NWSL Preview 2015 – FC Kansas City

Projected Full Strength Lineup

Possible Lineup During Women’s World Cup

Other Previews/Projections

1st –
2nd –
3rd –
4th – Portland

5th –
6th –
7th –
8th – Houston
9th –
Ten games into the 2014 season, you might have wondered whether the club’s late season collapse in 2013 had inflicted permanent psychological damage to the franchise. Through ten matches, the team was 3-4-3, with the twelve points out of a maximum of thirty a far cry from the dominance some thought could be in the cards with the team that Vlatko Andonovski had assembled on paper. The defense had given up multiple goals in five of those ten matches, and suddenly, some wondered if even the torrent of goals from the resurgent Amy Rodriguez would be enough to get FCKC into position to challenge for honors.

And then something clicked. FCKC won seven straight to surge up the table, eventually finishing a convincing second place on the season. Suddenly, the title was again a possibility despite a few lingering signs of worry such as the infamous Sunday Night Massacre in July against a Portland side that put seven past them. But they’d gain the sweetest revenge in the playoffs by humbling the Thorns in the semi-final before pulling off the upset in the final against Seattle. A side that couldn’t close the deal in 2013 had finally grown up. FC Kansas City were deserved champions.

To say it’s been a chaotic offseason might be putting it kindly. While fringe players like Morgan Marlborough and Katrina Gorry were shipped out, FCKC also made some serious gambles with some trades, losing some depth by trading the versatile Merritt Mathias to Seattle and signaling a big sea change on the backline with the trade of Kassey Kallman, one of last year’s best rookie, to Boston for Heather O’Reilly. Those moves could prove to be a set of fatal errors considering the club’s defensive depth has been whittled down to the bare bones going into the regular season. With Jenna Richmond taking a year off, the club has lost some of its defensive bite in midfield as well.

Which makes it a good thing that FCKC figures to score in bunches this season with almost all of last year’s big guns returning along with some big additions. The defending champs might need all the goals they can get this year.

Coach/Tactics

Vlatko Andonovski’s been on a roller coaster the past two years. From unknown commodity in early 2013 to pass master genius that season as FCKC flew up the table to big game bottler as the collapsed down the stretch to genius once again as they took home the title last year. While the ethos trumps good sense at times in KC, Andonovski’s passing style has made the club a pleasure to watch for the neutrals, something that most definitely cannot be said of some of their rivals.

Andonovski has also shown a propensity for making tough decisions, such as leaving Sarah Hagen on the bench when it became clear that a formation encompassing her and Amy Rodriguez at the same time just wasn’t doable if the team was switching things up midseason once Hagen arrived. Andonovski also swallowed his pride and switched back to the bread and butter 4-2-3-1 the club used in 2013 when it was clear that tinkering away from that formation was doing more harm than good. The capacity for decisive action is probably going to be an important one for the FCKC boss, as there are some real tactical puzzles to solve heading into 2015.

First, the good news: The front four picks itself when everyone’s here. Obviously, that may irritate supporters of Sarah Hagen and Shea Groom among others, but until proven otherwise, the quartet of Amy Rodriguez, Erika Tymrak, Lauren Holiday, and Heather O’Reilly would appear to be unshakable on paper. Being able to bring the likes of Hagen, Groom, and Frances Silva off the bench is a luxury just about every other team has to be envious of. During the WWC, the players of choice coming into the front four are likely those three, though how exactly the attacking band of three line up behind Hagen remains to be seen. Also worth noting is how the club plays differently with Rodriguez and Hagen leading the line since neither are remotely the same type of forward. And will Andonovski potentially try again to pair the duo up in attack after last year’s failed experiment?

In the defensive band of ‘2’ in the 4-2-3-1, Jen Buczkowski is a lock if she isn’t needed at center-back. Who plays beside her is another key question given Jenna Richmond’s departure. Yael Averbuch is the favorite on paper but is coming off a horrid season with Washington. Another option, Mandy Laddish barely played last year, while Kaysie Clark is a dark horse. There’s also the possibility that FCKC uses one of the above attackers in a deeper midfield role, but that’s dangerous considering how shaky the defense looks on paper.

The back four at full strength also pretty much picks itself, but not because of quality, because there just really aren’t any viable options elsewhere on the roster unless someone is being converted into a defender. That Dominique Richardson may be replacing Becky Sauerbrunn during the WWC at center-back is a terrifying thought, and there’s no guarantee the defense might not implode when their star defender is away. Andonovski may have no choice but to hedge with Buczkowski back at center-back, where she’s an accomplished performer but not nearly as influential as when she’s in midfield.

