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NWSL Week In Review: Time For FCKC To Give Someone Else A Chance?

Katelyn Rowland and the Courage will be hosting an NWSL semifinal October 8. (Photo by Lewis Gettier)

Sporting Kansas City might be the biggest off-field success and reclamation project in MLS history. An original member of the fledgling league in 1996, the Wiz had bright, rainbow colored uniforms and played in cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Chiefs. It seems strange now, but that was the way MLS rolled in its infancy, playing in mostly empty football stadiums, for lack of anything else.

Columbus was the first, but by 2011, there were several soccer-specific stadiums around, and Kansas City joined the fray with Livestrong Stadium (now Children’s Mercy Park). I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Kansas City for a now defunct website and got a grand tour of the amazing new facility, even more striking because the Wizards (after The Wiz sued for naming rights) had been most recently playing in a minor league baseball stadium down the street.

If you build it, they will come, we’re told, and come they did. Now rebranded as Sporting Kansas City, the stadium has rarely seen an empty seat for anything it hosts, including World Cup qualifiers, U.S. Open Cup finals, and MLS All-Star games. Once lagging near the back end of MLS attendance figures in a city where baseball and football are king, Kansas City now stakes its claim along with Portland and Seattle as Soccer City, U.S.A.

Alas, that hasn’t really transferred over to the women’s side. Off the field at least. FC Kansas City won two of the first three NWSL titles and could have captured the other, so things between the lines were great. Its attendance was pretty good in its inaugural season (4,626 average), but it was playing on a high school field in nearby Overland Park, Kan. complete with turf and the accompanying lines for football, lacrosse, and field hockey.

They tried Durwood Soccer Stadium on the campus of UMKC for 2014 and 2015, but – while it was a true soccer facility – it had only 850 permanent seats and they averaged 2,018 and 3,091 fans in their two title-winning campaigns. Last year FCKC made a partnership with Sporting KC to play at Swope Soccer Park, a wonderful facility with gorgeous playing fields, but it also does not have room for many permanent seats.

Attendance was steady last season (3,162), but off-field controversies in the front office saw the team get sold to Minnesota businessman Elam Baer. And 2017 has been a mess, for lack of a better term. The team has played better toward the end of the season, but will be nowhere near the playoffs, and seem to be trending downward as time goes on.

But on the field problems don’t compare to the ones away from the pitch, where FCKC was already last in the league in attendance before Saturday, when it hosted Chicago on national television. A week after Portland drew over 19,000 folks in the same time slot, FCKC had a paid attendance of … 963 for everyone in America to see.

What’s really sad is that, on the heels of Orlando and Houston (and obviously Portland) partnering fully with their MLS teams and facilities, Sporting Kansas City was given first chance to purchase FCKC when the old ownership group was a motivated seller last fall, but they declined, which seemed at least a little short-sighted on the surface then and really does now. In doing so, it might have sealed FCKC’s eventual demise. We shall see what happens at season’s end, but without some massive adjustments, it may be time for the franchise to go somewhere else.

Although the NWSL has been moving at a languid pace in its expansion details, it looks eventually like FC Barcelona is going to sponsor a team in San Jose (or possibly San Francisco), while MLS expansion LAFC may put a team in its new stadium in Los Angeles. That still leaves places like Salt Lake City and Dallas that have shown some interest, and may be willing to take someone like FCKC at a reduced rate and pair them with established MLS clubs (the Dash recently played in Dallas because of Hurricane Harvey and drew 1,258 on only a few days’ notice).

Like others, I have stressed patience in the NWSL’s growth, with the reminders of WUSA’s and WPS’ collapse still fresh in my mind. I know that the goal of a livable wage for all NWSL players is a noble one, but may be a few years off. However, attendance figures such as the ones FCKC are putting up, particularly Saturday, cannot be attributed to “growing pains”. Not in the league’s fifth season and not in a market that sells out its MLS stadium every week.

The World Cup returns in 2019 and with it will be a stop-start schedule that will have a large break in the middle and many games without national team players and international stars. Therefore, 2018 is a massive season for the future of the NWSL and international soccer in this country. Hopefully, the NWSL does everything it can to take advantage of it.

