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Run of Play: Struggle in Kansas City

Nicole Barnhart has been a perennial force in net for FCKC. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

Nicole Barnhart has been a perennial force in net for FCKC. (photo copyright Lewis Gettier)

A funny thing happened in Orlando City Stadium last week – FC Kansas City gave up four goals. A week before that, they gave up a hat trick to Sam Kerr in 12 minutes while down a player. A week before that, they gave up two goals to Houston, also while down a player. I could keep going, all the way back to May 27, their last win, or May 20, their last clean sheet (both against Washington). Prior to the Washington series, they gave up three goals in five games. So … what’s going on, FCKC?

Is Nicole Barnhart’s veritable brick wall finally beginning to crumble? She’s long been one of the best goalkeepers in the country and was still consistently performing at a high level when dropped from the USWNT. However, long stretches of full health have evaded her, and she’s been on the injury report with right ankle tendinitis for the last month.

You really can’t hold her at fault for the first two Orlando goals, especially the PK. However, although she – and likely nearly everyone else – was taken by surprise when Toni Pressley launched her left-footed rocket from distance, she was also caught cheating to her near post. And then, in the 75th minute, Barnhart made the most uncharacteristic of errors, coming far off her line to retrieve a long ball while her defense was caught in transition. She did well to bring it down and control but somehow either didn’t see Kristen Edmonds bearing down or misjudged her speed, trying to tap it to Yael Averbuch and all but assisting Edmonds’ goal on an open net.

Barnhart tallied seven saves despite the four goals conceded, tied for second most last week. This requires us to look at the backline in front her, because the narrative of the last year and a half was that although Kansas City struggled offensively, their stout defense more than held up its share of the bargain. Not so lately. Averbuch and Becky Sauerbrunn are two of the most intelligent players in the league; it’s Sauerbrunn’s ability to read the game and react almost before events unfold that have propelled her into one of the best defenders in the world. This is doubly important because she, and the rest of the Kansas City defense, lacks pace. As Kerr so deftly demonstrated, they’ll get burnt if caught out of position, which is why you don’t often see FCKC play a high line.

Orlando certainly has speed up top, and FCKC particularly seemed to struggle on the flanks, where Camila and Steph Catley gave Becca Moros and Brittany Taylor all they could handle and then some. Alex Morgan and Chioma Ubogagu also slipped behind the backline more than once. However, it’s really the small stuff that’s allowing opponents to find space. Things like leaving players open on set pieces with ineffective zonal marking (to be fair, set piece defending is poor across the board in this league) and not closing down crosses.

What Orlando also did quite successfully against FCKC, although it left the Pride susceptible to counters, was play a high press. Again, to be fair, most teams struggle against a high press. In this instance, it was the failure of FCKC’s midfield to do anything to relieve it that kept them pinned back in their own half for much of the game. And here in the midfield is where I suspect we find the crux of the matter. Desiree Scott, usually a force to be reckoned with, has had a quiet season, and her various partners – Lo’eau LaBonta started strong but hasn’t returned since her red card, Moros struggled to maintain possession, and Christina Gibbons had a fantastic first 45 minutes in the spot but quieted after that – haven’t picked up the slack. The entire midfield was all but negligible in Orlando, losing possession, playing with no pressure, and offering little to nothing in the way of creative attack. Katie Bowen and Brittany Ratcliffe bring energy on the flanks but still need to find that final pass, especially as they don’t combine with the outside backs often enough. Sauerbrunn and Averbuch have some of the highest passing numbers in the league, and the reason for that is quite often they simply pass back and forth to each other while trying to play out of the back. When, as is often the case, no one presents an opening, they resort to a long ball and a prayer.

In fact, it took such a ball, a lucky bounce, and an Orlando mistake for FCKC to get on the board. In the 65th minute a pass from Gibbons bounced off the back of Sydney Leroux and landed right at the feet of Bowen. Toni Pressley turned to close her down, and Ali Krieger stayed with her instead of tracking Maegan Kelly. No right back or center midfielder was in sight, leaving Kelly 1v1 with Aubrey Bledsoe.

It’s a strategy that simply isn’t going to result in enough goals, nor does it play to their attacking strengths. Leroux is asked to play with her back to goal, which does not suit her skill set, and either turn or set up Ratcliffe or Shea Groom, who missed this game due to a red card suspension. Sure, they missed Groom against Orlando, but with only one goal this season, she’s struggling as well. Nor have Leroux and Groom found desperately needed chemistry. Again, we come back to the midfield. If the strikers don’t see the ball, they can’t score.

We could talk for a while about the bad luck FCKC has faced, such as injuries to Amy Rodriguez and Mandy Laddish, the red cards, or the issues with their draftees, culminating in Toni Payne signing overseas, but at the end of the day every team faces bad luck. FCKC is on a seven-game winless streak and is tied with Houston for the worst goal differential in the league. It’s not too soon to say the playoffs are probably slipping out of reach, a hard pill to swallow for the second year in a row after winning back to back championships, but it’s also not too late to right the ship and finish respectably. That starts with erasing dismal performances like the one in Orlando. Fix the midfield, and a few other pieces may fall into place.

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