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The Lowdown: The case for FC Kansas City

Vlatko Andonovski has FC Kansas City rolling with 7 straight wins and the look of a team that is better than last year's (Copyright Patricia Giobetti | http://www.printroom.com/pro/psgiobetti)

The remarkable start by Seattle Reign FC has managed to give anonymity to the second-best team in the NWSL: FC Kansas City.

FC Kansas City’s 5-0 thrashing of Sky Blue FC on Sunday night equaled the seven-match win streak the Reign achieved earlier this season, and brought their unbeaten run to nine straight. That’s one less than the 10 the Blues reeled off last season, though still a short marathon from the Reign’s current 16-game streak to start the season.

But FC Kansas City are very good, perhaps better than last season when they played hands down the most attractive soccer in NWSL, nearly won the regular season, and ultimately suffered a painful playoff defeat. Sky Blue may not have offered the best opposition to coach Vlatko Andonovski’s club, but over 90 minutes the Blues showed off just about everything they do well—which is quite a bit.

“You cannot be any happier,” Andonovski said. “We scored five goals and didn’t allow any. There were probably a couple of things that we could have done a bit better, but the end result you just can’t ask for more.”

From the goalkeeper up through the forwards, each line did its part, all working together in near-stunning harmony. The fourth goal was the ultimate testimony to teamwork and patience. Nicole Barnhart had a goal kick and went short and to the left to Kasey Kallman. The rookie left back continued a sequence that saw six other players get a touch as the ball worked its way upfield and to the opposite flank without a Sky Blue player getting a touch. Finally Jenna Richmond took a small risk, threading a ball to Lauren Holiday between two defenders. Holiday was able to get a touch for a shot that hit the post. Sarah Hagen followed it and scored on the rebound.

Andonovski could only laugh when asked if switching the point of attack was a focal point in training, as it seems every player has it in them to do so. “We do a good job switching the point of attack and we work a lot on that,” he said almost as if revealing a trade secret. Someone should tell Andonovski that his players are way too good at switching to hide it as a team strength.

Maybe the most impressive part of Sunday’s performance was that Andonovski tinkered with the formation to accommodate Hagen, who was making her first start for the club. No team in NWSL is as enmeshed with its formation as FC Kansas City and its 4-2-3-1. Earlier this season they tried 4-4-2 and it was met with less than perfect results. So Andonovski put Richmond—another rookie—into the lineup as the second holding midfielder with Jen Buczkowski. Sunday, the Blues again played 4-4-2, but this one was more like a hybrid to the 4-2-3-1.

“It was in between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2,” the coach said of the setup that maintained Buczkowski and Richmond as defensive mids with Holiday and Erika Tymrak running things in the offensive third. “For the most part we transitioned very quick and very smooth from one to another formation and I think that we’ll do an even better job as we get used to that. I’m very happy with the way the girls adjusted.

“Defensively we had to do a little more running than we used to, but sometimes you have to give up something to gain something.”

The extra work was a result of going with one less midfielder, and much of it fell on Leigh Ann Robinson, Kansas City’s unheralded outside back who switches sides as seamlessly as she races up and down either flank. And it was Robinson who found herself all the way at the Sky Blue end line in the 2nd minute, when her cross found Tymrak for the opening goal of the night. Robinson spent much of the rest of the game shutting down her side, forcing Sky Blue to try and attack her opposite number Kallman.

“It was a little different especially for Leigh Ann on the right because she had a lot more space in front of her,” Becky Sauerbrunn, leader of the defense, said. “She had to kind of decide when she would stay on our line and when she would push forward onto that player. Our defensive center mids had to also make the decision if they needed to step up to the outside backs. So there was a lot of on-field decision making that had to be done and for the most part the girls took to the tactical change really well and I think they made good decisions.”

Something else FC Kansas City did well was playing the lead. No team (save maybe the German men against Brazil) would turn down a 4-0 halftime lead, but that does not reduce the challenges faced in trying to play good soccer while the opponent pushes haphazardly to score. And it is extra important for a team like FCKC, whose 2013 season was undone by an ability to play from ahead.

“We were saying we wanted to score that 5th, that 6th, let’s break a record if we need to, but what we were really focusing on was getting a shutout,” Sauerbrunn said. “ We wanted 4-0 instead of 5-1. We wanted to keep that clean sheet.”

The clean sheet was Barnhart’s sixth straight, and her consecutive minute streak is up to 585 without conceding. She did miss a game during that stretch and Sarah Keane had the audacity to give up a goal—but just one. That makes FC Kansas City 7-0-0 with a 0.14 goals against average since May 25. That was the last of their stretch of nine games in 30 days.

