Joco’s pro women’s soccer team, FC Kansas City, seeks longevity where others have failed

07/30/2013 5:36 PM

07/30/2013 11:12 PM

Seeking peaceful escape from a turbulent, topsy-turvy profession, FC Kansas City president Brian Budzinski departed for Mexico with his family in late June. A 10-day vacation with no work, no Internet access and no contact with life back home.

That was the plan, anyway.

But a few days into the vacation, FC Kansas City, the professional women’s soccer team that calls Overland Park home, finalized the first trade in franchise history, shipping second-leading scorer Renae Cuellar to Seattle in exchange for a package that included Teresa Noyola.

The itch to follow the story from south of the border nagged at Budzinski, who eventually gave in to temptation. He paid $17 for a one-day Internet access code, logged on to the team’s social media sites and measured the reaction from afar.

“I had to read what they were saying,” said Budzinski. “Or if they were even saying anything.”

The fans were saying plenty, but the feedback wasn’t positive. “This doesn’t make any sense!!!” one commenter wrote on Facebook.

Other remarks echoed that sentiment. They questioned the intelligence of the trade, especially for a team in the mix for the top spot in the newly formed National Women’s Soccer League.

Budzinski smiles.

“I loved it, even the negative stuff,” he says during an interview in his Prairie Village office two weeks later. “That was a sign that the fans are engaged in this team.”

Without a break in his words, Budzinski leans forward to emphasize his next point, placing one elbow on his desk and using the other hand to tap on the wood.

“When this season started back in April, we said our goal was to make our fans passionate about this team — because if you have no passion, nothing else matters,” Budzinski says.

You get the feeling he’s speaking from experience.

“That,” he says, “that was passion.”

Defender Becky Sauerbrunn, a St. Louis native and one of the faces of the team, sees another key element at play.

“I think it’s helped we have an ownership group that knows the area,” she said. “It’s been a win-win.”

The passion of that ownership group — Chris Likens, Greg Likens, Brad Likens and Budzinski — lies on the soccer field. The same four men also own the Missouri Comets of the Major Indoor Soccer League.

They landed their newest prize — the FC Kansas City Blues — purely by accident.

A year and a half ago, they planned to establish and own a six-team division in the USL W-League, an amateur league considered the second tier of women’s soccer in the U.S.

Instead, by fortunate coincidence, they stumbled onto something greater. Placing a call to Arnim Whisler, a longtime owner of the Chicago Red Stars (now a fellow member of the NWSL), they asked Whisler to take part in their new endeavor in the W-League. But he countered with another offer.

“He told us that if we were looking at owning a women’s soccer team, there were discussions U.S. Soccer was going to look at partially funding a new league,” Budzinski said. “I thought, ‘We’re going to need to to evaluate this.’”

With the recommendation of Whisler, the Kansas City-based ownership group was invited to New York City for a meeting with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and CEO Dan Flynn. They confirmed the rumors — U.S. Soccer had planned to start a new women’s professional league, place its own national team players on eight teams and fund their salaries. Furthermore, the Mexican and Canadian soccer federations planned to do the same.

“As soon as Sunil said they were in, we were in, too,” Budzinski said. “They have access to the best players in the world and were ready to pay their salaries. Of course we were extremely interested.”

After a three-week vetting process, U.S. soccer announced its new league in November of last year, and Kansas City was on the list.

Making the cut, believe it or not, was the easy part.

The hard work? Making this league survive.

The two previous women’s professional outdoor soccer leagues — the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) and Women’s Professional Soccer (2009-11), lasted only three years.

As the NWSL enters the fifth month of its inaugural season, the battle to avoid a hat trick of collapse is ongoing.

If this incarnation of women’s professional soccer is to survive, fans like Jeff Alexander will be the ones to credit. Alexander is a 31-year-old maintenance man who lives in Overland Park. He’s a 15-minute drive from Shawnee Mission North District Stadium, FC Kansas City’s home field.

He’s attended five games this season and would like to see more, but his work schedule precludes that. The real reason he attends is his daughter. Six-year-old Emma has become quite fond of soccer.

“I can bring my daughter up here and she gets to talk to the players and meet the players and get their autographs,” Alexander says as Emma sticks out her hat for forward Courtney Jones to sign at a recent game against Western New York. “What other professional team around here does that?”

At this stadium, players willingly interact with fans — whether it be after the games, during local soccer camps or other public appearances. They know that it’s part of the job; it’s not always a choice.

