On the eve of Christmas in this crazy year that’s been 2020, we at The Blue Testament thought we’d put together a list of Christmas wishes for jolly St. Nicholas to bring Kansas City soccer fans. Whether you are a Sporting Kansas City fan, Sporting KC II fan or looking forward to the return of NWSL to KC, there is something for everyone.
Here to help me (Chad Smith) today are Stacy Fulk and one of our newest writers, Cindy Lara.
Stacy: So as for me, I have two things I’d love to receive. First, I want to have a season where the team has its best players available for more than half the season. With Alan Pulido and Felipe Gutierrez missing so much time this past season I would love to have the opportunity to see our best players playing together regularly in matches. I know that injuries happen and players will have to miss a game now and then, but can it please not be for the whole season or even half of it?! Please!
Chad: I have to agree with Stacy here. 2019 and 2020 had a good amount of injuries and I’m excited to see what this team could be if they could mostly just stay on the field. Especially the stars. I took a look at how teams would fare without their best players and it wasn’t pretty. Let’s see what these guys can do in 2021.
One Last Run with this Core
Chad: The “core” of this team could be changing in the coming year or two. Already gone is future Sporting Legend, Matt Besler. Graham Zusi’s contract runs through the end of 2021. Roger Espinoza and Felipe Gutierrez are currently unsigned, though the team is working on it. A healthy season with the strong core of players (add in more tenured vets like Johnny Russell and Ilie Sanchez too) plus newer additions like Pulido, Gadi Kinda and the newly signed Remi Walter. Plus this could be Gianluca Busio’s last season in the blue and blue. Let’s get Roger Espinoza back and get him a title!
No COVID and a Packed Stadium
Stacy: Lastly for me, the biggest wish for me this year for SKC fans is that we can all be together again at Children’s Mercy Park. I attended the limited capacity matches and to say it isn’t the same is an understatement. I want to see the Cauldron full and loud and rowdy! I want the South Stand to hold down their end of the pitch. I miss seeing the people that I always sit by at the games and the high fives after goals. I wish that we can all collectively show our love for this team and this city and this game together, side by side. Of course I want us to be safe and healthy, but it’s Christmas so I wish for a miracle! Merry Christmas SKC Nation!
An Improved Defense
Chad: It may not have felt like it, but the defense was a lot better in 2020. The team allowed an average of 1.19 goals per game during the regular season. That’s compared to 1.97 per game in 2019. The huge improvement was obviously marred by big losses in elimination games in the MLS Cup Playoffs and MLS is Back Tournament (plus that 5-2 drubbing by the last place Houston Dynamo).
The team appears to have made a move in the direction of better defense with the signing of Remi Walter. A hard working midfielder who Peter Vermes apparently envisions in the defensive midfielder role. Bringing back midfielders like Gutierrez and Espinoza should provide more bite in the midfield (and fresh legs with all this depth).
Now all that’s left is a couple new center backs. The only signed players are Andreu Fontas, Roberto Puncec and Graham Smith. Puncec was an everyday starter but the other two have just 30 starts between them over the last three (!) seasons. That’s out of a possible 89 starts (really 178 possible starts as there are two CBs per game). With Winston Reid and Besler gone, the team needs a solid signing, probably of at least the Target Allocation Money variety (between $612,500 and $1,612,500 in salary).
On the Return of the NWSL to KC
Cindy: The NWSL in Kansas City from 2013-2017 has a complicated history. From a team/club success, FC Kansas City won back-to-back NWSL Championships in 2014 and 2015. Names like Vlatko Andonovski, Becky Sauerbrunn, Lauren Holiday, Nicole Barnhart, Amy Rodriguez, Heather O’Reilly, Jen Buczkowski, Leigh Ann Robinson, Becca Moros, and Amy LePeilbet made the team one of the most successful NWSL teams in its history.
Off-the-field, FC Kansas City was one of the most mismanaged teams in the league. Its first owners, Chris Likens and his sons Brad and Greg Likens, were investigated by the league for allegedly sending sexually demeaning emails regarding players. The team was then sold to Elam Baer, who was based out of Minnesota, but kept the team in Kansas City. His mismanagement and absentee ownership led to Andonovski’s departure, and the team ceased operations in November 2017.
It’s been three years now, as the NWSL returns to KC, I hope this time it is different. Kansas City does have a rich soccer history with a highly-successful MLS team and USL team, its former NWSL championship-winning club, and the Kansas City Comets. No doubt about it, an NWSL team in KC makes sense since it is a great soccer community, and the city gets a second chance to embrace the NWSL beyond the fan support it build those years ago.
Great owners is what can make a difference in a team. In the NWSL, having the backing of an MLS owner has helped keep the league going (like in Portland, Houston, Orlando, and Utah before their troubles). But the NWSL has to eventually gain more independent owners, and I hope Angie and Chris Long, along with it ownership team, invest properly in the team to make it a successful NWSL franchise. So, here’s what I wish for as the NWSL returns to KC:
- Bring world-class players to the team.
Right now, the roster does not have any current US National Team players as Utah lost three in 2020. Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara asked for trades, and Christen Press signed with Manchester United, later to be left unprotected in the Expansion Draft for Racing Louisville who picked her up.
- Market the team like there’s no tomorrow.
The Kansas City market has had leading viewership for USWNT games and NWSL games recently. The interest is there, for sure. If done right, T-Bones Stadium, the team’s new home, can bring fans to games, as much as a post-Covid world can bring, that is.
Continued Youth Development
Chad: Fear not Sporting KC II fans, I’ve got something on the list for you too. Over the past two years we’ve seen the team turn from a team that was signing lots of veterans and trying to win a USL Championship into a team that has really turned to focus on youth development. 2020 finally brought a nice combination of the two. There were a few veterans on the team, but they were mostly there to push the young guys or see if they could break through to MLS. Then there were lots of youth players. Guys on Homegrown deals, Academy contracts or just talented youth players that SKC wanted to get a look at. We need a lot more of that in 2021.
There are only eight players signed right now and only Christian Duke is a veteran. The rest are talented players from the SKC Academy, college grads trying to make a run at the pros or talented youth internationals on loan with the second team. While I’d like to see another veteran or two added to push the kids for minutes, I want to see lots of time on the field for first team Homegrown players, Academy players and other young pros. If the team can be competitive while doing that, then that’s even better. They were very competitive in 2020 despite playing 14 of 16 games on the road. With a balanced schedule there is no reason to not expect growth and success in 2021.