What is the anatomy of a football dynasty? Is it the culmination of structured tactical system? Or the collective efforts of a group of special players? With FC Kansas City, the answer is a harmonious blend of both. Add in a principled manager with a crystal clear vision for the club in Vlatko Andonovski and you’re looking at back-to-back NWSL Champions.
In modern football, it’s not uncommon to hear managers and players alike describe how they aspire to play a Barcelona-style game. In the United States, as women’s football evolves, the focus has shifted from fitness and physicality to employing a more tactically aware approach. Don’t get it twisted; fitness and physicality is still the American comparative advantage over the rest of the world. Interview any international moving to the NWSL and the first thing they mention is their adjustment to the physical American style.
Vlatko Andonovski had other plans.
When he was hired on December 5, 2012, the NWSL had yet to play its first match. Understandably, not many understood the splash that his Blues were about to make. Their initial player allocation of Nicole Barnhart, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Lauren Holiday left the Blues with a solid if not a little bit unexciting core of American players to work with. Canadian allocations Desiree Scott and Lauren Sesselmann joined Mexican allocated player Renae Cuéllar to complete the allotment of national team players.
In the 2013 NWSL College Draft, Andonovski added Kristie Mewis in the first round and chose skillful winger Erika Tymrak with their second round pick. Future stalwarts Leigh Ann Robinson and Jen Buczkowski were added in free agency.
From the outset of the 2013 season it was clear that FC Kansas City not only played with a system – the 4-5-1 – but also with a cogent philosophy. Long before it became their slogan, ‘One Pass At A Time’ touted a patient, possession-oriented style of play. In this system every player on the pitch needs to be responsible on the ball and pass their way out of pressure. When FC Kansas City resorts to direct play and wild clearances, the team circumvents its own strengths.
In the midfield two defensive midfielders work as double pivot – both to shield the back four and link play to the wide players and attacking midfielder. In 2013, this meant Buczkowski’s positioning and patience combined with the crunching tackles of Scott created a formidable, dynamic duo.
The commanding presence of attacking midfielder Holiday dictated tempo and demanded that opposing teams often dedicate more than one player to specifically mark and close her down. All the better for Tymrak to use her immense technical ability to burn teams down the wing.
Another tenet of this system is the complete forward. This forward needs to be able to create chances for themselves, link up with wide players, and drop deeper into the midfield to link up with an attacking midfielder. The first player asked to do this was Cuéllar. She scored both the first goal in league history and the first in FC Kansas City history. But Cuéllar, while pacey and a decent finisher, couldn’t quite fulfill the role as Andonovski envisioned. And so, mere months after that historic goal, Cuéllar was traded, the first in a series of two trades with the Seattle Reign that would shift the balance of power in the NWSL. In return, FC Kansas City received Seattle’s second round pick for the 2014 draft and the rights to Nikki Krzysik – a player who would become an integral part of their 2014 championship season.
FC Kansas City finished the debut season in second place. While they were touted for their patient passing game and solid defensive work, a difficult match with the Portland Thorns awaited them in the semifinals. Whether you want to argue that an ill-advised decision to wear all black uniforms on a sweltering Kansas City afternoon zapped the energy from the Kansas City attack – or more pragmatically, that their inability to stop Allie Long from dictating play in the central midfield doomed FC Kansas City to fall short of their final goals – the Portland Thorns beat FC Kansas City 2-1, going on to beat Western New York Flash and become the inaugural NWSL Champions.
In the 2014 offseason, Andonovski made a trade that elevated his side from a very good team with a passionate philosophy to a championship team. Mewis was sent to Seattle – and eventually to Boston – and in exchange FC Kansas City acquired forward Amy Rodriguez. At the time the trade was viewed with some apprehension. After all, in 2014 Mewis was looking like a regular for Tom Sermanni’s USWNT while Rodriguez missed the first NWSL season due to pregnancy, prior to which it seemed as though the then-26-year-old’s career was headed downhill.
The dynamic partnership of Holiday and Rodriguez became one of the most prolific in league history. In their two seasons together, they scored a combined 29 goals, with Holiday assisting on Rodriguez’s game-winning goals in both the 2014 and 2015 NWSL Championship finals. In Rodriguez, FC Kansas City found the complete forward their system requires. The close bond off the pitch between Holiday and Rodriguez made it seem as though they shared one mind on the field.