Ironically, there was a women’s soccer game in Missouri this weekend that did, fairly silently, draw a massive crowd. Unranked Saint Louis University had 5,205 in attendance at Hermann Stadium for a game Friday night against Kansas. Long-time WoSo fans will see the irony right away: St. Louis had a professional team, of course, in WPS, only to see it fold in the middle of the 2010 season.

But if you build it and promote it, they will come. Even if your non-believing friend or local MLS club will tell you that they won’t.

What else did we learn in a weekend where we still have playoff spots open with two rounds to go?

THURSDAY

Orlando 1:1 Seattle (recap)

What Went Down: Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock were vocal before the game about postponing this game instead of moving it up to Thursday, and while there is no ideal solution, this seems like the best solution, allowing Seattle to get out 48+ hours before the storm and Orlando that much time to prepare. Safety has to be paramount, but not to ridiculous extremes, either.

The Pride were better for most of the match, but were put in an odd spot here in that a loss was the only really damaging result and they almost got burned a couple of times, even before Fishlock’s equalizer (after Alex Morgan finally broke through with a late goal). It was a fantastic finish, but one that might not help the Reign so much. There is some hope for Seattle, though, it closes with Kansas City and at Washington. If it gets six points, Orlando will have to get at least one from games against Portland and North Carolina. If they end up tied, Seattle will have to make up a seven-goal difference, which sounds like a lot but if all those scenarios come true, who knows?

Player of the Game: Dani Weatherholt – I’ve been on the Weatherholt bandwagon for a month or two because I feel that putting her as a regular in the midfield seems like the key move in Orlando’s rise. Her assist on Morgan’s goal was inch perfect, as they say, and in a potential playoff showdown with North Carolina or Portland, she may be the key.

Under the Radar: Megan Rapinoe – It’s likely Rapinoe’s time away and the ridiculous season Sam Kerr has posted will keep her from winning this year’s MVP, but Rapinoe has been wonderful this season, and it will be interesting to see what role she plays in the upcoming USWNT friendlies.

Inside the Numbers: 9 – Number of assists from Naho Kawasumi this season after she found Fishlock for the equalizer in stoppage time, which is one off of Tobin Heath’s single-season NWSL record with two games remaining.

Up next: Orlando – vs. Portland (Sept. 23); Seattle – vs. Kansas City (Sept. 24)

SATURDAY

Kansas City 0:0 Chicago (recap)

What Went Down: Chicago’s playoff hopes are pretty simply going to rely on its ability to score goals and again on Saturday, even with Morgan Brian taking a place in the midfield, it just didn’t happen for the Red Stars, who almost got burned at the other end late and got nothing out of the game. There’s no doubt, Chicago has the talent to win an NWSL title, and it’s likely they will need only two stellar performances to do so, but recent history says those chances are not great.

FCKC has played much better and this was another solid, organized performance. But they are now eliminated from the playoff race and it will remain to be seen what their make up is next season. But it’s likely the 2018 draft will be key.

Player of the Game: Yael Averbuch – It’s been and up and down season at center back for Averbuch, but she has played a few solid matches in a row and was very good in this one, keeping Chicago in front of her for the most part.

Under the Radar: Danielle Colaprico – I thought it was an odd move to put her in a wider position, but she has been excellent, particularly with her service. Alas, none of them was finished again on Saturday.

Inside the Numbers: 5 – Number of shots on goal between the two teams, so although it seemed like the Red Stars had the better of the chances, they were few and far between on both sides.

Up next: Kansas City – at Seattle (Sept. 24); Chicago – at Houston (Sept. 23)

North Carolina 1:0 Houston (recap)

What Went Down: This was far from vintage Courage soccer, but they did find a way to win without McCall Zerboni (suspended), and it’s important to remember that Western New York’s defense was kind of a mess at this time last year. But score one for patience, with essentially the same back four (Taylor Smith in place of Elizabeth Eddy), North Carolina is on its way to an NWSL Shield largely on the back of their defense, conceding a league low 18 goals despite a mid-season goalkeeper change.

For the Dash, it was a game effort, but they are still riding out the end of the season with a depleted roster. It seems unlikely that Omar Morales will stay on for 2018, but he has shored up a struggling defense, although they can be thankful that the Courage missed as many chances as they did in this one.

