Despite a season that’s included a mathematical elimination from playoff contention, FC Kansas City head coach Vlatko Andonovski thinks the year has been far from a wash.
The Blues play their final home game at Swope Soccer Village at 5 p.m. Sunday against Chicago. With only two games remaining, and with a 6-8-4 record, the team could still produce a losing season.
But the young pieces of the roster developed when they had to — mostly because they really did have to. The season included the comings and goings of four national team players, one retirement (Jen Buczkowski), and two pregnancies (Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez).
Perhaps the best example of that youth infiltration has been Lo’eau LaBonta, the 23-year-old drafted 34th overall by Sky Blue FC last year. LaBonta started this season as a practice player with FCKC but earned a contract in May. Soon after being bumped up to the full-time roster, LaBonta also joined the starting lineup — partially because of absences in the midfield and back line, but partially because of her own progress.
“She intercepts a lot of balls in the middle and wins a lot of tackles,” Andonovski said. “I know sometimes looking at her, you might be like, ‘oh, her size (5 feet 2) maybe is an issue.’ But in a 50-50 ball, I’d put Lo’eau against anybody.”
Around this time last year, LaBonta was at the lowest point of her career. She had played most of the 2015 season with Sky Blue FC in New Jersey but got cut after national team players returned to the team from the World Cup.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” LaBonta said. “I’ve been through it all.”
But she’s at a peak in that coaster this season, starting six games since signing her contract at the end of May.
Part of LaBonta’s success has come from a subtle change in position. During her college career at Stanford, LaBonta was primarily an attacking midfielder, pushing forward on possessions and aggressively going after balls.
But now, under Andonovski, LaBonta has moved into a more defensive midfielder position — a position that has given her a major foothold in the league. It wasn’t always an easy adjustment.
“It’s pretty funny because every time I start to go forward, I’ll hear people on the sidelines, like, ‘Lo’eau, stay back! Don’t go!’ ” she said. “I have to ground myself. I’ve definitely matured in that aspect.”
That maturation has kept LaBonta in the lineup, albeit not the starting 11, despite the return of all FCKC’s Olympic players.
“She came as a practice player and forced me to make some tough decisions, in terms of player personnel,” Andonovski said. “I feel like every game now, it’s almost unreal — it’s impossible not to put her in, whether it’s starting or finishing the game.”
LaBonta hasn’t been the only young player getting time and development through FCKC’s down year — rookie Alex Arlitt, forward Shea Groom and defender Katie Bowen were all critical pieces. All four are 23 or younger and are likely to play even larger roles moving forward.
“It really is exciting for next year,” Andonovski said. “I’m the most excited about continuing the development process with these same players. There is still so much potential.”