, it’s hard to objectively not look at 2016 as something of a rebuild for FC Kansas City. But that doesn’t mean the coaching staff of the two-time defending NWSL champions has lowered its expectations.

“It’s not going to be a rebuilding in terms of, ‘hey, it will take a couple of years here,'” he says. “Our goal is a three-peat. We think we’re starting to build something special here.”

  • STT

    FCKC definitely deserves to get a shield at some point soon – their 2014 would’ve been clearly worthy of it if it hadn’t been for Seattle being absolutely insane. I just hope FCKC doesn’t win the playoffs again. X-D

    • guest

      They would have won it in 2013 if they hadn’t choked down the line. Needed 1 win in 3 games and they couldn’t manage that and instead it went to WNY of all teams.

      • STT

        I think you mean a draw in their last two games – their third-to-last game was a 3-2 win over Portland.

        Besides, even if they got that 1pt, it still would’ve been just a 3pt spread from 1st to 4th, which isn’t nearly as impressive as their 5pt lead over Portland in 2014.

        (And crowning WNY in 2013 made sense at the time, as it capped their 6 major titles in 4 seasons streak.)

    • Steglitz49

      The shield does not matter to a team that wins the Championship. If you have a play-off then the play-off rules the roost. 8-1 in 1981.

      • Ethan

        Well Steglitz49, you always talk about players retiring because they’ve won it all. While I don’t agree with that sentiment, I do understand your point. Apply it to FCKC. The team’s won the Championship twice , but the team has not won the Shield yet because FCKC has not been consistent across a whole season. I’d imagine Kansas City players and staff want to show that they can be the best team over an entire league season; winning the Shield will show that. In other words, the Shield would matter to me if I was Kansas City.

        • Steglitz49

          KC has won what is understood as the NWSL. The Championship is the prize. The rest is dung and refuse. Maybe the shiled consoles the failures, though I doubt it.

          That applies when you have a league and a challenge cup. When you bolt the play-off on to the regular season, the shield does not cut much ice.

          (The one exception I can think of is Spain’s WoSo where the league is 16 teams. Then the top 8 enter into the Copa de la Reina — but that is 8 teams, not 4. There are also 2 relegation spots.)

  • Terry Lash

    Tiffany McCarty is a puzzle to me. She came into the league with high expectations, and Houston seemed to want her, but she did not perform well for either team. Now she is headed to Kansas City. Is the third team her charm?

    • mockmook

      I’d say she has been average wherever she has been.

      Sometimes “average” is good enough to play a pivotal role in these thin rosters.

    • ARED

      I think she’s a good player to have, but maybe not a good player to have to rely on. If she’s in your top 1-2 forwards you might be in trouble over the long-run, but if she’s part of a group of good forwards on a good team maybe that better suits what she can bring.

  • Calci0

    If they have put the right personnel in the right positions, I think they will be right in the thick of things again. They seem to make smart moves so I see no reason to doubt their off-season. I’m looking forward to seeing how everything plays out. The playmaking role will have a lot of eyes on it.

    • mockmook

      Keep an eye on my dark horse candidate (Averbuch). I just have a feeling.

  • mockmook

    O/T

    Don’t know where else to mention this:

    How the heck do we find out the finalized list of players who signed up for the NWSL draft?

    • Calci0
    • Rdalford

      In past years the NWSL has posted the “final” list but the Final eligible player list for 2016 draft appears not to have been posted to NWSL site.
      As you point out, for draft eligible players only those that registered for draft are eligible to play in NWSL in 2016 season so final list does have significance

      • mockmook

        They must be trying to figure out how to scrub Pugh’s name from the list 😉

      • FYI final draft list posted

        NWSL site has now finally posted the Final 2016 draft list, approx 200 players total

      • HOFCToDi

        Complete list of players for 2016 NWSL Draft

        nwslsoccer.com/News/904924.html

        Steglitz49 proven wrong yet again. What else is new?

  • ARED

    I like KC still. Holiday is one of the all-time greats for me, and irreplaceable, and Brown, ARod, and LePeilbet are great players at the NWSL level. But, with the players they had, and now have added, I still really like their mix and think they’ll be able to compete at or near the top of the league. The key will be how well they develop as a unit, both defensively and offensively, but that has always been something KC does well.

    • mockmook

      I thought they had dodged a bullet with Buz, but now she is leaving.

      And, I had hopes that Richmond would return.

      It will be a miracle if they 3-peat.

      ——-

      I’m beginning to agree with S49, let’s go to U-23 for the OGs.

      It’s crazy to have 2 out of 4 years of club soccer reduced to using scrubs. Very hard to grow a fan base when the key players are always gone.

      • Steglitz49

        Thank you. But. You do realize that you are living dangerously, I hope. (Not as bad as criticizing a certain player, though, so be grateful for small mercies.)

        There is, of course, a risk that the US would dominate a U23 tournament but they have dominated OG WoSo anyway, so no-one would notice.