“I think it’s going to be extremely important we do our own marketing,” said Sauerbrunn, who also played in the now-defunct WPS. “I think with women’s soccer, we have to be more personable. We’re the girls next door. That gives us a different feel for fans.”

FC Kansas City doesn’t spend money for radio spots or TV commercials. Instead, the franchise reserves most of its dollars for online advertising.

Most of all, though, the players must market themselves.

“The players are our biggest asset,” marketing director Jeff Husted says. “If you get a family to know (midfielder) Lauren Holiday, and they get to talk to her, they’re going to come watch her play, and they’re going to enjoy the game.”

So far, so good. FC Kansas City is second in the eight-team league in attendance at 4,400 fans per game, trailing only Portland.

Portland forward Alex Morgan and Western New York striker Abby Wambach — perhaps the two biggest stars on the United States women’s national team — have praised the atmosphere at FC Kansas City’s home games.

And Blues players like Holiday and Sauerbrunn have developed their own fan followings.

“It’s exceeded my expectations,” Sauerbrunn said. “We’ve been warmly welcomed.”

For road matches, a dedicated group of fans heads to watch parties at Futbol Club Eatery and Tap, a restaurant in Overland Park that opened earlier this year.

“It blows my mind the way they come out and watch — we’ve been able to pack them in pretty good,” Futbol Club owner Pat Phelan said. “And you know, they’re really intelligent and understanding (of soccer). They know the names and faces on their team.

The NWSL awarded FC Kansas City the league’s inaugural game, an April 13 date with Portland FC, a team predicted by many to be the league’s best.

Budzinski fought hard to host the league opener. And he wanted the challenge of facing Portland.

But a day before the match, FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski walked into Budzinski’s office and expressed some concern. A former Comets assistant coach, Andonovski had just spoken to his captain, Sauerbrunn, who lauded Portland forwards Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair as two of the best in the world. It worried him.

“Of course I was nervous,” Andonovski said. “In a new league (with) a new team, you don’t know how good we are. Are we the best? Are we the worst? You really don’t know until you play.”

The night proved to be a success. The game drew a capacity crowd of 6,700, which included 600 standing room-only tickets at SM North District Stadium.

The teams played to a 1-1 tie, and the Blues haven’t looked back. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, they sit in first place in the eight-team league. FC Kansas City hasn’t lost in its past nine matches. The top four teams qualify for the postseason.

The initial rush of optimism about support for the team — and the league — has yet to fade. On the whole, the league averages 4,000 fans per match. Not all teams are drawing well — Chicago and Sky Blue, a team in New Jersey, see fewer than 2,000 per match — but it’s not time to panic just yet.

Unlike its league predecessors in the WUSA and WPS, the salaries for the U.S., Canadian and Mexican national team players are subsidized by their respective soccer federations. That’s an average of seven players per team whose paychecks aren’t signed by team owners.

“They are substantially different,” Gulati said of the previous and current business models. “In addition to funding what could be the top seven players of each team, the model is quite different both in terms of the sort of players you might go out and get, in terms of marketing and promotional efforts and maybe in terms of some of the stadiums.”

That points to some potential longevity for the NWSL. In turn, so does this: Sources said the league has already been approached by a dozen prospective owners hoping to add a team for the 2014 season. They expect the league to expand from eight to 10 teams next season.

In 2011, the Missouri Comets and the Kansas City Command — a now-defunct Arena Football League team — partnered their marketing campaigns. At the time, Chris Likens owned the Command and Budzinski was team president for the Comets.

A year later, Budzinski was watching a Command football game at the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City. It seemed like a perfect marriage, but in fact it was far from it.

“There was no passion for the Command,” Budzinski recalls. “Nobody cared about wins or losses. Nobody cared if a guy made a catch. Nobody cared. If there’s no passion, you can’t sell anything.”

Budzinski speaks from experience when he makes enthusiasm a top priority with FC Kansas City. The Command folded after the 2012 season.

So far, passion for the Blues has been on display in more ways than one.

In a July 7 match, for example, Western New York and its star, Wambach, visited SM North District Stadium. Only a month earlier, Wambach had scored four goals in one match to become the most prolific scorer in U.S. women’s national team history. Holiday assisted on two of the four goals.

When Wambach’s name was announced during introduction of the starting lineups, she was cheered by the FC Kansas City faithful. But the love didn’t last long. About 20 minutes into the first half, Wambach fell to the grass, and the referee whistled a foul on an FCKC player.

The crowd disagreed with the call and booed. Loudly.

