With Stars Away For World Cup, NWSL Remains In Good Hands

Jen Buczkowski's stellar defense helped lead FC Kansas City to the NWSL title last season, but still didn't earn her a look by the U.S. national team. Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire

Jen Buczkowski might not have been the best player in the world as last summer came to a close, but some of those often described in that manner weren't all that special in her company.

FC Kansas City won its first National Women's Soccer League championship because the club's contingent of national team players, its stars, performed up to their substantial capabilities. Amy Rodriguez and Lauren Holiday, out of habit still referred to by her maiden name of Cheney by most teammates and coaches, produced not just goals but a sense of inevitability about the ball finding the back of the net. Defender Becky Sauerbrunn marshaled a back line that rarely bent.

But the championship also found its way to the Midwest because some of the best players on the opposing teams in the postseason, first Portland and then Seattle, didn't play with the ease or comfort of so many previous games. In first stifling Portland's Vero Boquete on a brutally hot afternoon in Kansas City and then slowing Seattle's array of creative talents in their own town in the final, Buczkowski cleared the stage and allowed her teammates to deliver the lines that resonated.

"She was a key player for us in the last two games," FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said. "Of course, I don't want to take anything away from Amy and Cheney and Becky, who are tremendous, and the individual contributions they brought are amazing, but [Buczkowski] just the stopping the best players on the opposing teams ... makes everyone else's job easier."

In the moments after the semifinal win against Portland, Andonovski turned from coach to campaign manager. Buczkowski, he equally lobbied, cajoled and stressed, deserved a look from the national team. Substitute a Texas drawl for Andonovski's Macedonian accent, and the chill of late fall for the heat of the Kansas City summer, and the words were almost identical to those of then-Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum as he made the same case for his All-American nearly a decade earlier. The national team, Waldrum insisted in 2006, would be missing out if it didn't at some point soon look at Buczkowski.

The opportunity never really came. Not then and not now. So when the world turns its attention to Canada for the summer's World Cup, Buczkowski will be in Kansas City. She'll watch along with the rest of us, of course, rooting for her friends and teammates to end American World Cup disappointment, but she will keep busy, too. The league will take a two-week break during part of the World Cup, but she and FC Kansas City will be trying to stockpile points in defense of their title even as games go on in Canada. And after studying business and marketing at Notre Dame, she is also back in school, taking classes such as anatomy and biology at an area community college in preparation for applying to physical therapy programs.

Playing in a World Cup would have been a life-changing experience, but life changes regardless.

"I think this will maybe be my last season," Buczkowski said earlier this month, shortly before she turned 30. "The ultimate goal is to get a look with the national team, and now that that kind of chance is over, I don't know, at this point it's kind of maybe time to move on and start a new passion in life. I think after last season, and knowing this year, the World Cup and stuff, it's kind of a good time, I think."

FC Kansas City will build a title defense around such stories. A league will build a season.

Of the nine metropolitan areas home to NWSL clubs, none is closer to Winnipeg, Manitoba, than Kansas City. Such atlas trivia is in its own way fitting for the summer to come because it may well be that when the United States begins its World Cup campaign in the aforementioned Canadian city on June 8, no professional team then in the midst of its season will have more players a hair's breadth from being part of the U.S. national team than FC Kansas City.

Some, like Buczkowski, it seems, will never get there. Others, like former national team backup goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, already did and have since moved on. The majority, from forward Sarah Hagen to midfielders Erika Tymrak and Yael Averbuch and defender Leigh Ann Robinson, reside somewhere in the middle. They have been in national team camps and played in games for their country but their international careers are paused as the World Cup arrives.

FC Kansas City certainly has no monopoly on such players, Seattle's Amber Brooks, Stephanie Cox and Keelin Winters and Western New York's Brittany Taylor among the notable. The league is also home still to international stars whose nations did not qualify for the World Cup, like Seattle's Kim Little (Scotland) and Jess Fishlock (Wales) and Sky Blue FC's Nadia Nadim (Denmark). All are world-class players who lack a world stage this summer. The success of the off-Broadway production they put on for much of the summer will be a test of the vitality, if not the viability, of the third incarnation of a women's professional league.

"I'm very proud of the group of us who have not consistently been in with the national team but are what I would say are national-team-caliber players," Averbuch said. "I can think of a number of them throughout the league. I would say I'm very proud on behalf of that group for showing up every day and continuing to do this year in and year out and pushing the level -- pushing the national team players and also producing a quality product on the field when the national team players are gone. I think that's so, so important."

