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Matt Potter fired: What went wrong for Kansas City on the field

Kansas City parted ways with head coach Matt Potter on Wednesday, three games into the 2023 season. (Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports)

On Wednesday afternoon, the Kansas City Current abruptly parted ways with second-year head coach Matt Potter. The decision was “related to issues around his leadership and employment responsibilities,” the club said in a release.

“We watch the play on the pitch, we keep a pulse on the locker room, and we are constantly evaluating ways to improve our club,” said general manager Camille Ashton. “Through our ongoing process of continuous improvement, we believe now is the right time for this change.”

Assistant coach Caroline Sjöblom will take over as interim head coach, including for the Current’s Challenge Cup opener Wednesday night against the Houston Dash.

While the terms of Potter’s termination haven’t yet been made clear, to say that Kansas City’s start to the 2023 season did not go as planned would be an understatement.

In the wake of a very active offseason, this appeared to be the year the Kansas City Current would level up. After going on an underdog run all the way to the 2022 NWSL final, the Current took the league’s first free-agency period very seriously, picking up a number of top players who tested their value on the open market.

The Current acquired Brazilian superstar Debinha and Chicago midfielders Morgan Gautrat and Vanessa DiBernardo through free agency. They followed that up by drafting USWNT U-20 forward Michelle Cooper and Virginia standout Alexa Spaanstra through the draft, and signing Swedish defender Hanna Glas. Suddenly the task at hand was to get the best out of a stacked group, rather than getting a scrappy team to punch above their weight.

Amid high expectations, Kansas City has begun the NWSL season with three losses, in which they’ve conceded nine goals while only scoring three of their own. Most recently, the Current allowed four goals apiece to the Portland Thorns and Chicago Red Stars. While the Current have time to right the ship after parting ways with their head coach, it’s also possible that an early run of bad luck could disrupt their plans for the rest of the season.

Ill-timed injury bug

One explanation for the Current’s early struggles is an obvious one: health. Kansas City began the season with Debinha, DiBernardo, Gautrat, Glas and Kristen Hamilton all out with injuries, while Desiree Scott, Claire Lavogez and Sam Mewis continue to recover from their own long-term injuries.

The Kansas City team that kicked off the 2023 season in North Carolina didn’t necessarily reflect the roster they had so painstakingly constructed, with rookies thrown into the fire instead of veterans steadily integrating into the lineup and bolstering the squad. Adding to the Current’s injury woes was the loss of defender Elizabeth Ball in the team’s first regular season game, affecting the position with the least amount of depth.

While DiBernardo and Debinha have returned to the midfield, Kansas City’s defense has had to continuously adjust to a lack of personnel. The team has relied heavily on rookie Gabby Robinson and signed undrafted defender Croix Soto recently to provide emergency depth.

Hamilton’s absence has also proved challenging, as the team has struggled to turn positive play into the payoff of goals. The Current are at their best when their midfield is set up to generate goals, a system that enabled Lo’eau Labonta to have a breakout 2022 season as both a playmaker and a goal-scorer.

As the team works their new midfield pieces onto the field, a fair amount of weight has been placed on the shoulders of rookie Michelle Cooper, who is still honing her work rate and shot generation into quality opportunities. The Kansas City frontline hasn’t had enough time to gel, and Hamilton’s eventual return could make a huge difference.

Debinha was Kansas City's biggest free-agent acquisition this offseason. (Patrick Gorski/USA TODAY Sports)

Adjustments on the fly

With so many players missing, Potter had tinkered with his team’s formation, moving away from the high-risk, high-reward patterns of a three-back in favor of something more traditional. The team came out in their season opener in a four-back defense, progressing the ball through a fluid 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 formation. The system gave them the basic structure they needed while managing so many changes in personnel.

Potter admitted the changes didn’t necessarily reflect the way the Current want to play when all of their heavy-hitters are available, but the adjustments also haven’t shaped results in the way they had hoped. Hailie Mace and Kate Del Fava, who excelled last year as wingbacks pushing the team forward in attack, have focused more on defense as traditional outside backs, limiting the team’s ability to create overloads on the wings.

When the Current did move the ball quickly in their most recent match — a 4-2 loss to the Red Stars — rather than play through their formidable midfield to hold the ball and make the Red Stars chase, Kansas City stretched the game with longer passes over the top. When challenged by the Chicago defense, they committed turnovers that quickly sent the ball in the other direction and caught the Kansas City defense lacking numbers in support. Those situations led to scoring opportunities (on admittedly well-taken shots) for their opponent.

Getting away from the system that worked for them in 2022 has led to quick defensive breakdowns, including goals allowed in the first five minutes of their last two matches, and made it difficult for their attack to recover. It’s possible that shots simply need to start landing for Kansas City’s front three, but a commitment to one system might serve them better as the season progresses.

Relying on identity

Player health (to say nothing of stability at the head coaching position) will be the most significant factor in the Current beginning to turn results around. But even in this week’s loss, you could see progress being made. Debinha’s excellent chip goal after sneaking in behind the Chicago backline showed just how dangerous Kansas City’s attacking midfield can be once players get used to each other’s movements on a consistent basis.

The Current aren’t currently set up to make significant adjustments to their defense, but a never-say-die mentality combined with an ability to score in transition served the team well in 2022 and could be the key to getting back to basics. The Current are not a conservative team at heart. They might be best served abandoning the structure they’re unfamiliar with and instead letting games play out, with the belief that their midfield advantages will win out.

In other words, the Current of 2023 might benefit from looking a bit more like the Current of 2022. The team’s defense might continue to deal with moments of pressure, but getting their fire back could go a long way.

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