Picture it: Buffalo Wild Wings in Tukwila, Washington, a few hours after FC Kansas City surprised Seattle Reign FC to win the 2014 NWSL Championship. The brain trust of the new champions was basking in the glow of their first title. But they were hardly satisfied. The conversation quickly turned to the 2015 season.
It had been two very successful seasons in Kansas City. There were playoff berths both years and very nearly a regular season Shield in 2013. The club played the most possession-oriented, attractive soccer in the league. And they won the 2014 championship even after losing defensive midfield stalwart Desiree Scott to a controversial transfer to Notts County. But head coach Vlatko Andonovski felt the team could make better use of the wide areas rather than attacking mostly up the middle.
“Last year after the championship game, we were sitting in the restaurant and we decided that we wanted Heather O’Reilly on the team,” Andonovski said. “I have the GM here,” – putting his arm on Huw Williams’ shoulder. “I’m so glad that we have such a great GM, Huw Williams.”
Of course deciding your team would be better off with Heather O’Reilly is one thing. Making it happen, and then making good on the reality of it, are entirely different.
As for the trade, Williams contacted the Breakers right away. It would not have been a surprise had the Breakers answered with a flat no. Instead they made an initial offer—one that was way too steep for Williams’ liking. “Very hard,” Williams said of the negotiation. “You’re never going to get a quality player easily.”
Nearly two months after the chat in Buffalo Wild Wings, on October 27, Williams and Breakers general manager Lee Billiard agreed on terms. O’Reilly would go to Kansas City. In exchange the Blues shipped defender Kassey Kallman and midfielder/forward Morgan Marlborough to Boston. Williams called them, “two players we didn’t want to give up.”
“We felt last year that we had a hole on that side,” Williams said, referencing the right side, opposite Erika Tymrak. “We needed to get a little bit more width to get a little more space for Lauren Holiday, get a little more space for Erika Tymrak and open up that relationship between Holiday and A-Rod (Amy Rodriguez) even more.”
The deal looked good on paper except that O’Reilly was a near-lock to make the United States World Cup team. And no one knew for sure how much those players would be around the league. At worst it would not be until after the World Cup. At best, a smattering of matches before and the weeks afterward. Williams and Andonovski were undeterred by O’Reilly’s potential absences.
“We had a pretty good idea what the schedule was going to be like,” Andonovski said. “But we were willing to take a chance because we were pretty sure that once we got everyone back and got them back into the system that we were going to be able to win some games.”
O’Reilly originally went to Boston in 2012 when her husband began attending business school at Harvard. Though that WPS season never happened, O’Reilly was allocated back to the Breakers for the start of NWSL and stayed there for two seasons before the trade to FC Kansas City.
“We now live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina so for me it was just about asking the question of what is the best soccer environment for me. What is the best place that is going to help me grow as a player and be the absolute best player I can be? I’m know that I’m 30-years old, but I’m so eager to get better every single day.”
O’Reilly was the most significant, but not the only, move FC Kansas City made during the offseason. The club also lost Nikki Philips and Jenna Richmond with Phillips getting pregnant and Richmond taking the season off to get married. Amy LePeilbet, acquired before 2014, was deemed fully healthy and ready to take Phillips’s central defense role full time. In separate trades the club traded Merritt Mathias and acquired Rebecca Moros who took over at left back. To replace Richmond, Andonovski utilized a combination of second-year midfielder Mandy Laddish and free agent signing Yael Averbuch.
“I have always admired FC Kansas City,” Averbuch said after celebrating her third professional title in five seasons in the United States. “I was playing in Sweden during the first year of the league and we would watch the games on the Internet late at night. I always liked how FC Kansas City played. As an East Coast person I never really imagined myself going there. But the longer the league went on the more positive things I had heard about the club and the organization as a whole and the respect they showed for the players. And just the style and brand of soccer they play. I felt like it was a very good fit for them.”
Averbuch was in talks with a few different teams before landing in Kansas City. She turned out to be an important addition. Averbuch filled a variety of roles from being Becky Sauerbrunn’s World Cup replacement to Jen Buczkowski’s defensive midfield partner to, like in the final, a player off the bench to help salt away a match.
“It was a little bit tough,” she admitted. “But I’ve learned a ton this season. From what maybe from the outside looked like a little bit of a roller coaster ride, I feel like was a really positive step in my career. And I was happy to be able to help the team in a moment of need.”
Lining up in central defense was not only unfamiliar territory for the 28-year old but she was trying to fill in for the player considered the best in the world at the position. “It was something I didn’t even believe I could do myself but Vlatko believed in me so I said, ‘Okay I trust you.’ I learned a lot from Vlatko. He was a center back himself so his training for the defenders is some of the best training I have ever done in my life.”