      • ARED

        Yeah I just heard/remembered about Buz as well, which is another big loss if/when she goes.

        Still, I say a 3-peat would be a surprise, yes. Miracle…? Not for me, who else can win it? Portland? Seattle? Chicago? Anybody else…? Like I said, I still like them (Sauerbrunn, Leroux, Groom, Tymrak, and Averbuch alone are enough for me to give them a chance). And we still might see further roster moves….

        • mockmook

          Washington and the Breakers too (quit laughing)

          • ARED

            HAA…..ooops…..sorry. ; )

            I’ll have to see the final rosters and maybe a few matches before I’m predicting anyone outside the (dare I say) “big four”. I guess Orlando might be good, but it’s hard to say really.

          • mockmook

            Unfortunately, even after a few games, we won’t have a good idea because it is unknown how the OG is going to impact rosters.

      • Calci0

        Where is Buczkowski going?!? http://equalizersoccer.com/2015/11/25/jen-buczkowski-returning-to-fc-kansas-city-in-2016/
        And if the league shuts down for the OG, how much time are players really going to miss?

        • Steglitz49

          Why should the league shut down for the OG. It did not for the WC.

          • Calci0

            Lesson learned?!?

          • Steglitz49

            There are so many good palyers in the US so might as well give the reserevs their chance in the limelight.

          • guest

            NWSL shut down for a 2 week period during WC group stage and it is anticipated that NWSL might incorporate a similar short break for OG. NWSL 2016 schedule should be announced in Feb so we should know soon how/if they schedule around OG.

          • Steglitz49

            Poor attendance would harm the image of the NWSL. The OG as a whole would be a big competitor, not least swimming and track n field but also a whole slew of other sports.

            Thus, I can see that closing down for the whole OG makes sense because there will be so much sport to watch and it will all be in the US time zone that NWSL matches might well be poorly attended.

        • Dillon77

          Do we have any idea which report is more accurate? Or did the PT School (admissions) come about after the signing and the contract amended?

          Is Yael Averbuch still under contract with KC?

          • Steglitz49

            I thought Yael wrote for the NYT. She covered the Nestlé Cup and played for Arsenal at the same time. Probably the only American NWSL player to have played in that Intercontinental Club Championship — though if Amandine Henry comes to the US she probably did as well and I can’t remember whether Naho’s club was in it.

          • Dillon77

            She did write for the NY Times. Remember a few of her posts from when she was in Europe, particularly her days in Sweden. Her family lives in Montclair, NJ…run into her parents at local soccer games.

          • Steglitz49

            Lots of Monts in NJ. Montclair, Montville and Montvale. The place name I liked was “Brick Church” (RR station really) because it said what it was. Ward’s Coffee in Chatham (home of the talkative pigs) sold a “Judge Alito Blend” — maybe still do.

        • mockmook

          “Jen Buczkowski will likely only be available for the first half of the season as she begins physical therapy school. ”

          http://equalizersoccer.com/2016/01/21/fc-kansas-city-retirements-trades-sydney-leroux-amy-rodriguez-pregnant-2016-nwsl-three-peat/

          Judging by all the other matches and activities surrounding wwc15, I think the players could miss a lot of time.

        • We knew last year that Jen was planning on PT school this year, so fans assumed she would be retiring. It was a surprise to us that she re-signed for any length of time for 2016, so it’s a bit of a bonus, yet also a letdown that it still may be just half a season as she’s still going back to school this year.

          • Steglitz49

            Jen will soon be 31. At some point you have to call time. Not everyone can have Carli’s magical year.

            Meanwhile Karina Maruyama who will soon be 33, has announced her retirement. Time catches up with them. I don’t know what Karina plans. She only scored a couple of goals for Japan against top opposition but the 1-0 that put Germany out is one for her scrapbook.

  • mockmook

    Got a lump in my throat when I first saw that picture. What a jewel. (Holiday isn’t so bad either)

  • HOFCToDi

    Lauren Holiday, the straw that stirred the drink for FC Kansas City.

  • HOFCToDi

    huffingtonpost.com/entry/national-womens-soccer-league-draft_us_56a0267ae4b0d8cc1098b7d2?sf19404735=1

    “This opportunity was given and I was like, ‘I can’t pass this up,’” Brianne Reed said of her decision to enter the draft. “To be able to say that I’m going to be a women’s professional soccer player… it’s cool to hopefully be a part of that building process.”

    • Steglitz49

      To be coached by Vlatko is worth something.

      • HOFCToDi

        Read the article for a change.

    • Nicole C.

      Great read- thanks for the link.

  • woso32rooter

    Thanks for this milestone link on NWSL’s continuing journey—capturing the renaissance of the US domestic woso brand! The link offers a great reference point to this exciting building process for football playing ( soccer) female athletes (all over the the globe). And by the same token, may the amalgam of ” market forces” become gregariously visible to drastically help to raise the professions salary scale— elevate NWSL journeying to its ultimate arrival for all our Brianne Reeds.