Why did KC NWSL have such a rough start, and how are things now on the right track?

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Less than one month ago, ahead of Kansas City NWSL’s game against the Washington Spirit, KC head coach Huw Williams said that he wanted to finish the final six games of the season with a winning record and average at least two goals per game.

At that point, Kansas City sat rock bottom of the National Women’s Soccer League standings with 11 points from 18 games and had managed just two multi-goal games all season.

The team had seemed to be gradually starting to click at the time, but even then, it seemed a little preposterous.

But perhaps Williams was onto something. Since that statement, Kansas City has gone 1-1-1, scoring four goals in those three games and picked up points in both home games; a 0-0 tie against the Portland Thorns last weekend and Wednesday night’s 3-0 win against the Houston Dash.

Sure, his side is still a little shy of that two-goals-a-game mark and the record is evenly balanced, but Kansas City has shown a remarkable improvement since the franchise’s first-ever win on Aug. 14 after a 14-game winless stretch start to the season.

Including that first victory, Kansas City has picked up 11 points in eight games — prior to that KC had managed just four points in 13 games.

KC sits two points behind fellow expansion team Louisville City with three games left in the season. A couple of months ago, catching ninth-placed Louisville seemed like a far-flung idea.

Now, overtaking Louisville is the goal. And a realistic one at that.

But why is Kansas City finally kicking into gear as the season winds to a close? Why couldn’t have this come sooner in the year when it mattered? And can this form carry over into the 2022 season?

Let’s take a look.

Early-season injury bug

Sure, blaming a season on injuries is the easy way out. Every team deals with injuries and most teams adjust accordingly.

But sometimes it just becomes too much. Heck, even Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes could only point to injuries during Sporting KC’s horrid 2019 season when at one point the club had 16 players injured.

In the first seven weeks of the 2021 NWSL season, Kansas City NWSL had 17 players injured at one point or another. Add ithe fact that it was the club’s first couple of weeks with a new head coach and coaching staff, you’d probably have more success at a poker table with a pair of 2’s.

“We just couldn’t get out of players missing games,” Williams said on Thursday. “It would be constant and consistent, we were never able to get the lineup consistent. That’s a huge challenge.”

Heading into the seventh game of the season, only four players had featured for Kansas City in all six games so far. Early-season injuries to key players such as Lo LaBonta and Chloe Logarzo — who recently tore her ACL and will miss the remainder of the 2021 season — stunted KC’s potential to seriously compete in the early days of the season.

Fast forward to mid-October and 10 players have played at least 14 games this season — two-thirds of this season’s games. And that’s not including the likes of new-signings Kristen Hamilton and Hailie Mace, who joined midseason and have become regulars in the starting 11.

A new guard

The way Kansas City has been playing in recent weeks is what Williams had envisioned when he first took over as head coach in December — defenders joining in on the attack, lots of penetration through the defensive lines, and plenty of shots from all different angles.

He acknowledges that it took too long to get to that point. But sometimes you need the right tools for the job.

And, with all due respect to the team that Williams inherited, he needed to bring in the players that would do the job he envisioned.

Between the 2021 NWSL draft and trades, Williams has brought 15 players into the club. Eight of those have become key components to the starting 11 while several more have added important depth.

From the draft, outside back Kiki Pickett and midfielders Victoria Pickett and Addie McCain have all become crucial parts of the team. Santa Clara defender Alex Loera and K-State midfielder Brookelynn Entz are also set to join the team in 2022 after remaining in college for their senior year.

“We’re very proud of that draft, we think we killed it,” Williams said. “We think that we have by far the most effective draft compared to anybody else.”

On the trade front, KC is yet to make a bust.

Among them, forwards Hamilton, Darian Jenkins and Mariana Larroquette have scored six of KC’s nine goals this season between them, Kristen Edmonds has been a jack of all trades on multiple lines, and goalkeeper AD Franch has been a revelation for the backline.

“I think that was a big help in solidifying our backline and organizing our players and giving confidence to players around her,” Williams said about Franch. “Players like, Elizabeth Ball for example, is playing a lot better now because she’s healthier but also she’s got a goalkeeper behind her that’s constantly helping her, too.”

Settling on a formation

Name a formation: A flat 4-4-2, 4-2-1-3, 4-1-2-3, a 4-4-2 diamond.

Kansas City has tried them all at some point this season. But it’s the last one that’s proven to be the golden ticket for KC — a 4-4-2 diamond with Desiree ‘The Destroyer” Scott at the No. 6.

“Desi has been very good in that role in eliminating chances and taking away passing lanes,” Williams said. “Desi is as good as anybody at reading the game from that position.”

The Canadian midfielder was always going to tie down that spot. She has done so since playing in Kansas City as far back as 2013 with FC Kansas City, the former NWSL team in the city.

But between injuries and constant international call-ups — including a gold medal with Team Canada at the Tokyo Olympics — she’s simply been unavailable too often.

She’s now played the full 90 minutes in the last four games — in that span, KC has picked up five points. It isn’t a coincidence.

“Her positioning, her movement off the ball is top notch, and I think playing four in midfield has helped her flourish,” Williams said.

Keeping the momentum going

After Wednesday’s victory over playoff-chasing Houston, it felt like Kansas City finally made its true arrival in the NWSL. But how does the club keep this momentum going into 2022?

“It’s a short offseason,” Williams said.

For the front office, they’ll have more than 30 days to prepare for the 2022 draft, unlike 2021’s mad dash. Williams on Thursday was already studying potential targets for the upcoming draft in January.

For the players, it’ll be a summer of not only workouts but continual studying of film.

“We’ll be in constant communication with the players,” Williams said. “There will be some time for the players to have time off ,and then they’ll be expected to get busy in whatever market they’re at with stuff we’ll be sending them.”

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