Player of the Game: Kristen Hamilton – Hamilton got the start over Mackenzie Doniak and ended up with the winning goal, off a long throw of all things. Hamilton has been yet another solid cog in the North Carolina machine this season, playing her part well when called on.

Under the Radar: Denise O’Sullivan – When Houston managed to score twice in a 2-2 draw against that struggling defense last August in Rochester, one of the Dash goal scorers was O’Sullivan. She played the role of Zerboni on Saturday, and while she wasn’t Zerboni, she played well and has a workrate that fits right in with the Courage.

Inside the Numbers: 5 – Number of points North Carolina needs to clinch the NWSL Shield outright with three games left regardless of what Portland does. That includes a game at Houston which has been rescheduled for September 27.

Up next: North Carolina – at Sky Blue (Sept. 24); Houston – vs. Chicago (Sept. 23)

SUNDAY

Boston 0:1 Portland (recap)

What Went Down: The Breakers deserved a better fate, but it seems like we’ve said that a couple dozen times over the last couple of seasons when Boston just can’t find a goal. Ironically, at the start of this rough streak streak Boston scored twice early against Portland only to see the Thorns come back in the second half to get a draw. That was a long time ago (May) in a world far away for Boston, who are heavy favorites to get the top pick (and last for the third straight season). They’d love to get Andi Sullivan, and she could allow Rose Lavelle free reign to roam in front of her, but they still need a goal scorer. Call it the curse of Lisa Cole, I guess, who was fired midway through 2013 with the Breakers at mid-table and scoring as many goals as anyone in the league. It’s been climbing uphill Sisyphus style since.

For Portland, it was actually a poor performance that didn’t deserve three points, but – like North Carolina – they got them anyway and they won’t have to worry about a road game in the playoffs because they have clinched at least second. They could also be excused for being a bit distracted as Emily Menges’ brother, Bobby, died of cancer this weekend. Bobby was a junior at Duke, and obviously Emily was not in Boston but home with her family.

Player of the Game: Christine Sinclair – Sinclair was invisible for most of the contest, but great players take their chances when they come to them and Sinclair did just that late in the second half for the game-winner.

Under the Radar: Angela Salem – Salem made her 100th NWSL appearance Saturday for Boston and was her usual solid self in the midfield, even ending up in the box one point to challenge Amandine Henry successfully. I don’t know what Salem’s overall record is over the years, but she has had a remarkable professional career.

Inside the Numbers: 34 – Number of minutes Rose Lavelle played, still being cautious with the hamstring injury. Will Jill Ellis be the same in the friendlies against New Zealand?

Up next: Boston – at Washington (Sept. 23); Portland – at Orlando (Sept. 23)

Sky Blue 1:2 Washington (recap)

What Went Down: So we’ll never know if the Spirit’s original motivation in trading for the top allocation spot (after Portland traded it before never even using it) was to convince Andi Sullivan to skip her senior year of college as an allocated player, but an ACL tear last November made the point moot. And then Washington was able to pull off an apparent coup and sign Mallory Pugh with that slot instead of trading it to the Thorns. Now with a chance to still get Sullivan with the top pick in the 2018 draft, Pugh scores the winning goal to all but eliminate that possibility. Got all that irony?

It was a quality effort for the Spirit, who continue to own Sky Blue. Sam Kerr and Kelley O’Hara both had breakaways saved late in the game, and it will be interesting to see in what direction Sky Blue goes in 2018, other than the two aforementioned players and Kailen Sheridan, there hasn’t been a whole lot of consistency, so we’ll see.

Player of the Game: Didi Haracic – With Steph Labbe now out for the season, Haracic will likely play the rest of the season in goal for the Spirit, and it’s been a struggle for her at times since coming in. But this was her best game by far, saving breakaways and keeping a couple of other opportunities out including a sequence in second-half stoppage time that saw the ball ricochet off 23 bodies (estimated) before being cleared. But you have to feel good for players who have been patient and get their chance like Haracic.

Under the Radar: Whitney Church – Church has been a consistent force for the Spirit this season, so it was wholly appropriate that she got the equalizing goal off a corner kick in the second half.

Inside the Numbers: 7 – Number of times Sam Kerr was offside, more than one of which she did not agree with (does anyone ever agree when they are called offside?).

Up next: Sky Blue – vs. North Carolina (Sept. 24); Washington – vs. Boston (Sept. 23)

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