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2015 NWSL Preview: FC Kansas City

FC Kansas City enter 2015 as reigning NWSL champions. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

FC Kansas City enter 2015 as reigning NWSL champions. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

When the NWSL first opened play, FC Kansas City set the league on fire. Behind Lauren Holiday, the team was able to set records on the way to a share of the league’s best regular season record. But the team’s one downfall seemed to be closing out games.

In 2014, the team adopted the motto, “Finish It”. After a rough start (1-2-1 record after four games and last place in the table), the Blues took their motto to heart. They rattled off a run that saw them win 11 of their next 13 games (including a nine-game undefeated streak).

Head coach Vlatko Andonovski used the final third of the regular season as a warm-up for the playoffs as he experimented with different lineups and player combinations. His tinkering down the stretch paid off when his team was able to frustrate and overpower Seattle Reign FC in the NWSL title match.

[MORE: Team-by-team previews of the 2015 NWSL season]

Not long after the team returned from Seattle, director of soccer operations Huw Williams sat down and set out three goals for the team’s offseason:

  1. Sign Andonovski to a long-term deal
  2. Add veteran help
  3. Add players to develop through the draft

With a week to go until the season opens in KC, the team feels they have delivered pretty well on their goals. Step one was accomplished in November, when the team announced a contract extension with their coach that keeps him on the sidelines in Kansas City through the 2018 season.

Additions/Subtractions

Re-signing Vlatko Andonovski was a top priority for FC Kansas City. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Re-signing Vlatko Andonovski was a top priority for FC Kansas City. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Goals two and three were all about bolstering their roster for a return run to the NWSL Championship. To do that, Andonovski focused on finding the right fit for his team, even if it was at the expense of players who were already on the roster.

Early in the offseason, defender Nikki Phillips announced her pregnancy and her intention to sit out the 2015 season. In a search for defensive depth, the team initiated two trades. They sent an unused international slot to Portland for Rebeecca Moros, a midfielder that the team felt could play outside back in Kansas City’s system. Then they sent Merritt Mathias to Seattle in exchange for Kate Deines and two draft picks. Since then, Deines has decided to retire from professional soccer in order to pursue another career.

[LAULETTA: On NWSL retirements and the realities most players face]

Also sitting out the 2015 NWSL season are Jenna Richmond, Katrina Gorry and Rafaelle Souza. Richmond, the team insists, will be returning next season and is simply taking the year off. Gorry (Australia) and Souza (Brazil) are concentrating on the upcoming World Cup with their national teams.

Veteran help was added to the team in the way of free agent signing Yael Averbuch. She is expected to be a big part of Kansas City’s midfield and the coaches think she is a perfect fit for their possession-style attack.

Also added to the squad was U.S. national team player Heather O’Reilly in a blockbuster trade that sent youngsters Kassey Kallman and Morgan Marlborough to Boston.

The team invited a number of players to their preseason camp, although it looks like only one will be receiving a contract. Domi Richardson, a Missouri University midfielder, impressed coaches enough to find her way onto the opening day roster. Richardson started all of the team’s preseason games, and looked very comfortable paired with Amy LePeilbet at centerback in the game against Kansas University.

Finally, in the draft, FC Kansas City added three players who they feel will be able to impact their team immediately. The Blues’ first pick in the draft (No. 12 overall) was Shea Groom from Texas A&M. Williams coached Groom for many years through the youth system and was especially high on her. So was Andonovski.

“Shea has a lots of potential,” Andonovski said. “She has the right mindset in camp so far and is transitioning well in the pro game. Her speed and versatility will help our team in many ways.”

The team also drafted goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland out of UCLA. She replaces Sara Keane as the team’s primary backup to Nicole Barnhart. The team is very excited about Rowland. Although Barnhart is not expected to be in the United States’ plans for the World Cup, the team is happy to have someone of Rowland’s skill available if their veteran star is in need of a break.