Andonovski throwing his confidence behind Averbuch was similar to when he moved rookies Kallman and Richmond into starting roles early in 2014.
“They knew that I trusted them,” he said after the 2014 final. “I told Jenna, ‘Regardless of what happens whether you score or not, whether you play good or not, I trust you and you’re going to be in that position.’”
That trust paid off not only with a title, but Kallman developed enough to where the Breakers were willing to accept her as part of the O’Reilly trade.
On Andonovski, Averbuch said, “Vlatko’s not only extremely smart and smart about the game and managing people, he’s also very even tempered and fun loving which I think are extremely important things in this league. We all come from winning programs as youth players and in college and it’s hard to play in a league where every team is so equal. So I think it’s really important that Vlatko keeps it even keel throughout the season emotionally, but also just believes strongly in a style of play that the team continuously talks about and stays faithful to. Especialy as an older player, to play in a system where I believe in the style and know every day that when I show up at training I not only believe in what we’re doing but I enjoy it, it makes it fun.”
O’Reilly concurred on the system, which she was excited about jumping into as soon as she heard about the trade. “I was excited to join Vlatko’s style of play. I think it was really helpful to my game in terms of possession oriented attack and then springing players forward. I think I was just excited because I knew that coaching staff was top notch. I think Vlatko is one of the best coaches there is out there in the women’s game.”
The even keel Andonovski showed held up through the 2015 season even as FC Kansas City arrived at the midway point with more losses than wins. The World Cup players were still two games—at least—from returning to action. A lesser side may have unraveled.
“We did start a little bit slow,” Andonovski said. “We were 3-5-2 right in the middle of the season with 11 points and we got criticized. We got questioned by the media.”
The 2013 Coach of the Year believed two things carried the team through. “One, there’s belief. We never stopped believing. The second thing, the family environment that we have. Everything we did, we did together. I knew that sooner to later we were going to click, we were going to gel together, and we were going to make it happen.”
Leigh Ann Brown played every minute of the season (most of them as Leigh Ann Robinson before marrying Dan Brown after the semifinal) and had a bird’s eye view as the team began playing well together only to see personnel changes that brought struggle.
“I think in general Vlatko has always joked that we have a lackadaisical demeanor,” Brown said. “We joke around and stuff. In training we just had to make sure when they left and came back that we kept consistent. That is one of the struggles when you lose four of your best players, to keep everybody hyped up and working hard. You know you can’t replace them but to try and bring everybody in to create that is a struggle. And it was for us this year and you saw it on the field a little bit which is very frustrating.”
Andonovski had said he was comfortable with O’Reilly immediately, but that it was after the third game of the season—a 1-0 win over the Reign—when she really began to click. That was also the last game before the U.S. players left to begin final World Cup preparation.
“The third game, right before they left, is when we started clicking,” Andonovski said. “And then they left. And when they came back again it took us about three games to get back on track.”
Getting back on track is an understatement. FC Kansas City did not lose a game after July 29 when a late, Carli Lloyd golazo beat them 3-2. The next match, on August 1, they rallied twice to draw 2-2 in Chicago. That was last time the Blues trailed in a match this season. In fact they conceded only two more goals—both against Sky Blue in the mostly inconsequential season finale.
“When the time was right,” Brown said, “we were starting to finally, cohesively all build together.”
That cohesion paid off with a second straight championship after the 1-0 victory over the Reign. And it was O’Reilly who provided the signature moment when she chose the perfect time to switch to the left side where she played middle woman between Holiday and Rodriguez. Taking Holiday’s outlet after the just-inserted Elli Reed failed to knock it down, O’Reilly burst toward the end line and fired a perfect cross that Rodriguez was able to finish.
For two years now the Reign have been the best team in the regular season only to fall short to FC Kansas City in the NWSL Championship. The Reign said after last week’s final that they would not let it define them. But in a rare break from the mutual respect shown between the teams, Rodriguez said: “In my opinion, it kind of angered us to hear them say ‘we won the league’ and they kept boasting quite a bit about it. I remember thinking well it comes down to this game. The best team in this league is going to be proven by this game. I wish we had a better record. I wish we would have done better in the season. Credit to them, they had an excellent season. They did so well and took care of business when they needed to. But I knew it came down to this game. I think we all knew that and wanted to prove that we were the better team.”
The 2016 version of FC Kansas City figures to look decidedly different than this one. Holiday is retiring and there could be several other retirements to follow as well. The U.S. players will be heading to the Olymics during the season. On the flipside, Phillips and Richmond could be back and the club owns four of the first 16 picks in the draft (adjusting for an impending expansion announcement.)
For now, Andonovski said of O’Reilly, his first target last offseason, “I am very happy to have her on the team.” And you can bet that somewhere in the afterglow of Thursday’s championship, the blue print for 2016 was being drawn up.
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