Goal-free in KC: Why the two-time champions are bottom of the NWSL
Vlatko Andonovski knew things weren't going to come easy this year, but he never expected this.
FC Kansas City, the two-time defending National Women's Soccer League champion, sits at the bottom of the table, the lone club without a victory after six weeks of play. The team’s scored just twice, once from the penalty spot, and last weekend was beaten by the Boston Breakers, who hadn't scored in five losses to start the season.
I knew it's going to be a different season. I knew it's going to be a difficult season. Obviously, I didn't expect this.
That's what happens when a huge portion of a championship team is no longer on the field.
Kansas City lost five players during the offseason to retirement -- U.S. national team star Lauren Holiday, Amy LePeilbet, Leigh Ann Brown, Liz Bogus, and Meghan Lisenby -- and midfield general Jen Buczkowski just joined them.
And star strikers Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux are pregnant.
It's left FCKC younger at the back and in midfield and hindered the team’s ability to put the ball in the net.
“After losing the players that we lost, I knew it's going to be a different season. I knew it's going to be a difficult season,” Andonovski told FourFourTwo on Wednesday. “Obviously, I didn't expect this. I thought that, at least, the start was going to be a little bit better, but it is what it is.
“We're not going to just give up and say, 'Oh, we lost the players, and now we're not good.' The girls are aware of the fact that we're not a bad team. We're right there. It's only the little details that make the difference so far.”
Inches from breakthroughs
I was not surprised about the retirements. The pregnancies are what came as a surprise.
Kansas City (0-4-2) has been in every game. All four losses were by a goal, and only the Houston Dash have beaten goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart more than once.
FCKC dropped the opener to Western New York, 1-0, when Heather O'Reilly hit the post with a 93rd-minute penalty kick. Shea Groom missed a penalty kick and was sent off with two yellow cards after scoring in a 1-1 draw with Portland in week two. The team has dropped three points by conceding from corner kicks. Chicago needed a Player-of-the-Week performance from goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to forge a 0-0 draw two weeks ago.
If it's not one thing, it's another.
“It's even more frustrating [because we haven't been outplayed],” Andonovski said. “It's not like teams are so much better than us, and that's why we're losing every game or tying the game. It's the little things. ...
“I don't believe in luck in soccer, but there is a little luck there. I try not to look at excuses. We didn't do what we're supposed to do, and we're going to try harder and fight more next game.”
Kansas City isn't bereft of talent, leadership or experience. U.S. standout Becky Sauerbrunn starts in central defense. O'Reilly has 229 international caps. Barnhart has been a U.S. netminder for more than a decade. Yael Averbuch has played for the national team, in two U.S. pro leagues, and in Europe. Canadian international Desiree Scott has return from two seasons in England, and Brittany Taylor's acquisition from Western New York adds to the leadership quotient.
The Blues, who are home Saturday against the Orlando Pride (4-2-0), have been well-organized defensively, and Andonovski praises the “incredible job of getting numbers around the ball and making it tough for teams to break us.” The players are doing nearly everything required to win games, except score goals.
“Losing Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux, it's something that's hard to replace,” Andonovski said. “They're proven goal-scorers in the league, internationally. Any team would love to have them. And they're not easy to replace.”
A lot of the responsibility for scoring has fallen to Groom, a second-year forward who grew up in the area and starred at Texas A&M. She's at the top of Andonovski's 4-2-3-1 system, with O'Reilly running in from the right and either Erika Tymrak or Frances Silva from the left.
“I don't want to put too much pressure on Shea Groom, and I don't expect her to score as many goals as Amy Rodriguez or Sydney Leroux,” Andonovski said. “But I do think she has the potential to do that. I think she has the potential to be a very good player in this league and on the international stage.”
Pregnancies and retirements
I knew we were going to need more time, but I was hoping by now we were going to be generating a little more points.
Replacing Rodriguez and Leroux isn't simple. “A-Rod” had 25 goals in 37 games over two seasons with the Blues, six of them in four playoff games, including all three in the team’s back-to-back title-game victories over the Seattle Reign. Her U.S. teammate, Leroux, scored 11 goals with Boston in 2013, five with Seattle in 2014, and one more in just three games last year with Western New York, before she was sidelined with an ankle injury.
FCKC traded for Leroux in January, who wanted to play in the same city as her husband, Sporting Kansas City striker Dom Dwyer, and expected she'd step in for Rodriguez, who disclosed late last year that she was pregnant with her second child. Leroux announced days later that she, too, was pregnant.
“I was not surprised about the retirements,” Andonovski said. “The pregnancies are what came as a surprise, but we're happy about that and happy for them and their families, as well. ... We were not frustrated at all.”
Leroux has attended training sessions, taking part in non-contact activities; she was on the field Wednesday morning. Rodriguez is home in Southern California.
Defender Nikki Phillips is also missing her second successive season while pregnant.
Add in the six retirements, and that's 240 games, 215 starts, and 39 goals and 28 assists (of 71 goals scored) from the past two seasons missing from the roster.
It's allowed the rookies to see time they otherwise would not. Alex Arlitt, from LSU, and Katie Bowen, from North Carolina, have started on the backline, and former UNC midfielder Alexa Newfield has come off the bench four times.
What's needed is more creativity, savvier play, in the attacking third. More sophisticated movement, something akin to what Rodriguez brings. “Amy Rodriguez would come up with runs,” Andonovski noted, “that sometimes you can't even see why she's making the run until she gets the ball and scores a goal.”
FCKC has scouted Europe in search of something like that, but, he said, “we don't think anybody that we've found would fit well with the organization.”
“We're looking for the right opportunity if it comes,” he added. “If not, I'm happy with the team, I'm very happy with the players -- they give everything they have, and, hopefully, we can fix those little things and get better in the next few games.”
The Blues have a history of slow starts. They were 3-4-1 in 2014 before taking off on a nine-game unbeaten (and seven-game winning) streak. Last year they opened 3-5-2 and ended the year with an eight-game unbeaten run. They're 14-13-6 in the first half of seasons and 18-6-9 down the stretch.
“As a style of play that we try to maintain and [our] philosophy, we need a little more time to gel together,” Andonovski said. “Our previous three seasons, that was the case. Can I say that for this season? Maybe, maybe not. Because it's a little different, a little different personnel. I knew we were going to need more time, but I was hoping by now we were going to be generating a little more points.
“[A top-four spot to get into the playoffs is] what we're fighting for. I know we're 10 points behind the fourth spot, but anything is possible.”
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.