One more welcome sign for Budzinski.

“We have Abby Wambach in Kansas City, and that’s cool — she’s the greatest goal scorer in U.S. soccer history,” Budzinski says. “But If Abby Wambach scores against us, that (stinks). That’s the attitude you want.

“It takes a lot to get your home crowd to get on board with that, and I wasn’t sure we would get there in the first year. But these fans are there. We’re there.”

National headliners

FC Kansas City has four players on the roster who also suit up for the U.S. Women’s National Team:

Lauren Holiday:

Formerly known as Lauren Cheney, she married NBA point guard Jrue Holiday in early July. Despite playing in just 15 of the team’s 19 matches, she is a leading candidate to win the NWSL most valuable player award this season. She is tied for the league lead with 10 goals and has also posted a league-best nine assists while playing attacking midfielder.

Becky Sauerbrunn:

A native of St. Louis, Sauerbrunn has been a member of the U.S. national team for five years. As the right center back, she anchors the Blues’ defense, which has allowed a league-low 17 goals this year. That’s fewer than one per match.

Kristie Mewis:

One of the most versatile players on the FC Kansas City roster, Mewis opened the year as a starting midfielder but has since shifted to the defensive side of the field. Her spring addition to the national team gives the Blues a league-high four U.S. national players on the American roster.

Nicole Barnhart:

In 17 starts in goal, Barnhart has recorded a league-high 10 shutouts. She also leads the NWSL in fewest goals-against per game, at 0.82. Barnhart has lost only three times this season as the team’s starting goalie.

Meet the Blues
No. Pos. Name Age Ht. Birthplace College
1 GK Bianca Henninger 22 5-6 Los Gatos, Calif. Santa Clara
2 F Melissa Henderson 23 58 Garland, Texas Notre Dame
3 F Tiffany Cameron 21 5-5 Toronto, Canada Ohio St Univ.
4 D Becky Sauerbrunn 27 5-7 St. Louis Univ. of Virginia
6 M Jen Buczkowski 28 5-5 Elk Grove Village, Ill. Notre Dame
7 F Casey Loyd 24 5-6 San Diego, Calif. UNC
8 D Courtney Jones 22 5-8 Danville, Calif. UNC
9 D Merritt Mathias 22 5-6 Birmingham, Ala. Texas A
10 M Teresa Noyola 23 5-3 Palo Alto, Calif. Stanford
11 M Desiree Scott 25 5-3 Winnipeg, Canada Univ. of Manitoba
12 F Lauren Holiday 25 5-8 Indianapolis, Ind. UCLA
13 D Leigh Ann Robinson 26 5-9 San Diego, Calif. San Diego
14 D Lauren Sesselmann 29 5-8 Green Bay, Wisc. Purdue
15 M/F Erika Tymrak 21 5-5 Bradenton, Fla. Florida
16 D Nia Williams 22 5-4 Roeland Park Missouri State
17 M Sinead Farrelly 23 5-5 Havertown, Calif. Virginia
18 GK Nicole Barnhart 31 5-10 Pottstown, Pa. Stanford
19 M Kristie Mewis 21 5-8 Hanson, Mass. Boston College
20 D Katie Kelly 25 5-5 Kansas City Marquette
Res. M Missy Geha 26 5-6 Overland Park Kansas
Res. D Natalie Norris 22 5-9 Sandy Utah St.
Res. M Vendula Strnadova 23 5-5 Czech Republic Memphis
Res. F Jaime French 23 5-3 Wheaton, Ill. Wheaton

NWSL standings
Team Pts. GP W L T GF GA GD
FC Kansas City 35 19 10 4 5 30 17 13
Sky Blue FC 31 18 9 5 4 25 19 6
Portland Thorns FC 31 17 9 4 4 24 18 6
Western New York Flash 27 17 7 4 6 28 17 11
Boston Breakers 23 18 6 7 5 29 29 0
Chicago Red Stars 23 18 6 7 5 24 30 -6
Seattle Reign FC 18 18 5 10 3 20 29 -9
Washington Spirit 7 17 1 12 4 13 34 -21

Key — Pts: aggregate points; GP: games played; W: aggregate wins; L: aggregate losses; T: aggregate ties; GF: goals for; GA: goals against; GD: goal differential.

FCKC’s remaining games:

Aug. 4:

at Portland Thorns FC, 7:30 p.m.

Aug 10:

at Boston Breakers, 5 p.m.

Aug 18: Chicago Red Stars, 3:10 p.m.

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