The team is happy about where it stands before the season begins, but the roster may not look exactly the same when the playoffs roll around. As reported previously, the team was in talks to trade for Sydney Leroux from Seattle. The price tag ultimately became too high for FC Kansas City to pull the trigger, but it would not be surprising if another blockbuster trade or acquisition popped up through the season.

Sure things

The team’s strength over the past two years has come from their midfield. Even with the loss of Lauren Holiday and Heather O’Reilly during the World Cup, this figures to still be the strength of the team. Jen Buczkowski has played more minutes than any other player has for Andonvoski’s squad. Along with her new partner in the defensive midfield, Averbuch, she will serve as the anchor and likely starting point for Kansas City’s attack.

Erika Tymrak, Frances Silva and Groom will be the core of the midfield during the World Cup. Although some might think her sophomore season was a disappointment after lighting up the league in her Rookie of the Year campaign in 2013, Tymrak still managed to create many highlight reel plays and score four goals and four assists.

Silva is also looking to expand on last year. At times she struggled to find playing time as a rookie, but this year she has worked hard to find a regular role in the team’s attack. She has the exciting playmaking ability of Tymrak and could provide a dangerous one-two punch for the Blues this season.

World Cup worries

Amy Rodriguez is essential to FC Kansas City, but she will miss time due to the World Cup. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Amy Rodriguez is essential to FC Kansas City, but she will miss time due to the World Cup. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

The team’s biggest concern, their defense, is amplified during the World Cup. The NWSL’s two-time Defender of the Year, Becky Sauerbrunn, has played every minute for the United States in 2015 and that is not expected to change anytime soon.

Her partner at center back this season is expected to be Amy LePeilbet. Coming back from injury last season, LePeilbet struggled early in the season. However, by the end of the year, she was relied on heavily as she was subbed in late to help close out games.

“Amy has been great for us in preseason,” Andonovski said. “Her experience will be crucial this year. She has been a true warrior throughout her recovery process. She looks like the Amy we remember from the national team.”

Now fully healthy, LePeilbet has been the best player in camp, according to Williams. She will anchor the defense (possibly even in a three-back formation) while Sauerbrunn is gone. Leigh Ann Robinson, a solid back at either outside position, will also be a key to holding the back line. Opposite Robinson will be the big question. Moros has been playing the right side through much of the preseason, but many players could also step into that role.

On the other end of the field, Amy Rodriguez’s role as goal scorer is expected to be picked up by Sarah Hagen. “Apple,” as her teammates call her, was a scoring machine with Bayern Munich and will be able to use her size and skill to terrorize opposing defenders.

Outlook

In preseason videos, FC Kansas City has touted the fact that they are changing soccer culture, one pass at a time. They will need to keep that motto in mind as they go through the season. A solid core of players, especially when their National Team players are in, will keep this team towards the top of the table all season.

The full squad will be in town to start the season this Sunday at Sporting Park. Among the players receiving their rings in a special pre-game ceremony will be last year’s team MVP, Amy Rodriguez. Despite her limited time with the club this season due to her national team obligations, Andonovski is very happy to have her back.

“A-Rod is playing the best soccer of her life,” he said.” I think she added a little flavor to her game last year that made her a very dangerous striker. I’m excited to have her back on the team and it will be a blast to work with a world class forward for another year.”

The team opens its title defense against Sky Blue FC this Sunday at Sporting Park and is expecting a large crowd for their opener. Team officials have said they are hoping for an attendance of around 8,000 fabs. With a Sporting KC game the day before, the Blue Crew (FC Kansas City’s official supporters group) is joining with the Cauldron (SKC’s largest supporter’s group) to host an overnight campout in the parking lot between the games.

With everything else in place, the team’s biggest concern will be the defense, especially during the World Cup. If LePeilbet and Robinson can hold down the fort and Barnhart continues to play as one of the league’s best goalkeepers, this team can once again be fighting for a title when the season concludes in September.

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