“A couple of us were talking about it, if the stretch had to happen anywhere we’re glad that it’s over,” Sauerbrunn said. “We always wish that we had gotten more points out of it. But looking back and how we feel now I think we did pretty well considering how the other teams are doing with that kind of hard stretch.”

Sauerbrunn also pointed to a similar stretch but over five games that will end FC Kansas City’s season. The middle game of the five will be a visit from the Reign on August 2. “We’re kind of preparing ourselves for that stretch.”

There is a sign that shows up behind one of the goals at FC Kansas City home matches. It reads: “THIS YEAR WE FINISH IT.” Time will tell whether that happens or not, but after a slow start to the campaign, Andonovski thinks this year’s club is even better than last year’s.

“Oh absolutely. The team as a whole is better but also I think that the way we play is better. We play a little more mature, and we control the pace and the rhythm of the game. It almost seems like we can up the pace or slow the pace at any time of the time. That is thanks to Holiday and Buz (Buczkowski), and Jenna. They are out pacemakers.”

Week 13 Takeaways

Here are a few soccer-related takeaways from Week 13:

— The Reign are now two-third of the way to an unbeaten season, but how much longer can they survive giving up the first goal? It happened again last week—twice. Wednesday in Rochester against the Flash and again Sunday at home to the Breakers. Both times the Reign emerged with 3 points and are now 13-0-3 and just about certain to host a semifinal match. In Western New York, Megan Rapinoe jumped right back into it using her tremendous footwork to get free to and send in the decisive cross.  Next up is a home-and-away with the Red Stars, beginning Saturday in Chicago.

— Sky Blue and the Dash waited out a weather delay in excess of four hours on Wednesday before the game was postponed. The Dash flew home without playing and then were drubbed, 4-1 by the Flash. Sky Blue waited for Kansas City and lost 5-0. Coincidence? Probably yes for the most part, but getting fully geared up to play only to ride out a delay in a cramped locker room could not have done either team any favors.

— The Thorns were well on their way to walloping the Red Stars on July 4 until…well until they didn’t. And yes both of Christen Press’s goals were world-class—the second one in particular—but they were also both a result of the Thorns taking the pedal off the metal and failing to put a final stamp on the match. They will try again Wednesday night in what will be a key match for both teams.

Free Kicks

– Ashlyn Harris was not and will not be disciplined for a small push to referee Dimitar Chavdarov during Wednesday night’s out-of-control, 3-3 draw between the Breakers and the Spirit. I personally disagree and believe she should have received a game suspension simply because touching a referee cannot and should be tolerated at any level. The more I watch it the less of a big deal it becomes and there is no way Harris was attacking Chavdarov. That said, she was still in a position she should not have been in which is what led to the incident in the first place. Also, the notion she should have been exonerated because Chavdarov had lost control of the match (which he did) is absurd. It is not okay to assault someone during a riot simply because it is out of control, and similarly it is not okay to contact a referee because he or she has lost control of a match.

— As for the fines to Tom Durkin and Lee Billiard, I am still waiting for someone to give me a good reason why this happens.  Durkin’s remarks were a bit stronger than Paul Riley’s a few weeks earlier, but the fine still seems pointless.

— Also from Wednesday’s game, I cannot see Maddie Evans as having committed an offense worthy of a red card. Even if she had some bad intentions and missed, which I don’t think was the case, it’s a yellow at best. I just can’t see it any other way.

— Still on Wednesday, NWSL should consider a standard guideline for weather delays. Waiting until after 10:30 pm ET to call the Sky Blue match that was supposed to start at 7 p.m. was fair to pretty much no one. Yes it is possible the Dash will have to fly back to New Jersey to play the match and it could even be for a playoff spot (unlikely, but trying to cover all broad possibilities), but by 10:30 p.m. both teams were going to be tired and there would have literally been less than 15 people in the stands. And for the few who waited until 10:30 p.m. only to find out the game was off, that is no picnic either. In fact, fans were not even alerted right away because the league and Sky Blue were figuring out exactly how to make the announcement. Really?

— No makeup date has been set as of yet for the Sky Blue-Dash contest.

– Randy Waldrum will coach the Trinidad & Tobago women’s side ahead of World Cup qualifying but will keep his role with the Houston Dash.

— FC Kansas City has traded forward Melissa Henderson to the Houston Dash for a 3rd round pick in next year’s draft.

— Nadia Nadim had good energy as a second-half sub for Sky Blue. With this week off look for Nadim to start July 20 against the Spirit.

— Even more from last Wednesday. Hope Solo was not made available to the media after the Reign’s win over the Flash. Ali Krieger did not speak after the Spirit-Breakers match after she had a role in some of the on-field madness. If NWSL wants to be known as a real sports league, it is going to have to let its players know that poking your head up to smile when things are going well only to hide out every time there is adversity is not a winning recipe. Jeff DiVeronica of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, weighed in with his thoughts.

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