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Kansas City Current show fight and dark-horse NWSL title potential

Midfielders Kristen Edmonds and Lo’eau Labonta came up big in Kansas City’s quarterfinal win Sunday. (Erik Williams/USA TODAY Sports)

There is no perfect way to start a playoff game, but a fifth-minute penalty kick opportunity is pretty close.

Kristen Hamilton earned it, in a sequence where the Kansas City forward appeared to get fouled more than once as she entered the 18-yard box in the Current’s 2-1 quarterfinal win over the Houston Dash on Sunday. When Lo’eau Labonta roofed the kick from the spot to give the Current a very early lead, the proverbial trumpets of destiny sounded.

All season, the Current have been game-state tacticians, uniting around an ethos to achieve a short-term goal. At times, that has meant either chasing a lead, fighting from a goal down or simply testing the waters in an even competition. The result is a cohesive sort of chaos, wherein Kansas City tries to disrupt the status quo to win, despite giving up goals more than they’d like to on the other end.

The best way to describe the Current is as a team full of gamers. They probably don’t relish putting themselves in a position to have to rise to the occasion, but it’s not a role they’re afraid of either.

From the opening whistle on Sunday, both teams pushed the tempo in an effort to come out on top of the transitional battle. The Dash couldn’t quite execute their chances early on, which left room for the Current on the counterattack.

Kansas City’s penalty evoked a scene from the 2020 Challenge Cup final, when Houston’s own penalty kick goal in the fifth minute set the stage for their 2-0 win and the first trophy in club history.

The Dash made more history in 2022, appearing in the playoffs for the first time. What they found in the postseason was an incredibly difficult task, with a result that hangs in the balance of the smallest of margins.

Kansas City’s go-ahead goal and subsequent Rockefeller-style kick-line celebration lent an air of inevitability to their victory, but Houston didn’t forget their own principles in the moment. In front of a record crowd at PNC Stadium, the Dash’s comfort on the ball was evident, particularly with María Sánchez taking defenders on with confidence.

At the same time, Houston was forced into some positional adjustments, including slotting in Natalie Jacobs on the right flank. In the first half, the Dash didn’t always seem on the same page, and the Current’s hyper-talented left wing of Hamilton and Hailie Mace made life difficult. But Sanchez was undeniable, wearing Kansas City down on Houston’s own left flank to earn a corner that led to Sophie Schmidt’s half-volley equalizer in the 21st minute.

From there, momentum started to bend in the direction of the Dash. Houston, however, finished the match with 20 shots but only five on goal, while Kansas City had six total shots and three on goal. Goalkeeper of the Year frontrunner AD Franch came up huge for the away team to keep Houston off the board. Dash manager Juan Carlos Amorós also made a questionable substitute in the 76th minute, replacing star striker Ebony Salmon with Elizabeth Eddy in what he later described as a tactical choice.

It’s easy to focus on Houston’s inability to break the deadlock, but the story of the second half lies within the margins of Kansas City’s off-the-ball defense. Kristen Edmonds proved essential as a 1v1 defender in key moments, backed up by Franch and Elizabeth Ball. The Current’s preferred three-back formation leaves outside center-backs vulnerable to individual battles with attackers, and the defenders’ willingness to try different tactics and put their bodies on the line bled into the Kansas City midfield on Sunday.

With Desiree Scott serving a red-card suspension, rookie Alex Loera had another strong match in the defensive midfield and fellow rookie Elyse Bennett acclimated well after Claire Lavogez exited with an injury. Lavogez couldn’t put weight on her leg as she came off in the 51st minute, and her injury seemed indicative of Kansas City’s experience even in victory.

Head coach Matt Potter decided to ride the game out with the players who had gotten the team this far, and outside of a number of excellent individual efforts, the Current struggled physically as the minutes ticked by. They squeaked out the win, but perhaps at a price for their semifinal matchup next Sunday against Shield winners OL Reign.

The quarterfinal contest looked destined for extra time, when Kate Del Fava stunningly put the game away in the 10th minute of stoppage time. In the last kick of the game (and the latest regulation goal in NWSL history), Del Fava ushered her team into the semifinals and left Houston with more questions about their quest to get over the top.

All season, the Current have seemed like dark-horse NWSL championship candidates, and getting through a game as tricky as this one could be step one to completing the fairytale.

Kansas City paid physically for this win, but they also did just enough to give themselves a chance at their next upset. When you’ve got a team that can handle anything, there’s likely very little that will make their opponent feel comfortable — all the way to the last minute of stoppage time.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

KC Current GM Camille Ashton Resigns

KC Current GM Camille Ashton
Former KC Current GM Camille Ashton left the undefeated organization early this week. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton has resigned, the club announced Wednesday.

The staffing shakeup comes as somewhat of a surprise after the Current started off the season undefeated under new head coach Vlatko Andonovski, sitting second in the NWSL standings through 10 games.

No further details were given about her departure, other than that the club "wishes her the best in her future endeavors."

