Doubts about FC Kansas City's future highlight NWSL's growing divide

ISI Photos-Amy Kontras

Ongoing concern around NWSL's two-time champion could usher in more relocation as the league shifts its focus to strengthening, rather than adding teams.

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When the National Women’s Soccer League saw its 2016 champions, the Western New York Flash, sold and relocated to North Carolina last offseason, it also saw a tension emerge between two concepts, either of which could define the league’s next phase. Does the league continue to pursue expansion beyond the 10 teams which already make up the five-year-old first division? Or has relocation, with the possible ownership changes that entail, become a necessary, foundational step before the league can grow?

The tension, one that continues to divide the league’s big teams from its small ones, is currently playing out behind the scenes in Kansas City. According to sources within the NWSL and U.S. Soccer landscape, two-time champions FC Kansas City could be sold and possibly relocated this offseason, a move that comes amid growing concerns about subpar conditions and absenteeism from current ownership.

Elam Baer, FCKC's owner, completed his purchase of the Blues in January, but the club has since become the subject of increasing concerns about its ability to meet league minimum standards. Some of those deficiencies are apparent to the naked eye, with FCKC developing a habit of not travelling with the league-required 18 players. Other shortcomings have stayed behind the scenes.

According to multiple sources, FCKC’s roster budget operated under league minimum requirements at least once during the 2017 season. Although both NWSL and club spokespeople deny that transgression took place, sources close to both the team’s staff and playing roster confirm FCKC was, at one point, forced to sign an additional player to meet the league’s threshold.

Those budget restrictions have not only hampered head coach Vlatko Andonovski's ability to build his squad but have set a tone throughout the organization, leading to concerns about FCKC’s compliance across a number of operational standards. Multiple people familiar with the playing squad have told FourFourTwo that loyalty to Andonovski is one of the only factors keeping players at the club, with players growing increasingly frustrated with team’s conditions.

Baer's stewardship came after FCKC's previous owners, Chris Likens and his two sons, Brad and Greg, had been the subject of controversy, leaving the team while denying they were parts of email exchanges that sexually objectified current and potential NWSL players. Though Baer, the CEO of Minneapolis-based North Central Equity LLC., kept the team in Kansas City, he has run the team remotely, with the person he's appointed to oversee the club not in Kansas City full-time.

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

FCKC's first title, under previous ownership.

According to a source familiar with the situation, a new ownership group has been identified to take over the team next season, with the franchise potentially relocating away from Kansas City. This, however, appears to be the contingency plan.

Major League Soccer’s Sporting Kansas City continues to be an option to become involved with the team, per multiple sources. If that were to happen, Sporting would be the fourth MLS team to take up an ownership stake in the NWSL. While that scenario is considered unlikely, at this point, it is still a possibility, one that would keep the Blues in Kansas City.

Reached for comment, an FC Kansas City spokesperson denied there have been conversations about selling a controlling interest of the club. The NWSL declined to comment on the club’s potential sale.

Adding to the issue’s complexity is the presence of two powerful players: Becky Sauerbrunn and Yael Averbuch. Sauerbrunn has become one of the most influential voices in the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association and is considered one of the major factors in the national team reaching a new labor agreement with U.S. Soccer. Averbuch was recently voted president of the new National Women’s Soccer League Players Association. The presence of two highly-ranked representatives in key players unions could sharpen the scrutiny of FCKC’s problems.

NWSL has already had one successful franchise relocation

The situation is reminiscent of what preceded last year’s relocation of Western New York, when player dissatisfaction with the state of the team had begun to define the club. With the preseason arrival of head coach Paul Riley, though, the squad was able to redefine itself, surging to an unexpected fourth-place finish ahead of its NWSL Championship triumph over the Washington Spirit.

Three months later, the franchise was relocated, with the Sahlen family selling a controlling stake of the team to North Carolina-based businessman Steve Malik. Already the owner of the NASL’s North Carolina FC, Malik named the team the North Carolina Courage, an homage to the region’s former Women’s United Soccer Association franchise. The team, largely kept intact from its title-winning season in Rochester, currently sits atop the NWSL.

That example of selling and relocating franchises has overtaken expansion as the league’s preferred option. While the additions of Houston (in 2014) and Orlando (2016) helped the league reached its current, 10-team mark, it didn’t address a problem that’s endured since the league’s onset: There are teams that are struggling to survive.

Coming out of the league’s meetings earlier this summer in Chicago, the NWSL began moving away from expansion in favor of stabilization. That was a stark change from earlier this year, when then-NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush was assumed to be finding the league’s 11th and 12th teams before leaving his job. Plush’s departure from the league in March came without the next round of expansion being settled, and with his old position still unfilled, the idea is considered dead, for now.

Instead, the league has turned its attention to shoring up its struggling franchises. Kansas City is the most obvious example, but it is not the only one. The Seattle Reign, according to sources, continue to endure unsustainable losses, while the Boston Breakers are also facing solvency issues. The possibility of contracting to eight teams before the next round of expansion was mentioned by one source, while the NWSL’s divide between big-and-small teams continues to grow.

That divide also adds to the significance of the NWSL’s next owner. If Sporting KC decides to enter the league, it will join Houston, North Carolina, Orlando and Portland as teams aligned with professional men’s clubs, either at the second- (North Carolina) or first-division levels. Politically, it would bring a crucial fifth club into the big-team camp, something which could prove a major factor in the league’s direction, going forward.

Emphasizing that dynamic while ignoring U.S. Soccer, though, misses a crucial part in the equation. The biggest stick in the FC Kansas City scenario is U.S. Soccer’s ability to sanction teams; or, not sanction them, should teams fail to meet league standards. While one source said they do not foresee a sanctioning issue for the 2018 season, FCKC’s dalliance with minimum standards becomes an issue that could influence its future. In time, similar issues could influence the futures of other NWSL clubs.

Added up, FC Kansas City is potentially staring at a second straight offseason with an ownership change. Whether that would keep the Blues in Kansas City may be in Sporting’s court, with the Blues’ saga hinting at what’s to come on the NWSL’s path to a more sustainable league.

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