For the first time since the beginning of the 2014 season, FC Kansas City will open its NWSL campaign on Sunday without the words “defending champion” tacked on in front of its name.
Though that may sound uninspiring, there are a pair of silver linings in the mix: The club can play with less pressure and its attack has much more room to breathe.
Amy Rodriguez’s return and Sydney Leroux’s long-awaited debut automatically gives the club one of the most powerful front lines in the league. Add Shea Groom, who as a second-year player was formidable in their absence, and coach Vlatko Andonovski could field an offense more threatening than even the Portland Thorns did last year.
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Portland was second in the league with 35 goals during the regular season and finished in first place before losing to the eventual champion Western New York Flash, who led the NWSL with 40 regular-season goals, in the opening round of the postseason.
Without Rodriguez — and, ultimately, without Leroux — in the lineup due to maternity leave, FC Kansas City had no one to rely on but Groom. The Liberty native matured quickly and led the team with eight goals, tying for fifth in the league.
But she had no support. Midfielder Yael Averbuch was second on the team with three goals. The Blues found the back of the net 18 times. Only the Boston Breakers were worse, scoring 14 goals during their 3-15-2 campaign.
However, FCKC was tied for the second-best defense in the league. It allowed 20 goals while the Flash — who rebranded and became the North Carolina Courage this season — gave up 26 during the regular season. Keeper Nicole Barnhardt led the NWSL with 83 saves, 21 more than Orlando’s Ashlyn Harris and Houston’s Lydia Williams.
She also tied for most clean sheets in the league, holding opponents scoreless six times in 20 games.
So putting Rodriguez and Leroux in the same lineup, adding first-round draft pick Christina Gibbons to a back line captained by veteran Becky Sauerbrunn and further bolstering the defense by signing Caroline Flynn and Maegan Kelly, a St. Teresa Academy grad, is a massive improvement for a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in its short history last year.
Expectations might run high as a result but the Blues are in good position to open the 2017 season on a hot streak. They won three of their last four matches, played the Chicago Red Stars to a draw and outscored opponents 7-4 in the final month of the season.
“We’re really confident in what we’ve put together over the past five weeks,” Groom said. “Last season we lost a lot of players to retirement, babies, so I’m excited to see what we put on the field this year... I think we got a chip on our shoulders. I think people kind of underestimate us after last year even though I think we put together a good season despite how we started off.”
FC Kansas City kicks off against the Boston Breakers, a team that beat FCKC both times last season, at 5 p.m. Tickets are available on fckansascity.com. The game will be available to stream online for free at go90.com.