Goalkeepers

A little while back, this area looked to be one of genuine worry, with the belief that Nicole Barnhart would miss significant time with the USWNT ahead of this year’s WWC. However, with Barnhart having seemingly slipped to #4 in the pecking order at international level, FC Kansas City may instead have the league’s best goalkeeping situation with Barnhart potentially with the club all season long.

With a pair of Olympic Gold Medals, a WPS winner’s medal, and a newly won NWSL winner’s medal from FCKC’s title last season, Nicole Barnhart will probably go down as one of the most decorated American goalkeepers ever. However, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that the thirty-three year old will have a chance to a World Cup winner’s medal to that total after being frozen out internationally. Barnhart hasn’t won a cap since 2012 and looks to be fourth choice behind Hope Solo, Ashlyn Harris, and Alyssa Naeher. While Barnhart could well get the equivalent of a gold watch and pip Naeher to the #3 GK spot on the USWNT in Canada, it’s looking more likely that she’ll be missing out. That’s to FCKC’s benefit though, as Barnhart has shown few signs of decline at club level despite her increasing age. With the defense in transition, the defending champs will be counting on their netminder to be as strong as ever to boost their hopes of retaining their crown.

Barnhart’s long-term replacement is likely to be the backup goalkeeper the club drafted this season, UCLA’s Katelyn Rowland. Rowland was the towering figure behind the Bruins’ uncompromising defense for the past four seasons and graduates as Division I’s all-time leader in clean sheets after another staunch season in between the pipes for the 2013 national champs. It wasn’t all wine and roses for Rowland, however. The UCLA netminder was also in goal for the U20 World Cup debacle this past Fall and hardly looked rock solid in net. The UCLA keeper looked sufficiently sluggish off her line and nervy on crosses that some doubt has crept into the back of the minds of some as to how much the Bruins’ defense masked some of Rowland’s weaknesses in Westwood. Regardless, FC Kansas City felt strongly enough to take her in the middle of the draft, setting her up as a candidate for the club’s long-term goalkeeper of the future.

Much depends on if Barnhart really has been frozen out at international level. If so, the 1-2 punch of her and Rowland should rival anyone else’s in the league, though the latter would conceivably play very little this year as a rookie. If Barnhart does get the call in by Jill Ellis, Rowland is going to get a chance to prove herself very quickly, with few viable contenders for a #3 role having been brought in by FCKC.

Defenders

FC Kansas City may have shipped seven goals to Portland in one regular season meeting but gave up just twenty-five in their other twenty-three regular season matches. It wasn’t quite an invincible unit, but it was good enough to help lead the club to the title at season’s end. But that unit was broken up in dramatic fashion when the club traded Kassy Kallman to Boston for Heather O’Reilly…and things got worse from there. Nikki Phillips? Retired. Occasional full-back Merritt Mathias? Traded to Seattle. Center-back replacement Kate Deines? Retired abruptly. Second round draft pick? Meghan Lisenby? Released early in the preseason. It’s a confluence of events that has left FCKC’s defense threadbare going into the season.

The women’s soccer world is likely running out of superlatives to describe the performances of center-back Becky Sauerbrunn, who has developed into one of the world’s best center-backs and is undisputedly the best American central defender in the game today. The epitome of a modern, ball-playing center-back, Sauerbrunn has fit like a glove into FCKC’s passing ethos and has also led the club’s usually stout defense by example. But when she’s not with the USWNT, trying to lead them to WWC glory, Sauerbrunn will have a whale of a task in trying to keep said group playing up to the standards of the past two seasons considering the amount of offseason upheaval the back four has gone through. But if there’s anyone that can do it, it might be Sauerbrunn, who’s in the peak of her career and will be looking to add more honors to a growing trophy case this season in FCKC and with the USWNT.

Right-back will likely be occupied by veteran Leigh Ann Robinson, who continues to be one of the league’s best at full-back. Though Robinson’s flirtation with the USWNT proved to be a fleetingly brief one, she was still in fine form at club level for FC Kansas City last year, proving to be a key part of their lockdown defense that dominated foes down the stretch and helped lead them to glory in the playoffs. Robinson should be entering the prime of her career and is a long time removed from the torrid time she had with the Atlanta Beat early in WPS. Now, Robinson is going to be one of the key members of an FC Kansas City defense that is going to have to coalesce quickly into a solid unit. Robinson will also be watched going forward, as with Heather O’Reilly brought in, the pair could combine well down that flank when the latter is not on international duty with the USWNT.

