It certainly was a dream start for FC Kansas City, its owners and women's soccer fans in Kansas City. Just three minutes into the game, Renae Cuellar scored the first goal in franchise history (and in National Women's Soccer League history).
The rest of the match wouldn't disappoint either. Facing off against the potent attack of the Portland Thorns (who feature two of the three women nominated for the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year: Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair), the Blues held their own, showed defensive strength and gave the 6,784 fans in attendance proof this team is a potential title contender.
Having missed the chance to experience the inauguration of an American soccer league in 1996*, I opted to spend Saturday night sitting in the stands.*The Kansas City Wiz played their first match in Kansas City on April 13, 1996. What a fantastic bit of coincidence.
I'd never attended a women's match before and, beyond the notable American/Canadian players on the field, had little knowledge of how the game would unfold. Would the pace of play be fast? Would it be physical? Would there be scoring? Would we see the effects of limited training time for the top-end internationals?
Overall, I left impressed.
I was worried before hand that the league -- thanks to every team starting from essentially scratch two months ago -- would suffer from disjointed play. That wasn't the case at least on Saturday night. The match was fairly open and exciting with plenty of physical play.**Actually, a lot more physical than I was prepared for.
The pace was a bit slower than I like from a soccer game, but it was understandable and not a big deal. The play was astoundingly physical (Lauren Sesselmann vs. Christine Sinclair is a PPV-quality event -- maybe an undercard to Aurelien Collin vs. Eric Hassli). There was a lovely goal from the run of play and a well-taken (and perhaps controversial) penalty. And, as the game wound down, the limited training time did seem to have an effect on KC's fitness.
But it was a fun, exciting and relatively open game. Which, honestly, helped me overcome the lack of ideal conditions (football lines, artificial turf, bleachers, no instant replay).**While the field and stadium issues at Shawnee Mission District Stadium -- and the lack of a TV partner for the league -- might be detractors for some, it didn't really bother my enjoyment of the game. Obviously, it's not ideal, but starting in a small high school stadium gives the team a built-in home to rent and room to grow in the future. The team and the league as a whole have to take it slow. The name of the game -- as it was with MLS 17 years ago -- is to just keep growing. Football lines, artificial turf and shaky livestream options are, unfortunately, part those growing pains.** **One issue that I will point out is that organization needs to get a better handle on the pre-game experience. (I have full confidence that they will.) If they expect to draw crowds as big as the home-opener, they'll have to deal with processing long ticket lines quickly and sorting out parking issues -- which, granted, were very minimal. This isn't a personal complaint, I'm OK with standing and walking. But there are others out there who might not be as patient with a budding franchise.
The highlight of the evening, though, was the product on the field from a KC-perspective. The Blues look pretty good and will probably only get better as the season progresses.
While they didn't attract any of the "big" names in the allocation draft (whereas Portland will add another rising U.S. star in Tobin Heath in the summer), the Blues put together a deep and strong squad.
The main strength for KC seems to be the partnership of Becky Sauerbrunn (a preseason favorite for defender of the year) and Lauren Sesselmann (the front-runner for my favorite player based on her fearlessness and heady defensive play). With the exception of a controversial penalty, Kansas City controlled play and, despite lining up against such a top-heavy attack, Sauerbrunn and Sesselmann kept everything in front of them and easy for goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart. Leigh Ann Robinson and Merritt Mathias look to be dependable fullbacks to boot.
But the quality wasn't restricted to the backline.
Midfielder/winger Kristie Mewis was often the best woman on the field in the first half. She's fast, technically sound, sees the field well and can play on either wing. I'm obviously not an expert on women's college soccer, but I can't believe she fell to the third spot in the draft.
Another unlikely standout from the game was Mexican forward Renae Cuellar. She didn't turn any heads during the allocation draft, but has during the preseason and did with her goal Saturday night. She's got excellent pace and decent instincts in the box. My one concern: As Portland turned up the pressure in the second half, Cuellar was often isolated up top and became fairly ineffectual -- hold up play doesn't look to be her strength. That's more a formation problem (the team backed out of a 4-3-3 and into a 4-5-1 as the defensive substitutions came on and tired legs took over).
I also thought the midfield as a whole -- Jen Buczkowski and Desiree Scott in the middle, Lauren Cheney as the distributor and Casey Loyd pushing the game from the left -- controlled the game in the first half. While Cheney -- easily the biggest name heading into the season for KC -- looked a little off her game, she still had a few moments of quality. Given a few more games and some extended practice time (she's been off on national team duty recently), I expect her to have a much more expansive attacking role.
I expect Scott -- a strong-tackling and tireless worker -- to become a fan favorite for many.
Strong. Deep. Young. Exciting. Excellent defense. Sounds about like how another team Kansas City soccer fans are used too.
Which is a pretty good place to start for a new franchise. They'll look to keep building on this start with its second match on Saturday against the Boston Breakers. Kickoff is at 7:35 p.m. at Shawnee Mission District Stadium.