FC Kansas City

FCKC’s Mathias is playing defense, thinking offense

Merritt Mathias still has a goal-scoring itch that may never disappear, but for now she’s learning to be patient.

It’s harder than it sounds.

A member of the FC Kansas City women’s pro soccer team, Mathias is something of a go-getter with a self-described attacking mindset. From her first days playing organized soccer through her college years at North Carolina and Texas A&M, she lived to score goals. She’s been quite good in that role, too, leading the Big 12 Conference in shots on goal in her senior season.

But things have changed.

After selecting Mathias in the third round of the National Women’s Soccer League’s supplemental draft this winter, FC Kansas City shifted Mathias to the defensive line, where she’s trying to settle in as a right outside back.

“My offensive mind tells me to go forward, but I’m being a little more careful and taming that a little bit,” Mathias said. “But it will never go away.”

FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski kept secret his plans to try Mathias in a defensive role until the Blues faced the University of Missouri in an exhibition game last month. And even then, Mathias was in the dark until she was asked to take the field as a defender.

She had mixed reactions to the move.

“I was a little upset at first, but I think I was more shocked than anything,” Mathias said. “But it came to a point where I knew I’d rather start and play than sit on the bench. If I have this opportunity, I’m going to make the most of it.”

So far, she has.

Mathias is a key cog in a defense that has allowed only one goal in the Blues’ 2-0-1 start to the NWSL’s inaugural season. That one goal came on a penalty kick.

FC Kansas City defensive captain Becky Sauerbrunn said Mathias has been a good fit for a defense that is gaining a reputation as one of the best in the eight-team league.

Perhaps today will provide a better of indication of that reputation’s validity. The Blues travel to Rochester, N.Y., to face the Western New York Flash, a team that features stars Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd. Wambach is the second leading goal scorer in the history of the U.S. women’s national team.

The Flash is 1-2-1 through four games. Lloyd is expected to make her first appearance of the season in today’s game, which is slated for a 6:35 p.m. start.

“We’re aware of their offensive power,” Andonovski said. “Our defense has been working hard. They will need to be at their best again.”

An extra burden has shifted to the defense over the past couple of weeks. The FC Kansas City coaching staff has placed an emphasis on working the back line into the offense.

The team’s back four — Mathias, Sauerbrunn, Leigh Ann Robinson and Lauren Sesselmann — have been well-suited for the extra responsibility. In last week’s 1-0 win in Seattle, Sauerbrunn sparked the game’s only goal by running the length of the field before assisting on Renae Cuellar’s third score of the season.

Andonovski called the play a perfect example of the style FC Kansas City would like to play, and it’s that attacking strategy that lends to Mathias’ success in the defense.

“Because of the vision of the team and system we’re playing, that’s why she’s back there,” Andonovski said. “She’s still involved in scoring opportunities.”

Mathias is optimistic those chances will come sooner rather than later.

“I’m still hoping it will come in the next couple of games,” Mathias said. “I’ve still got the itch to score. Hopefully it comes soon.”