Former USWNT defender Amy LePeilbet made her successful return to club football last season with FCKC after a long time out recovering from a major knee injury. Once one of the nation’s top center-backs with Boston in WPS, LePeilbet played at full-back for the USWNT, often to the teeth gnashing of the popcorn gallery. Out of the international picture since the 2012 Summer Olympics, LePeilbet made her comeback in June of last year and featured as mostly a defensive option off the bench for FCKC, coming in to help close games out. While she was effective in the role, LePeilbet also did not look good in the four starts she made for the team, with FCKC not keeping a clean sheet in any of those starts, with one of those starts the infamous 7-1 massacre at the hands of Portland. Supporters of the defending champs will be hoping that it was just a matter of rust being knocked off instead of a terminal decline, as LePeilbet is going to be forced to play major minutes in defense this year with all of the club’s departures. In all likelihood, the former U.S. international will be a full-time starter at center-back, but it remains to be seen if her knees can hold up over a grueling season.

Rebecca Moros has had the career of a WoSo journeyman and will be setting up post at another stop in 2015 after being traded from Portland in the offseason. Moros did a little of everything for the Thorns last year, playing in both the midfield and at both full-back positions for the club. Despite playing right-back down the stretch for Portland, Moros probably figures as FCKC’s left-back this season, though she and Robinson could conceivably switch things up if need be with both players adept at both full-back positions. Moros has never been consistently brilliant at any of her stops in the U.S. though, and that’s going to have to change here, as FCKC has no cover at full-back. Almost is worrying in that regard is the fact that Moros went the distance in just six of her appearances last year. As stated above, with no cover, Moros may have to go the ninety more of then not.

The cascading losses forced FC Kansas City’s hand, with the champions signing Dominique Richardson, who was a camp invitee. To say that’s not particularly completely reassuring is an understatement. Richardson made Houston as an undrafted free agent last season but was released early in the season. And the former Missouri Tiger isn’t here as an end of the roster fill-in. She’s very likely going to be thrust into a starting center-back role when Sauerbrunn is gone. Being surrounded by a veteran backline should help her a bit, but it’s going to be a dramatic trial by fire for Richardson.

This group is going to be one of the league’s most scrutinized after the losses they suffered and that fateful Kallman trade. There’s an alarming lack of depth and amount of questions as the season begins. Sauerbrunn will help tie the unit together when she’s here. When she’s not? It’s up in the air.

Midfielders

As goes the FC Kansas City midfield, so goes FC Kansas City. The defending champions’ passing ethos has been bred from the quality in depth they pack in midfield, and, for the most part, little seems to have changed in terms of that quality from last season. In terms of the attack, things may have even gotten better with the additions of Shea Groom and Heather O’Reilly to an already packed midfield. It’s in the deeper band of ‘2’ in the 4-2-3-1 that there are concerns after Jenna Richmond’s announcement of a season away in 2015.

Inevitably, it was probably going to be impossible for Lauren Holiday to conduct a reprise of her MVP winning season of 2013, when she finally lived up to her potential and was a one woman wrecking crew for FCKC. 2014 was still pretty damn good though, as Holiday netted eight goals and assisted with seven others as part of FC Kansas City’s deadly midfield. While Holiday’s career with the USWNT has been less of a sure thing, she’s still done enough to likely ensure herself a starting position in the first XI come June. At club level, Holiday’s still likely to be one of the league’s very best offensive threats and could be as good as ever with Heather O’Reilly added to the mix. Building that chemistry might take a while though with opportunities to combine at club level at a minimum until after the WWC.

The addition of Heather O’Reilly is arguably the biggest talking point for FCKC in terms of offseason additions. While O’Reilly’s influence on the USWNT has faded over the past few years, she was still one of Boston’s most consistent attacking options last season. The winger finished the season as Boston’s leading scorer with nine goals, as well as its leading assister with five. With right wing for FCKC being the only real area of contention in last season’s offense, it’s clear that HAO will be expected to step right in and add even more firepower to an already potent attack. While she’ll likely be gone for a big chunk of the season, O’Reilly will still be facing big pressure to succeed in FCKC considering how much of the club’s future they gave up for her in the trade that brought her to the team.