"I am thankful for my time in Kansas City," Ashton said in a team statement. "It was important to me to dedicate my time and efforts to ensure a successful 2024 season by building the championship-caliber roster that's currently near the top of the table. I am proud of what we have accomplished here. I look forward to the next step in my personal and professional journey."

Ashton, who played in the league from 2014-17, helped rebuild the Current roster, including picking up then-free agent Debinha in 2023 — the biggest free agency signing of that offseason. This past offseason, she brought in international players Temwa Chawinga and Bia Zaneratto

But the club has also encountered some rough patches throughout Ashton's tenure. Following her daughter's dismissal from the Current last year, mother of 2023 draft pick Mykiaa Minniss also accused the club of mistreatment during the preseason. While both the league and NWSL Players Association looked into the comments, no formal reprimand or consequences were publicly issued.

Players like Lynn Williams, Alex Loera, and Cece Kizer voiced concerns over what they described as unexpected trades, with Kizer adding that there was "no conversation this could happen." Williams, meanwhile, was informed of her trade moments prior to its execution while she was in New Zealand with the USWNT.

"There could be a lot of debate about that on its own, but at the end of the day, that’s the mechanism that we work with right now in the league," Ashton told reporters earlier this year when quested about the Current's player trade procedures.

While the club made an NWSL championship appearance in 2022 — the year Ashton came on as general manager — the 2023 season kicked off with the team firing head coach Matt Potter just three games into the season and hours before a road game. 

At the time, the club cited "issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities" as the reasoning, though players were reportedly confused with the decision making.

Last October, the Current hired former UWSNT coach Vlatko Andonovski as head coach, in addition to giving him the title of "sporting director." Whether or not that role overlapped with Ashton’s responsibilities as general manager was cause for some speculation.

NWSL Honors UWSNT Great Lauren Holiday With Impact Award

Lauren Holiday at nwsl impact award event
USWNT legend Lauren Holiday has long been involved with social activism off the pitch. (NWSL)

The NWSL announced today that the annual civically focused Nationwide Community Impact Award would now be known as the Lauren Holiday Award in honor of the National Soccer Hall of Famer.

Since 2021, the award has recognized one NWSL player each season for their character and contributions to community service off the pitch, according to a league release. The winner of the newly retitled award receives $30,000 toward a charitable organization of their choice.

"The NWSL is proud to honor Lauren Holiday as the namesake of this award recognizing exemplary athletes and their commitment to service and activism," said NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman. "Lauren’s influential work in the community and her outstanding character both on and off the field epitomize the values we look to uphold and celebrate in the NWSL every day. 

"I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Lauren and look forward to seeing the continued positive impact this program has on our clubs and communities with her example guiding our efforts."

In a statement, Holiday said that throughout her career she has always "believed in the power of giving back and creating positive change." A two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup winner, and former NWSL MVP, Holiday founded the Jrue & Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund alongside husband and fellow professional athlete JRue Holiday.

The fund contributes to programs that combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Holiday has also long been an advocate for legislation to help close the racial inequality gap in maternal health.

"This award is a testament to the important work that athletes are doing to strengthen and uplift their communities every day and I am deeply humbled to take on its namesake," Holiday said. "I hope it inspires others to continue their efforts in making a lasting impact on the lives of those around them."

Waylaid Seattle Rookie Nika Mühl Makes WNBA Debut

seattle storm's nika muhl guarding indiana fever's caitlin clark
Mühl spent her first few pro minutes repeating her college assignment: guarding Caitlin Clark.(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Seattle rookie Nika Mühl made her long awaited WNBA debut in last night’s 85-83 win over Indiana after missing the first four games of the season due to visa issues. 

A Croatian national, Mühl had been waiting on P-1 visa approval in order to work legally in the US. While the paperwork came through Friday, she had to travel to Canada in order to get her status changed.

The former UConn star poked fun at the delay ahead of the game, walking into Climate Pledge Arena wearing a t-shirt displaying her approved visa.

Mühl checked into the game on Monday in the third period to a standing ovation, immediately diving over the baseline to save a loose ball. She spent her first few minutes of the game the same way she completed her career at UConn: guarding Caitlin Clark

Mühl, who had two rebounds in two and a half minutes, held Clark to five points, a rebound, and a turnover when the two were matched up. 

"I threw her in the fire," Storm coach Noelle Quinn said with a smile after the game. "It’s tough to come into the game at that rate and think that you’re going to stop the player, but I like… her physicality, her poise, her confidence. She took an open shot and I thought that was a great look for her. We’ll continue to put her in the mix in practice, and she’ll have opportunities to show what she can do on the defensive end to start."

An instant fan favorite, the UConn star donned the No. 1 jersey — in part because her usual No. 10 was retired by Seattle after Sue Bird, who wore it for her entire WNBA career, retired last year. Mühl's new number was chosen by none other than Bird herself. 

"I actually FaceTimed Sue and asked her what number I should wear. She took a day to think about it and came back to me with an answer of No. 1," Muhl said in a WNBA video posted to social media. "When I asked her why No. 1, she basically said 'This is a new beginning, but you’re not starting from scratch.' I loved that whole analogy and story, so Sue actually picked it and I love it."

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