Those national team players, in FC Kansas City's case presumably Holiday, Sauerbrunn, Rodriguez and new arrival Heather O'Reilly, will miss close to half of the NWSL season between the World Cup itself and surrounding commitments (Abby Wambach, of course, will not play in the NWSL at all this season). Both the duration and the nature of the absences added an extra and complicating variable to off-season planning in a league in which roster turnover was already a fact of life.

"Always in the back of our mind was 'What about when the national team players are not here? What about when they are here?' So you keep asking the questions," Andonovski said. "It's almost like you are building two teams simultaneously. We understand the challenges. There is nothing we can do. We support the national team as we can. We hope that they do well at the World Cup, and hopefully we do well on our side."

To that end, Andonovski and FC Kansas City acquired Averbuch, who played the 2014 season with Washington Spirit after an extended stint in European leagues. It appears a match made in heaven, at least if your version of life beyond the pearly gates involves a lot of passing and possession. Not all personnel issues are related to the World Cup, and with midfielder Jenna Richmond taking this season off after starting 20 games en route to the title a season ago, FC Kansas City needed a playmaker to pair with Buczkowski (in addition to national team absences and Richmond, the Blues will also be without defender Nikki Phillips this season because of maternity leave). Averbuch arrives as a gifted passer and technical player for a team that values both traits.

An All-American at the University of North Carolina, she debuted for the senior national team under Greg Ryan in 2007 while still in college. She earned additional caps when Pia Sundhage took over, making 10 appearances and scoring her first goal for the United States in 2010, and made a similar number of appearances for Tom Sermanni in 2013. But as the roster for the current cycle began to take shape over the past year for coach Jill Ellis, it became clear that Averbuch wasn't part of the plan for Canada.

Still, even at 28 years old, she is younger than 12 of the players who were on the United States roster for its most recent game against New Zealand on April 4. In her own mind, her national team career remains in the present tense.

"I can't foresee a time when I won't feel like I want to do everything it takes to give myself a chance to be there," Averbuch said.

For her, Kansas City is not the end of her soccer road or a cul-de-sac but one more point on a journey. The chance to play a part in the pursuit of another championship in the professional league is also a chance to catch the eye of those who will have the final say on the American roster for next summer's Olympics and even the 2019 World Cup.

"Part of it for me is about being in an environment where I can consistently bring my best qualities to the table," Averbuch said of what she needs to do. "It's a combination of the environment and myself being able to find ways to do that. I'm constantly working on areas of the game, especially the physical side trying to get stronger, faster, more explosive. Those were some of my weaknesses as a player at the highest level. So I'm always working to improve those weaknesses and fine-tune my strengths, but I think it's really about, at this point, consistently bringing out my strengths as a player and being very involved in the game, connecting, feeling good physically so I can bring that energy to the game to be that connecting piece, that deep-line playmaker."

Whether that is enough is up for debate.

"I think the women's league should help maybe feed into [the national team] or help people get looks," Buczkowski said. "And it doesn't necessarily seem like too many people get invited in based off of their performance during the season. So I think that's a bit frustrating.

"But at the end of the day, it is what it is, and you keep going out there and doing your thing."

She has done that through the ups and downs of professional soccer. She won a championship in WPS in 2009, then watched the league fold a couple of years later. She continued to play and put off a future outside the game, continued to improve and mature into the player who could so completely suffocate some of the world's best at the end of last summer. FC Kansas City was better for it. So, too, was the league.

It would be naive to think the NWSL isn't hoping for or doesn't need a World Cup bounce, a surge in interest after that tournament that will have coattails all the longer if the United States wins for the first time since 1999.

But it also needs the players who will call it home all summer.

"Some of those players have gotten chances and been in and out of the national team," Averbuch said. "Some have never gotten that chance but maybe it could be argued that somewhere along the way they deserve a chance. [That group exhibits] the passion to continue to do that and maybe not be getting maybe those endorsements and fancy stuff that comes along with the fame of being on the national team and being able to compete in a World Cup and all that excitement -- which is very well deserved by those players. But I think there is something to be said for the group that has stuck with it and continues to be the solid force pushing this league forward."

Forward into a third season that is theirs to shape. Nowhere more than in Kansas City.