Real Salt Lake team to replace FC Kansas City: What it means for the NWSL

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A surprising twist sees a long-rumored NWSL expansion target swoop in to replace the two-time league champions.

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The FC Kansas City saga is nearly over, albeit with a result few saw coming.

After speculation the two-time NWSL champions could be sold to Major League Soccer’s Sporting Kansas City or relocated as part of a different sale, the Blues are on their way to Salt Lake City, set to become the women’s soccer arm of MLS’ Real Salt Lake.

According to sources, FC Kansas City will cease to exist, with new owner Dell Loy Hansen and RSL set to be awarded a new team. An official announcement is expected to be made soon, one which will reveal RSL as the fourth MLS ownership group to assume a stake in an NWSL club. 

The NWSL started in 2013 with the Portland Timbers becoming owners of one of the league’s eight original teams, the Portland Thorns. The Houston Dynamo came into the league a year later as owners of the expansion Dash, with Orlando City SC founding the Pride ahead of the 2016 season.

Now Real Salt Lake, after years of floating on the league’s periphery as a rumored expansion option, will replace one of the most successful teams in NWSL history. In the process, the club helps end one of the league’s most tenuous ownership situations while further shifting the NWSL’s backroom balance of power.

Here’s what to know about the league’s latest major news:

RSL steps up

From the middle of the 2017 NWSL season, it became clear that FC Kansas City’s situation was untenable. Player and staff discontent with the support of owner Elam Baer, who purchased the team in January, left the club in need of new ownership. While Sporting Kansas City had been linked with the team, and another ownership group in Minnesota was said to be in line to take over the club, the Blues will instead be headed west, set to become the NWSL’s first team in the Rocky Mountain region.

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

This is a major move for the NWSL, not only because Sporting KC never committed to the team and a move to Minnesota had become less than certain. Replacing those options with stable, well-backed ownership group -- one with an established brand in a proven soccer market -- is another step toward stability for the NWSL.

When previously discussing the team’s NWSL future, RSL had always maintained its interest in eventually joining the league, explaining the team would likely play at the new facility that is being built for the club’s USL affiliate, Real Monarchs. To date, though, RSL management had hinted its NWSL plunge would come after its USL objectives were met. By taking the place of FC Kansas City, though, owner Dell Loy Hansen and the rest of the RSL team has decided to accelerate its timeline.

Where did Sporting KC go?

And yet, it’s impossible to ignore what could have been, had Sporting KC elected to take over the team. Just as it eventually was for Real Salt Lake, FC Kansas City was there for Sporting’s taking, and for some time, it was clear to sources that SKC was the preferred ownership group. Even over the last month, as more people familiar with the situation became skeptical Sporting would take over, some held out hope SKC’s decision-maker, Robb Heineman, would step in and keep the team in Kansas City.

That never happened. Sporting was always thought to be reticent to take over its region’s NWSL team before all matters were settled with its own USL club, Swope Park Rangers, including plans for that team’s long-term home. With Rangers still in need of solutions on that end, Sporting may never have had space to take on a new challenge.

The shift of power continues

Behind the scenes, the impact of adding another “big” ownership group to the NWSL landscape could be huge.

Since the dawn of its existence, the NWSL has been divided between large, well-backed clubs who wanted the league to accelerate its growth and smaller, more constrained owners forced to worry about more immediate solvency issues. In the beginning, those “small” clubs held much of the power, but over the course of the league’s history, the balance has shifted. After a year that’s seen Steve Malik and North Carolina replace Western New York and A&E Networks come in as partners with votes among the league’s board of governors, the league’s power structure has drastically changed.

With Real Salt Lake replacing a “small” ownership group, the balance of power may now, fully, be in the “big” clubs’ favor, perhaps for the first time in league history. With RSL joining Portland, Houston, Orlando, North Carolina and A&E’s two votes to form a majority on league decisions, the NWSL has a framework to start taking drastic steps forward.

Increased spending? Elevated standards? Expanded rosters? Maybe even a longer schedule? These issues have been at the center of the league’s power structure for years, with all owners agreeing the league needs to move forward. The speed of that movement, however, has always been an issue. With another big ownership group coming on board, that speed could dramatically increase over the next few seasons.

In the short term, the Real Salt Lake move may further a precedent established in January 2017, when Malik brought the Western New York franchise from the Sahlen family and moved the then-league champions to North Carolina. If the league is set to speed forward, some ownership groups will have trouble keeping up. Instead of letting teams lag, the NWSL and U.S. Soccer may be prepared to find new, better-equipped groups.

FCKC’s players can breathe a sigh of relief

Since well before season’s end, FC Kansas City’s players have been in a type of professional purgatory, not knowing where their jobs would be in a few months time, if they existed at all. Best-case scenario: Sporting allows the team to stay in Kansas City, remain intact, and go into 2018 with far better support. Worst-case scenario? The group ends up in a new location, with another neophyte owner, facing uncertainty as to whether the 2018 season will be any better.

FCKC celebrates its first of two titles.

FCKC celebrates its first of two titles.

Even this week, as the drama of FCKC’s relocation played out, players were in the dark, left to rely on internet rumor and inner-squad gossip to discern their professional futures. The same uncertainty that defined a tumultuous, detached 2017 season from FCKC’s new owners left Blues players without word, either way, from management at the club.

Now, Real Salt Lake’s come along. Though players are facing a relocation, a stable club in a strong soccer community awaits. RSL has established a well-supported brand in the men’s game, and with the support Brigham Young University gets for its women’s team, there’s reason to believe there’s a local market for the women’s pro game. Plus, the group of players that persisted in Kansas City, to try and win under Vlatko Andonovski, may get a chance to stay together for another season.

Pro sports are still pro sports, and the same roster changes and turnover that will happen with the NWSL’s nine other teams will impact the moving Blues squad. But now, at least those changes will happen from a place of stability, with Real Salt Lake’s ownership providing a more reliable foundation for an embattled squad.

Expect RSL to be a destination … for a coach

When Real Salt Lake assumes control of its team, it does so with a major hole to fill. Andonovski's move to Seattle cost FCKC lost one of the best coaches in the NWSL. The team’s new owners inherit the challenge of finding his successor.

Whomever the team decides on, don’t expect there to be a lack of candidates. RSL comes in as a highly respected organization, and the opportunity to join at the ground floor, as possibly the leading voice on the technical side, will be an attractive one. It’s unlikely the team will lack resources or ambition, meaning whichever coach is lured to Salt Lake will have every opportunity to establish a winning tradition.

Such are the virtues of a “big” club job, but with no history to adhere to or legacies to uphold, RSL’s women’s soccer venture represents a blank canvas. There’s little a top-level coach loves more than a chance to establish a legacy of their own.

Information from FourFourTwo USA's Paul Tenorio contributed to this report.

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