A season after taking the NWSL by storm as a rookie, Erika Tymrak provided more modest returns in 2014, but that just meant the former Florida Gator had to settle for being pretty damn good instead of being a phenomenon. While it’s proven to be a cycle too soon for Tymrak’s USWNT WWC hopes, the third-year pro could be a dark horse candidate for league MVP considering she should be with the team all season in 2015. Playing almost exclusively as a left-winger with Lauren Holiday occupying the middle of the park in the midfield last season, it will be interesting to see if Tymrak is used against as a #10 type player when Holiday is away, or if she continues to find a home on the left flank. Whatever her positioning, FCKC will need Tymrak to be one of the offense’s driving forces if they’re to have hopes of retaining their crown this year.

In the defensive band of ‘2’ in the 4-2-3-1, Jen Buczkowski will again be crucial to FCKC’s success. Buczkowski keeps on ticking at age twenty-nine, showcasing steady brilliance as one of the elite defensive midfielders in the league. Be it with Desiree Scott or Jenna Richmond as her partner in midfield, Buczkowski simply gets the job done as a pivot for FCKC, shielding the back four and helping connect defense and attack. That she hasn’t received even a nominal look at international level is criminal, and you wonder if there’s anything she can do to convince the USWNT brass of her talent. Regardless, Buczkowski should again be a crucial part of FCKC’s formula for success in 2015.

The club’s top pick in this year’s NWSL Draft, much is expected out of Texas A&M’s Shea Groom this year. Groom going to a club whose coaches she was more than familiar with from her youth club days wasn’t exactly a well-kept secret, but the Aggie will still be under big pressure to perform considering the club passed up a big need at defender to draft her. Groom really blossomed late into her college career and netted thirteen goals against RPI Top 100 teams this season, tied for second most amongst seniors this past college season. Creative with the ball at her feet and a gifted 1v1 attacker, Groom looks like just the type of player that can keep the attack ticking over in Kansas City. Where Groom figures in in the midfield is a big question, but if she plays to her potential, she’ll be hard to keep off the pitch.

Second-year player Frances Silva may be poised to become one of the league’s breakout players in 2015 after a hugely promising rookie season. Silva may have scored just two goals with one assist, but in most of her appearances, she was a burst of energy off the bench that troubled tiring legs. The big question is whether Silva can do it over the course of ninety minutes, as during her handful of starts, she rarely lasted beyond an hour. That might typecast her into that super sub role, especially with added competition from the likes of O’Reilly and Groom. But even if Silva is used primarily as a late match sub, she’s still a force to be reckoned with and likely better than most other options off the bench around the league.

With Jenna Richmond on sabbatical for 2015, the big question is who plays alongside Buczkowski. One candidate is the newly signed Yael Averbuch. Averbuch got a painful reintroduction to American pro WoSo after a stretch in Sweden following WPS’ collapse. Despite her status as an allocated player from U.S. Soccer, Averbuch endured a brutal season and had lost her starting spot in Washington by the end of the season, having to make do with being a sub off the bench. Having lost her allocation status after the season, Averbuch signed as a free agent with FC Kansas City, hoping a fresh start is what’s needed to resurrect her career. The defending champs will be hoping that Averbuch can fill in the spot vacated by Richmond’s sabbatical.

Given the strength in depth in midfield, minutes may be very hard to come by for some of those close to the end of the bench. That would include second-year player Mandy Laddish, whose roster spot may very well be in danger considering she played just fifteen minutes in two matches last season. A box-to-box midfielder with a little offensive spark, Laddish may be a dark horse contender to play opposite Jen Buczkowski in the 4-2-3-1.

In the same boat may be local product Kaysie Clark, a late round draft pick that made the final cut for FCKC. Clark was perhaps a bit unfortunate to be a part of a class stacked with playmakers, as in some other years, she might have been selected in the middle rounds. On a limited Missouri team, Clark was often the one touch of true quality and definitely has some upside to grow into. Whether it’ll be here is the question though, as its tough to see the former Tiger getting major minutes given the competition on the depth chart.

When everyone’s here, the attacking band of three may be the most dangerous unit in the NWSL. Despite a fading role on the USWNT, O’Reilly showed she’s still a strong player at club level last year, while Holiday and Tymrak’s resumes speak for themselves. The attacking midfield reserves are great as well, but questions still linger over who plays beside Buczkowski. Those questions will only get louder if Buczkowski is forced to move back to center-back by the team’s defensive depth issues.

