Last Season (9-6-5, 3rd place; won NWSL Championship): It was an up-and-down title defense for FC Kansas City but it ended on the ultimate high, a second consecutive NWSL Championship victory, again at the expense of the Shield winning Seattle Reign FC.
Key Changes: After winning the NWSL Championship last October, a game won largely on the strength of their defense, GM Huw Williams immediately began working on the roster to defend the title. His process was jump started with the retirement announcements from Leigh Ann Brown (Robinson), Amy LePeilbet and the previously announced retirement of international superstar, Lauren Holiday.
In fact, before their new trophy was even 30 days old there were five players from the championship roster already gone (Rebecca Moros was traded to Western New York and Sarah Hagen to Orlando). On top of that, five of their top players were now out of contract.
Williams began knocking down the dominoes with by re-signing Frances Silva, Erika Tymrak, Jen Buczkowski and Mandy Laddish. All four midfielders are key players in head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s system. Shortly after that, the team came to terms with goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart. Previously she has been one of the team’s allocated players from US Soccer. Along the way, he also acquired Brittany Taylor, Tiffany McCarty and Amanda Frisbie. Finally, in a move met with much excitement by long-time fans, the Canadian Soccer Association announced that Desiree Scott would be rejoining the Blues via allocation.
US forward Sydney Leroux was also acquired via trade, but she and FC Kansas City’s leading scorer from the last two seasons, Amy Rodriguez, each announced pregnancies that will force them to sit out the 2016 season (Rodriguez has left the door open for a late return.)
In the recently released Opening Day roster, the team boasted the fact that all four of their 2016 draft picks had signed and made the final cut. Heading the class is New Zealand’s Katie Bowen, a staple of the Ferns’ international successes though she will finish her degree at North Carolina before rejoining the Blues.
Strengths — The Andonovski Way: With a reloaded roster, Andonovski is excited for his team’s outlook.
“The players have worked hard this offseason. They want to keep going and defend their title. Everyone has stepped up their game just a bit because they know it will be hard, but they are ready for the challenge.”
The 2013 Coach of the Year has a system that’s proven to make good players great and great players into international legends. Since the team began with his leadership, they have the league’s second best winning percentage, the best defense and certainly one of the most entertaining styles of play.
Midfielder/Defender Yael Averbuch, in her second year with KC thinks highly of her coach.
“This is a very enjoyable and easy place to play because Vlatko makes the team philosophy so clear and every day that we train you can feel it’s just a piece of the puzzle going into his vision for how he wants the team to play. So it’s very easy for a player to know what you can do to put yourself in the best possible place to succeed.”
The best possible place for Averbuch to succeed may not even be on the field this year. While her play and skills will be on display in games all season, Williams feels that her presence will be extremely important in the locker room. In past seasons, players relied on Holiday, Sauerbrunn and Rodriguez to lead the way, on the field and off. When they were tending to their national team duties, Robinson, LePeilbet and Buczkowski were there to take the mantle. Williams has been impressed with the way that Averbuch has grown into that role with her team this offseason. She has stepped up to help her teammates with their preparation and understanding of the game and mindset.
For her part, Averbuch loves the idea of filling in the void left by some of those players, but she doesn’t feel she has to do it alone.
“We are missing those players and personalities, but we also have a bunch of players who are going to step up and do some exciting things this season,” she said. “I could go through the whole list, but in the back we have Brittany Taylor, a veteran who will make a difference. In the midfield we have Desiree Scott back, who I’ve never played with before, but she is an impact player and we’re going to expect more and should see more goals from Shea Groom.”
Areas of Development: In the 2015 playoff run, the Blues didn’t allow a single goal. The backline of Brown, LePeilbet, Sauerbrunn and Moros were a virtual brick wall. Of those four, only Sauerbrunn remains. Other than during the Olympics, she will be the cornerstone the new Brick Wall is built around.
In the trade for Taylor, Andonovski was hoping to find a player who was among the top defenders from the league’s inaugural year, not a player who some pundits thought had slipped in her abilities. As the season begins, the Taylor FCKC wanted appears to be the one they got. Through the exhibitions she has quickly fit herself into FC Kansas City’s style. She understands her coach’s expectations for their attack flowing from her line and has used her field vision and defensive skills to quickly stamp down any attacks and find a midfielder on the run to counter.
Outside of Taylor and Sauerbrunn, the certainty of FC Kansas City’s former strength is not as solid. Once she finishes her school year, Bowen will certainly fill one of the outside back positions. The other side isn’t as clear cut. A rotation of Averbuch, Reed and Frisbie will be the most likely solution to start the season. Averbuch and Frisbie are veterans and will be heavily leaned on. However, it is expected that both could see plenty of time in the midfield.
Reed is coming from an extremely successful college career, but has occasionally looked shaky at the next level so far. With the talent around her, she has plenty of room to grow and the hope is that she will be able to find her way as the season progresses.
Points of Interest: Arguably the biggest loss for Kansas City is the retirement of Lauren Holiday. Her skill, creativity and decision-making ability combined with Andonovski’s coaching were the genesis of the team’s consistent success. Her retirement leaves a big hole that is impossible to fill by just one person.
Two players who could at least start to fill that void are Mandy Laddish and Alexa Newfield. Laddish came on strong through the second half of last season and the playoffs. Her confidence level rises with every minute she spends on the pitch. Coaches expect her to really grow into a leadership role this season.
Newfield was the 28th selection in the 2016 College Draft. As a freshman at Georgia University, she led the team in goals scored and set a school record for shots. She transferred to the University of North Carolina for her final two years of eligibility. She was awarded All-SEC First Team honors two straight years despite battling knee injuries throughout her time there.
That injury probably prevented Newfield from being one of the first players selected in January. Kansas City gambled on her, a move which so far has been rewarding. Combined with Laddish, she has helped organize the Blues’ attack and navigate the opponents’ defense. Her style of play is a mixture of Erika Tymrak’s creative risk-taking flow combined with Holiday’s strength on the ball and ability to take on multiple defenders at once.
Just like last year, FC Kansas City enters the season with a giant target on their backs as the defending champions. Seeing as this is their second straight championship, that target may even be a little larger. This year’s KC squad has the pieces and coaching staff for another deep run into postseason play.
The key to how deep their run goes lies with their defense. If Andonovski is able to find the right combination to go with Sauerbrunn and Taylor, they might be able to match their league-best 2015 efforts. Even if they do show some drop off, Nicole Barnhart is ready for another big season in goal. She has come to camp looking healthier and more fit than any of the previous three seasons.
Offensively, Groom (who shows no ill effects after an injury-riddled rookie season) and McCarty aren’t Rodriguez and Holiday, but they will score plenty of goals. The return of Desiree Scott along with the emergence of Laddish and Newfield will help to free Tymrak and O’Reilly outside while still keeping with the possession and control style of play this team has always been known for.
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