Change is nothing new for FC Kansas City. The two-time defending National Women’s Soccer League champions have overcome important personnel changes each of the previous two offseasons only to lift the league trophy at seasons’ ends.
Some three months after beating Seattle Reign FC in the NWSL Championship for the second year running, FC Kansas City is now without 2013 NWSL MVP Lauren Holiday, defenders Amy LePeilbet and Leigh Ann Brown (nee Robinson), and forward Amy Rodriguez. The former three retired — center back LePeilbet and right back Robinson after playing every minute for the club in 2015 — and Rodriguez is pregnant with her second child and due to miss most if not all of the upcoming NWSL season.
After a second-place finish and a semifinal exit in 2013, midfield stalwart Desiree Scott left FC Kansas City and Lauren Sesselmann, her teammate for club and country, was taken by the Dash in the expansion draft. Both were full-season starters for the Blues. FC Kansas City also traded away starter Kristie Mewis in a deal which brought them Rodriguez, who returned from her first pregnancy to net 13 goals, second-most in the league.
And heading into 2015, the Blues lost half of their starting defense. Kassey Kallman was traded to Boston to acquire Heather O’Reilly and Nikki Phillips took the year off. So did midfielder Jenna Richmond.
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But this offseason is the biggest hit yet for FC Kansas City, a franchise which few knew anything about when the NWSL announced its founding members late in 2012 but one which has since blossomed into the most consistent team throughout the first three seasons of NWSL. How will the champions deal with the loss of four core players and stay near the top of a league which has seen aggressive movement by competitors this offseason?
“I don’t necessarily want to say rebuild, because every time when people say rebuild it’s almost like they are looking for an excuse not to win,” FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski says when presented with that ‘R-word’ so many teams in the offseason. “No, there is no rebuild, just a couple of changes. If you look at our roster from year two to year three, there are just as many changes, maybe, but not big names like this. We make changes every year, whatever we need to do to make the team better. This year, we were forced to make the changes. It’s not because we wanted to, but still I think that we are already on the way to create this good team.”
In the past week, FC Kansas City acquired two 2015 World Cup participants: U.S. striker Sydney Leroux in a three-team trade and New Zealand defender Katie Bowen in the 2016 NWSL College Draft.
Leroux is the most important piece of the puzzle for FC Kansas City, who traded Sarah Hagen — a forward trying to fight her way back into the picture of the U.S. national team — to Orlando Pride just weeks before learning of Rodriguez’s pregnancy. Acquiring Leroux is clearly an answer to the sudden void at the forward position for FC Kansas City, but the move isn’t as reactionary as it appears.
“It took almost a year, the Leroux trade,” Andonovski says with a hint of relief. “I think that it if it wasn’t for Huw, it wasn’t going to happen.”
“We worked awfully hard on it,” Williams interjects.
He continues: “Every team in this league wants a Sydney Leroux. She’s a player that can be an absolute, immediate impact and sure, it became more viable and more important perhaps after the A-Rod situation, but we were far, way along before that. We were close a couple of times and then it fell through and we had to start all over again. But it was a lot of people working awfully hard to make it happen.”
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Leroux has been public over the past year about her desire to play in Kansas City, where her husband, Dom Dwyer, players for Sporting Kansas City. She inquired about a trade to Kansas City last year while in Seattle, which the Reign took as a sign that she wasn’t as committed to them as they were to her, and so they traded her to the Western New York Flash.
Seemingly the biggest challenge for FC Kansas City is fitting Leroux’s preferred direct style of play into the possession-oriented brand of soccer the Blues have trademarked through the first three years of the league. Andonovski offers a strong rebuttal to any concerns about Leroux fitting into the Blues’ system.
“She’s not any more direct than Amy Rodriguez was, but our style didn’t change and A-Rod was the leading scorer in the league,” he said (Rodriguez’s 13 goals in 2014 were second to Kim Little’s 16). “My point is that I think she will adapt the style very well and she will enjoy it and she will be very successful.”
Leroux played in only three games for the Flash, scoring once. She hasn’t played in a competitive match since June at the World Cup after undergoing surgery on her right ankle in July. She scored five goals in 22 games for Seattle in 2014 after netting 11 goals in 19 games for Boston in 2013. Leroux will be expected to shoulder much of the scoring load in 2016, but the club is high on former No. 2 overall draft pick Tiffany McCarty, who was also acquired in that Leroux trade.
Still, FC Kansas City’s biggest challenges remain in the back and in midfield.
LePeilbet helped anchor a league-best defense which gave up only 20 goals in 20 games last season, even without U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn — voted defender of the year all three seasons of the NWSL thus far — for almost half of the regular season due to World Cup duties. It was LePeilbet who returned to playing like her days in WPS — when she won back-to-back defender of the year awards of her own in 2009 and 2010 — to hold down the back line.
Brown exits NWSL as one of the all-time underrated players, playing 6,192 of a possible 6,420 in club history, including the playoffs.
And Holiday took the league by storm in 2013, leading the NWSL in goals (12) and assists (9) en route to MVP honors. She returned from Canada this summer as a 2015 World Cup champion and exited on top of the NWSL as well in October. For both FC Kansas City and the U.S. national team, she is irreplaceable.
“It’s going to be more adapting as a group than it is one player,” said Huw Williams, director of soccer operations for the club.
“Filling in for Lauren is not easy. I don’t think anyone will be able to do for us what she did.”
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Andonovski and Williams speak of a system and fitting players into that FC Kansas City way. Young midfielders like Mandy Laddish, Frances Silva and Erika Tymrak — whose play in 2013 earned her looks from then-U.S. coach Tom Sermanni — will need to take on larger roles. Shea Groom must also take on a larger role in the absence of Rodriguez, who is due in mid-July and could miss the entire season. (Rodriguez said through a club representative, “If I can, I will be back this year.” But even if she returns in 2016, her time will be limited with the season likely to end in late September or early October.)
Midfielder Katrina Gorry could return to the club — FC Kansas City still holds Gorry’s rights — depending on Australia’s plans for the year (the Matildas still need to qualify for the Olympics). FC Kansas City is also currently out of open international spots after acquiring one for Bowen.
Stalwart and all-time underrated midfielder Jen Buczkowski will likely only be available for the first half of the season as she begins physical therapy school. Richmond is unlikely to return to the team after a year away.
Defensive voids are a point of concern as well, but the acquisition of Brittany Taylor — who earned caps with the U.S. in 2010 and 2011 — will fill the need for a starting center back. Williams calls her one of the best non-national team players in the NWSL.
Taylor should adapt well to Andonovski’s defensive style and system which has proven to work with multiple personnel.
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Phillips will not be returning to play this season. Brianne Reed, the Blues’ other second-round draft pick, was part of a historic Rutgers defense which brought the program to its first College Cup.
“We feel like both players have the potential to be starters on our team, and now it is up to them and how they are going to compete against other players on the team,” Andonovski said. “Both of them are great defenders and that is definitely a position that we needed.”
Still, it’s hard to objectively not look at 2016 as something of a rebuild for FC Kansas City. But that doesn’t mean the coaching staff of the two-time defending NWSL champions has lowered its expectations.
“It’s not going to be a rebuilding in terms of, ‘hey, it will take a couple of years here,'” he says. “Our goal is a three-peat. We think we’re starting to build something special here.”
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