FC Kansas City underdogs no more
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- For a franchise that began as one of a new league's more perplexing question marks, FC Kansas City has a knack for coming up with answers.
The team sits atop the National Women's Soccer League with one weekend remaining in the regular season. It is all but assured of hosting at least a semifinal in the upcoming playoffs, and even a draw at home against the Chicago Red Stars in the regular-season finale would guarantee the No. 1 seed and home field through the championship game.
Kansas City had neither geography nor history on its side when the league launched, but it seems the middle of the country is fast becoming the center of attention in the women's game.
"Honestly, I think people didn't have high expectations for this team or this city because it's like a brand-new city," said rookie Erika Tymrak in reference to Kansas City's limited roots in women's professional soccer. "It's kind of in the middle of nowhere. Then again, being the underdog sometimes is fun."
Underdog might be a stretch if talking about the expectations that accompanied the team into the first game in league history. By the time FC Kansas City played the Portland Thorns in the April opener, it wasn't difficult to find people in the know who believed the former was a serious contender. The past four months just confirmed as much.
FC Kansas City has an MVP candidate, possibly the favorite, in Lauren Holiday (still more familiar to many fans by her maiden name of Cheney). The Blues have balance across the field, third in the league in goals scored and second in fewest goals allowed. They have the best attendance of any team this side of Portland, with an average of more than 4,500 fans per game. And in Tymrak and defender Leigh Ann Robinson, they have poster children for the kind of national team prospects a professional league can nurture.
A team with all of that should be chasing a championship. It's how the Blues pulled the whole thing together that makes them the surprise Tymrak described. It wasn't so much this Kansas City team people questioned. It was Kansas City.
Answering the critics
Every team in the new league started from scratch, but there was an undeniably familiar feel to the protagonists. The rosters were new, but Boston, Sky Blue and Western New York were all part of Women's Professional Soccer when that league folded after the 2011 season. Chicago and Washington were already out of WPS by that time, but they had been home to teams in that league, as well as the WUSA before it in Washington's case. Portland and Seattle were newcomers, but they shared both geographic proximity and the soccer passion of the Pacific Northwest, a region that is no stranger to supporting the women's game -- the University of Portland still draws more fans to its home games than most NWSL teams.
And then there was Kansas City. There was no team in California in the new league, not to mention Texas, Florida, North Carolina or Pennsylvania, high-population states that produce at least their fair share of women's soccer talent. More than 500 miles from its closest league neighbor in Chicago, Kansas City seemed a curiously isolated choice.
Hiring a coach who was an assistant with the Missouri Comets men's indoor team, with whom FC Kansas City shares ownership ties, only doubled down on the outsider status. A former professional player in Europe and the United States whose previous experience with women's soccer came mostly at the youth level during his 12 years in the Kansas City area, even Vlatko Andonovski thought he was an unlikely hire for a fledgling women's professional team.
"I've got to be honest: I know who I am, and even though I felt confident like I can do this, I didn't think that the owners, the organization, would give me the opportunity to do it," Andonovski said. "It came as a surprise."
It also provided the first answer.
"He's one of the best coaches I've ever had," Tymrak said. "His outlook on soccer is something I appreciate because a lot of women's soccer coaches don't think that women can actually play. They think it's necessary to play the long ball, use strength. Vlatko and our coaching staff doesn't think that at all."
The allocation process was surprisingly kind to a team many assumed wouldn't rank highly on the wish lists of national team players. While acknowledging it wouldn't have turned up its nose at a box-office draw like Alex Morgan, Hope Solo or Abby Wambach, Andonovski said FC Kansas City came away with exactly what it wanted. Goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, defenders Becky Sauerbrunn (a Missouri native) and Lauren Sesselmann and defensive midfielder Desiree Scott, the latter two Canadian allocations, solidified a defense necessary to support the attack-minded, possession-oriented style the coaches envisioned. Holiday was a versatile attacking talent to build around at the other end.
Without that foundation, the standings wouldn't look the way they do. They turned the question mark after Kansas City into a period. Kansas City? Yes, Kansas City.
But Tymrak and Robinson added the exclamation mark.
After allocation came the college draft for players fresh out of school. Andonovski said FC Kansas City had Tymrak ranked as the third-best player on the team's draft board, one spot behind Boston College All-American Kristie Mewis, who was then weeks away from earning her first cap with the senior national team. When both were available with the third pick of the first round, the Blues hewed to the board and took Mewis, who hasn't disappointed as an outside back with a wicked left foot and attacking instincts. But as the picks rolled by in January, Tymrak remained unclaimed. With the third pick of the second round, she fell back into FC Kansas City's lap.
Every rookie will say she is happy to go anywhere, and considering this class watched one professional league disappear during their college careers, it might even be a universally sincere sentiment. It's also fair to speculate the players might have been happier hearing their names called (or in Tymrak's case, seeing it tweeted) by some teams more than others. Once Florida coach Becky Burleigh told Tymrak that Andonovski had asked about her and planned to play a style similar to the Gators, the interest between club and prospect proved entirely mutual. Good luck finding a player in any draft less troubled by dropping out of the first round.
"I knew off the bat I wanted to play here," Tymrak said. "Yeah, I want to keep playing soccer, but if it's not the soccer that I like to play -- if it's long balls, it's not for me. I love soccer, I love passing, I love possession. That's what I love about the game. So when I heard that Vlatko was looking for a possession-oriented team in a 4-2-3-1, I knew I wanted to play there no matter what."
Good luck finding a better pick than a player who has six goals and three assists this season and whose creativity, vision and on-ball trickery fit so intriguingly alongside Holiday.
Home away from home
Yet another hurdle awaited. Following allocation and the college draft, each NWSL team was able to sign four players who weren't part of either process, essentially the prime free agents who would likely complete the starting lineups for most teams. Unlike either of the first two sequences, Kansas City needed players to actively choose it in this instance.
"We were very nervous about it," Andonovski said. "It's Kansas City compared to Chicago or Kansas City compared to Portland. Kansas City was always perceived as a second-tier city. On top of that, it was an unknown coach versus coaches that have been in the league and names that have been in the league and all different kinds of people. ...
"We got turned down by some players, but the ones we got we were very happy with."
Part of WPS in each of its three seasons, one season each with three teams, Robinson followed soccer to Russia, Long Island and San Diego following the demise of the league. Coaching at the University of San Diego, her alma mater, she started to think about shifting gears. Born and raised in California, she nevertheless had family in the Kansas City area. Besides, she had tried just about every other time zone in an effort to stave off a 9-to-5 job.
If Kansas City provided Tymrak with a place to hone her talent, it equally offered Robinson the reward for her effort already expended. The struggles of her switch to defense in the WPS are a long distant memory for a player whose five assists paint only a partial picture of marauding down the right side.
"That first year, I probably learned through making a lot of mistakes, which unfortunately for my team is not the way it should have been," Robinson said of her pro career. "But I've grown so much, especially in those first two years. I was on two [WPS] teams that weren't very successful. I think that does build character. After those two years, I was questioning whether I did want to keep playing because it had been rough."
Both Tymrak and Robinson appear to have caught the eye of United States coach Tom Sermanni, who referenced them both in an interview during the broadcast of a recent game between FC Kansas City and Portland Thorns. It's a long way from catching an eye to earning a camp invite, let alone an international cap or a steady place in the lineup, but it's a shorter trip by way of Kansas City than it might otherwise have been.
Kansas City as a cornerstone of the NWSL? Yes, Kansas City!
"The people here are so nice. The barbecue is good. The city is fun," Tymrak said. "It's like my home away from home."
Good answer. FC Kansas City has provided a lot of them.