This week, the Kansas City Current extended their growing reputation as one of the most aggressive NWSL clubs in the transfer market, announcing the signing of two veteran midfielders out of Chicago in Morgan Gautrat and Vanessa DiBernardo.
Gautrat, a two-time World Champion with the USWNT, and DiBernardo have been playing together longer than just their five years with the Red Stars: They were also teammates on the U-20 USWNT that won the World Cup in 2012, alongside new Kansas City teammate Sam Mewis. DiBernardo wore the No. 10 for the Red Stars for eight years and acted as their primary midfield playmaker, while Gautrat played as both a defensive and a connecting midfielder.
Gautrat and DiBernardo join a Current midfield that was a strength for the club last season despite being without Mewis for the year due to a lingering knee injury. The Current finished out the season playing with five in the midfield — three central midfielders and two wingbacks — and quick ball movement that carried the team all the way to the NWSL final.
Chicago also played with five in the midfield in 2022, and Gautrat and DiBernardo each feel they have the experience and flexibility to fit into head coach Matt Potter’s ethos.
“I think one thing that I enjoyed when I was talking with Matt was that they play with freedom and movement,” DiBernardo said during an introductory press conference Thursday. “I would say my strengths are kind of being able to connect the lines and connect the defense to the offense and create.”
Gautrat, known as a methodical tempo-setter, has the ability to manage a Kansas City midfield that sometimes got into footraces with opponents in 2022 as games opened up.
“I would hope that we would bring a calming presence to the field and be able to dictate the play a little bit more with the ball,” she said. “Because we do have players that are extremely lethal in transition.”
Despite the obvious value the two players bring to Kansas City, larger questions hang over the signings. Most notably: With so many midfielders, where will DiBernardo and Gautrat fit in?
For a team already playing with five in the middle, the addition of two clear starters could mean further roster restructuring before the beginning of the 2023 preseason. The club moved Victoria Pickett to Gotham late this year, and Claire Lavogez tore her ACL in October, but the roster is still stacked in the middle of the pitch.
The biggest mystery going into next year is Mewis, who made a huge splash when the Current acquired her from the North Carolina Courage last offseason. She ended up playing very little for Kansas City in 2022 as she deals with an increasingly slow recovery from a right knee injury. Mewis suffered cartilage damage in the knee in 2017, which she recovered from non-surgically. She then had arthroscopic surgery on the joint in August 2021 and has been rehabbing ever since. Neither Mewis nor the Kansas City or USWNT coaching staffs have given any indication as to the 30-year-old’s prospects in 2023, but the Current are clearly putting together an alternate plan.
“Obviously, they had some key injuries to two big players,” Gautrat said on Thursday. “So I think the team that they had did an extremely good job of finding an identity and rallying around that and working really well together.” The midfield that started the 2022 NWSL championship game included Alex Loera and Desiree Scott holding defensive seams, and Lo’eau Labonta as an attacking generator.
As it stands, Scott is the other question mark at the position. The 35-year-old veteran became a free agent herself after another excellent season for both Kansas City and Canada. Scott has been a part of the club — including the original FC Kansas City and Utah Royals clubs before relocation — since the NWSL’s inception, and she might have an interesting perspective on whether a move makes sense.
While Current general manager Camille Levin said this month that negotiations with Scott are ongoing and that she hopes “it’ll end in a good place for both of us,” Kansas City now has players who can cover similar ground.
“In the free-agency process, you look at teams that you personally feel like you can help, or you could add a layer dimension to the team that they would need,” Gautrat said.
The potential for different looks in the Current’s midfield seems obvious. After an excellent rookie season, Loera looks ready to take on greater responsibilities as a No. 6, and Gautrat and DiBernardo both have experience playing in a double pivot.
“I do like getting forward, but I also do really like and enjoy playing in a double-pivot midfield where it’s very seamless,” Gautrat said.
“There’s no necessarily strict 6, 8, or 10 sometimes, and I like that and I enjoy that.” DiBernardo agreed.
There probably isn’t going to be room for every talented player on Kansas City’s roster to make every starting XI, especially with Lynn Williams’ anticipated return to the attack. But therein also lies the point of putting an ambitious roster together: Intra-team competition is a necessary part of the process of building a championship team.
“I would love to win an NWSL Championship, I think that’s first and foremost,” Gautrat said.
Kansas City has been to the final once, and Gautrat and DiBernardo have played in two. It makes perfect sense why they believe they are what each other needs to end 2023 with a trophy.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.