Forwards

When you play with a 4-2-3-1, the ‘1’ has to carry a big load on her on leading the line, a fact that became tellingly apparent in 2013 when FCKC ached for a truly classy center-forward despite having a midfield to die for. They got their wish and then some last season, with the trade for Amy Rodriguez now looking like one of the all-time pro WoSo bargains after she helped fire them to a title.

Few could have expected Rodriguez’s return to prominence last season after missing 2013 on maternity leave. Rodriguez had never been the most consistent forward in the first place, a bust as a rookie in Boston before resurrecting her career in Philadelphia under Paul Riley. Originally allocated to Seattle before the 2013 season, Rodriguez’s pregnancy all but doomed the Reign in the league’s inaugural season and allowed FCKC to swoop in and grab A-Rod on the cheap. The results couldn’t be denied: thirteen regular season goals, one in the semi-final, and two in the final against Seattle, the club that had traded her away. Her fortunes with the USWNT have not been as bright, but Rodriguez remains a potent threat at club level at least and will again be counted on to score goals for FCKC when she’s not on international duty.

Rodriguez’s stint with the USWNT means a chance to shine for Sarah Hagen at the top of the formation for the defending champions. Hagen did not join FCKC until the middle of last season after completing a highly successful stint at FC Bayern but made a big impact right away, scoring three goals in her first four matches for the club. She’d only score once more the rest of the way, but the towering center forward was still impressive, even as she was brought off the bench for the team in the playoffs as FCKC decided to stick with Amy Rodriguez as the main center forward. Whether Rodriguez and Hagen can both function to the best of their abilities on the pitch at the same time in a 4-2-3-1 is a subject worth hearty debate, Hagen will have every opportunity to lead the line by herself this season when Rodriguez is away. If Hagen lives up to her potential, she’s a sleeper for the Golden Boot this year and could prey on shorthanded defenses unable to deal with her power. A strong season would also go some way in increasing the volume of the clamor for her to get another shot with the USWNT.

Adding depth is Liz Bogus, an oft-maligned figure for FCKC who will need to excel this season with the amount of players missing time on international duty. Bogus started in eight matches last season and played in a variety of roles in the front four of the club’s 4-2-3-1 or even as a second striker in the aborted attempts at a 4-4-2 early in the year. The veteran isn’t a ninety minute player at this point though, which limits some of what FCKC can do with her. It’s difficult seeing Bogus cracking the front four when everyone’s here, but a role in the attacking midfield band of three could be in the cards when bodies are missing. Otherwise, Bogus will probably have to make do with being a super sub.

The calculus really isn’t tough for FCKC. Sarah Hagen will lead the line when Amy Rodriguez is gone. Rodriguez will be on the pitch in some capacity when she’s with the team, though how exactly Andonovski plans to squeeze her and Hagen onto the pitch at the same time is up for debate, if it’s even possible. Regardless, the defending champs have two big-time threats at center forward and should not hurt for scoring this season.

Outlook

No American professional WoSo club has ever defended their title successfully. Obviously, that statistic is tempered by the chaos of the first few leagues in the U.S., but at the same time, no club who’s won the title the season before has even made it to the final the following season. You wouldn’t have bet against FCKC breaking that string during much of the offseason, but a creeping sense of doubt has manifested itself thanks to the club’s defensive personnel follies. It’s hard to doubt too strongly a backline anchored by Sauerbrunn and Robinson, but with the former likely to miss significant time, the vacuum in depth left by the number of departures looms very large. You suspect FCKC deserves the benefit of the doubt and will somehow get it right, but those defensive questions are going to linger for the entire season in all likelihood.

It’s a good thing then that FCKC looks like a club that could make it rain goals. The first choice front four have only gotten stronger with O’Reilly’s addition, while Hagen, Groom, and Silva would all be starting for many other teams in the league. There will be concerns about the loss of Richmond, but FCKC has seldom put a foot wrong with their decisions in the middle of the park thus far. You suspect the defending champs are the early favorites to lead the league in the goals scored table.

It’s the goals conceded table that bears watching though. While FCKC may be able to bludgeon opponents with offense to get into the playoffs, the defense is going to have to come together into something viable for them to stand a chance of a repeat. Color me a little skeptical given the current personnel, but Andonovski’s side will still likely be in the final reckoning come September.

Prediction: 3rd

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