With his team playing well but still sitting in third place on July 1, FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski decided to fix what wasn’t broken – at least to the naked eye.
So he presented his owners with a plan – not to win games, but to win a championship – and the Blues haven’t lost since.
Andonovski traded Renae Cuellar, who was at the time the team’s second-leading goal scorer, to Seattle for former MAC Hermann Trophy winner Teresa Noyola. The move was less about Kansas City going after Noyola (though her inclusion boosts an already strong midfield) and more about putting their own stamp on the game.
“If we look at the games that we played before and after the trade, it is very obvious that our game, itself, is better and it is more FC Kansas City-like after the trade,” Andonovski said. “We actually did the trade so we could have a better Cheney, better Tymrak, better Sinead Farrelly. In order for us – for our midfield – to play well, we need more back-to-goal persons than straight down the field person.”
Cuellar, one of Mexico’s allocated players along with Noyola, scored five goals with FC Kansas City but her game is straight-forward; she’s a striker with pace that can beat defenders so long as she is played through or over the top.
But that isn’t how Andonovski wants to play. His focus is on possession, what he calls the “Triple A” style: attractive, attacking, aggressive soccer. The Blues are unbeaten in their last eight games, five of which came after the trade.
What they have are league MVP frontrunner Lauren Holiday and likely rookie of the year Erika Tymrak as the focal points of a possession-oriented team. Holiday is league co-leader in goals (10) and Tyrack’s six leads all rookies.
“The connection that they’ve developed has helped take the pressure off (Holiday) from scoring all the goals,” said defensive midfielder Jen Buczkowski. “Now Erika is stepping up. A lot of teams double-team (Holiday) and Erika is free to get forward more.”
Tymrak could be on the verge of bigger things, too. As I wrote in this NBC ProSoccerTalk piece, Holiday says Tymrak “has some of the best feet that I have seen a U.S. player have,” and Andonovski says Sermanni “has been following her lately and has interest in her.”
But it’s a team effort that has FC Kansas City now atop the NWSL table after Wednesday’s win over Boston. Buczkowski, along with Desiree Scott, serve as the line in front of the back four and clean up just about anything in midfield.
“That’s why we have those two – to fill in every little gap that we have on the field,” Andonovski said.
Center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Lauren Sesselmann have been phenomenal in front Nicole Barnhart, particularly in building out of the back. The recent switch that pushed Kristie Mewis back to left fullback and shifted Leigh Ann Robinson to the right gives the Blues that tiki-taka, free-flowing style that entertains. Sauerbrunn can even often be found making long, overlapping runs forward down the right flank.
Their Achilles heel, though, has been playing until the final whistle. Twice the Blues have blown two-goal leads after the 85th minute and had to settle for draws, including against a 10-player Chicago on July 14. If Kansas City can sort out that mental aspect, it is hard to not view the Blues as playoff favorites, though parity in the NWSL has kept most streaks in check.
“What’s key for us is to finish games,” Holiday said. “If we can have that killer instinct to put teams away and just to finish out games and not lose focus or leave our backline stranded, I think that we’ll do well in the playoffs and we’ll be a contender.”
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