A brief pregame meeting between two first-time head coaches quickly turned from a joking nature to serious wonderment.
Moments before their teams took the field for the inaugural game of the National Women’s Soccer League, FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski and Portland boss Cindy Parlow Cone met at midfield and shook hands. The conversation ended abruptly, but not before they had voiced their excitement and eagerness to kick off the season in front of a sold-out, loud and energetic crowd at Shawnee Mission North District Stadium.
They departed for their respective locker rooms after sharing one final thought.
“We really had no idea what to expect from our teams,” said Andonovski, noting the minimal practice times both coaches had with their full teams. “We kept asking the question: ‘How good are we?’
“We showed that we’re actually not bad.”
Not bad at all.
Billed as a matchup between perhaps the top two teams in the eight-squad league, FC Kansas City and Portland FC fought to a 1-1 draw Saturday in front of 6,784 fans in Overland Park.
And it seemed a fitting result.
It was appropriate that FC Kansas City forward Renae Cuellar — the team’s pleasant surprise of training camp, according to Andonovski — scored the first goal in the history of the league. After collecting a long pass, Cuellar beat Portland keeper Karina LeBlanc on the near side — putting the Blues ahead less than three minutes into the game.
“It was awesome and exciting,” said Cuellar, whose family had driven from California to attend the game. “I thought I was having a heart attack when I scored. There were a lot of things going on in my body.”
Portland wouldn’t go quietly — especially not with the top goal scorers in the world in Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair.
FC Kansas City spent its minimal training time focusing on diminishing that duo’s touches — and executed its plan to a largely successful degree — but that opened up an alley for Thorns forward Danielle Foxhoven in the 66th minute.
Foxhoven received a short pass from Allie Long in the goalie box, and FC Kansas City defender Lauren Sesselman bumped Foxhoven on her way toward the goal, resulting in a penalty kick.
Sinclair buried the ensuing kick into the right corner of the goal. Blues keeper Nicole Barnhart guessed left.
Barnhart made three saves in the game. Each team had eight shots in an evenly possessed match.
“I think that PK call was questionable,” Blues defender Becky Sauerbrunn said. “I don’t think it was a PK.”
It was the lone blunder for a makeshift FC Kansas City defense that cut off passing lanes to prevent Morgan and Sinclair from getting involved in the offense.
“It was something that kept me up a little bit last night, Sauerbrunn said of defending the two goal scorers. “But I think our back line did a really good job neutralizing them.”
Especially given the lack of preparation — which was evident nearly as often as the displays of talent.
While each team sent its national team players — American, Canadian and Mexican — overseas during training camp, they were at full strength for Saturday’s league opener. Still, they were forced to learn to play together on the fly.
“I think there were jitters in everyone’s blood,” Morgan said. “Everyone was really excited to get out there. Kansas City came out ready to play, but it took us awhile to get that rhythm.”