FC Kansas City

Lauren Holiday is thriving with the Blues

Dead end warns the sign lurking near a bumpy, one-lane gravel road that snakes behind the sports complex at Park University in Parkville, Mo. But for one FC Kansas City women’s soccer player, it’s been quite the opposite.

At the conclusion of the path, a freshly-trimmed soccer field is bordered by tall trees on all but one side, the way water surrounds a headland.

This is the secluded training home to FC Kansas City, a first-year professional franchise playing in the National Women’s Soccer League. And that’s all it was to midfielder Lauren Holiday when she joined the team in March for its inaugural season.

It’s much more now.

“This is definitely where I fell back in love with the game,” Holiday says.

Saturday, Holiday will lead FC Kansas City into the National Women’s Soccer League semifinals, where it will face Portland FC at 1 p.m. at Shawnee Mission North District Stadium.

In four days, she is a near-lock to be announced as the inaugural NWSL most valuable player.

“It would be quite an honor to get that award — for my team, too,” Holiday says. “I feel like it’s been a great season, and I don’t just mean my goals or my assists.”

And to think, this season — the one she speaks so highly of — almost never happened.

Earlier this year, Holiday, considered giving up this part of her life.

Maybe she would just walk away from soccer altogether — her spot on the United States women’s national team, the newly-formed NWSL — all of it.

“Sometimes you actually question that a little bit,” says Holiday, 25. “Should I be doing something more? Should I be doing something else?”

Holiday was lucky enough to join her idols on the national team when she was just 17 years old. Her mother had to sign a release form for training camp because Holiday was underage.

She played in her first match at 19, and her six-year national team career includes two Olympic gold medals and a second-place finish in the 2011 World Cup.

It would have been a lot to walk away from.

“I’ve always thought she’s been one of the best players on the U.S. national team,” said Portland FC forward Christine Sinclair, a member of the Canadian national team. “She’s able to do everything well. She does the dirty work defensively. She wins air battles. She’s a threat on set pieces. She’s just a complete soccer player in every sense of the word.”

Holiday blossomed into a four-time All-American at UCLA, where she met her husband, NBA point-guard Jrue Holiday. They married last month in California.

But Lauren was asked to often change her role under national team coach Pia Sundhage, whose system wasn’t a natural fit for Holiday’s creative play in the midfield. Sundhage once publicly criticized Holiday in an ESPN story for focusing too much on her defense.

Simply put, Holiday was no longer enjoying the game. And with the inaugural season of the NWSL rapidly approaching, that made the decision to stick with soccer a difficult one.

“I was throwing ideas around in my head at that time, and Jrue really encouraged me to play in this league and see how I felt,” Holiday said. “I’m happy that I did.”

A brand new league offered Holiday a brand new start.

She was allocated to FC Kansas City in February — the second nearest destination to her hometown in Indiana.

Holiday was happy with the city. Even happier with coach Vlatko Andonovski’s possession-oriented style of play.

“I like to play around people and in traffic,” Holiday said. “That’s how I see the game. I want to be able to create things that way. So his style of soccer fits me.”

Indeed. Holiday led the NWSL with 12 goals and nine assists this season. Her play quickly caught the eye of current U.S. women’s national team coach Tom Sermanni, who flew to Kansas City for the league opener on April 13. Sundhage had stepped down on Sept. 1, 2012.

“When the ball is at her feet, anything can happen,” Sermanni said of Holiday. “She’s a joy to watch.”

Those watching closely — particularly her teammates — credit Holiday with a young team’s development over the course of the season. A slow start gave way to a 10-match unbeaten streak before the Blues lost the final two matches of the season.

Midfielder Erika Tymrak, who was picked as the NWSL rookie of the year, credits Holiday with igniting her professional career. Tymrak was called up to the U.S. national team on Thursday.

“Lauren is the type of player (who) plays for other people, and you don’t really see many of those at the high level,” Tymrak said. “She’s one of the best midfielders in the world, and she’s helped me so much. The fact I get to play next to her every day is a blessing.”

Tymrak and Holiday form the league’s top scoring duo out of the midfield, combining for 18 goals this season.

But in the end, it’s not about the individual numbers. The Blues’ semifinal match against Portland will either end their season or send them to next week’s championship match.

Holiday is at peace with either.

“Regardless of what happens at the end of the year, I’m going to remember this season well,” Holiday said. “After playing with these girls and being on this team, soccer is back to being a good thing in my life again.”