During the inaugural season, Buczkowski operated primarily in the shadows of Scott’s overtly physical and assertive defensive midfield play – Scott’s nickname, after all, is The Destroyer. But Scott’s 2014 departure to Notts County opened the door for Buczkowski to step into that vacated primary role, while Jenna Richmond shifted into the auxiliary defensive midfielder position, vital in the double pivot system, and performed admirably. College draft acquisition Kassey Kallman played out of position as a left wing back and Amy LePeilbet, who spend the first half of the season rehabbing her knee, completed a rotating central defense trio that included Nikki Phillips (née Krysik) and Becky Sauerbrunn.
Again, FC Kansas City finished second in the regular season, but this time they had the pieces in place to dispatch the Thorns in the semifinal. Waiting for them in the final was a Seattle team who, in many ways, helped shaped the success of FC Kansas City. More than that, this was a Seattle team with players of equal technical quality, including Kim Little, Jess Fishlock, and Megan Rapinoe. Even Laura Harvey’s preferred 4-3-3 formation is the complementary system to Andonovski’s 4-5-1.
In the end, the defensively-oriented FC Kansas City were able to stifle Seattle’s skill players. Holiday and Rodriguez proved a deadly pair, leading their side to their first championship with a 2-1 victory.
While the core composition of both clubs remained the same, the 2015 offseason brought a few significant changes. Anticipating the 2015 World Cup, Kansas City needed to find a way to play half of the season without their US international stalwarts. Defender Becca Moros came from Portland, Amy LePeilbet from Chicago, and Shea Groom was picked up in the second round of the 2015 NWSL College Draft. Groom would go on to be a key figure in the attack while the World Cup stars were away, until a right foot fracture cut weeks out of her rookie season.
But perhaps the most important move was the trade that sent youngsters Kassey Kallman and Morgan Marlborough to Boston Breakers and in return FC Kansas City gained veteran winger Heather O’Reilly. The addition of O’Reilly’s pace, tenacity, and experience created a matchup nightmare for opposing managers. Who do you man-mark or double in a front four that includes Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Holiday, Erika Tymrak, and Heather O’Reilly? Double one of those players and the other three will surely punish you with an attack on goal.
Yet at times in the 2015 season it looked like the wheels had come off the FC Kansas City machine. More so than other NWSL clubs, their reliance on US internationals plagued them throughout the season. For the first time Kansas City finished third in the league rather than second. This put them on a semifinal collision course with the defensively sound and offensively potent Chicago Red Stars, whose attack was spearheaded by Christen Press. However, they once again proved that, during the playoffs, the troubles fade away and their best football shines through. They swiftly dismantled Chicago at Toyota Park by a score of 3-0.
Once again Kansas City was set to face Seattle Reign in an NWSL final. This time a combination of stifling defense and a single Rodriguez goal did the trick. FC Kansas City became the first back-to-back champions in the NWSL – the league’s first dynastic presence.
So where does One Pass At A Time fit in 2016? As Bon Jovi sings, it’s all the same, only the names will change. Andonovski’s system endures in Kansas City but the names that have changed include the retirements of key players Amy LePeilbet, Nikki Phillips, Lauren Holiday, Leigh Ann Brown (née Robinson) and Jen Buczkowski. Amy Rodriguez will miss the 2016 season pregnant with her second child. Offseason acquisition Sydney Leroux – yet another trade from Seattle – will also miss out due to pregnancy. Becca Moros was traded to Western New York, who traded her to Houston. Kassey Kallman plays for Boston and Sarah Hagen for Orlando.
Familiar faces like Erika Tymrak, Becky Sauerbrunn, Heather O’Reilly, and Nicole Barnhart remain. New faces like Mandy Laddish and Shea Groom look set to make their imprint on Andonovski’s system and carry on the tradition started by those 2014 and 2015 teams. Even so, through eight games in the 2016 season, FC Kansas City sits just above Boston in ninth place. They’ve looked stagnant offensively and leaky defensively.
Losing that many special players would be an adjustment for any club. But if there’s any manager who can impose his system on this group of players and eventually right the ship it’s Vlatko Andonovski. After all, he’s done it before. One Pass At A Time.