After finishing in last place in their inaugural season in 2021, Kansas City rode the underdog mindset in 2022. Head coach Matt Potter and general manager Cami Levin Ashton made a few important tweaks to a young group in order to peak at the right time and make it all the way to the NWSL Championship.
In 2023, the underdog label is far behind the Current, who signed some of the NWSL’s biggest free agents in the offseason. With full buy-in from ambitious ownership, the Current have become one of the premier destinations for professional women’s soccer players in the U.S. in only three years. But after a successful 2022 season, how will the team’s chemistry withstand all the new additions?
The Kansas City Current of 2022 played a cohesive, sometimes chaotic style of soccer that other teams found difficult to break down. While they weren’t immune to conceding first, they almost always found a way to come back to challenge for a result.
The team played in an expansive 3-5-2 formation, with three center-backs behind a high-flying midfield that moved the ball quickly and found space for their attackers. A number of young and relatively inexperienced players helped reset the team’s culture, with key veterans like Lo’eau Labonta and AD Franch setting the tone.
The team committed to the grind of the NWSL season early on with a preseason process they’re using again this year. Labonta told reporters in February that the heavy lift days the team holds in Florida in the preseason are a “rite of passage” and that the time spent in camp set them in the right direction in 2022.
“Matt [Potter] has actually given credit to us being here and grinding here for why we’re able to make it so far in the league last year,” Labonta said. “I think it’s true.”
The Current ultimately finished fourth in the regular-season standings, a vast improvement from their league-worst finish in 2021. Their style of play proved perfect for the NWSL’s knockout playoffs, as they advanced past the Houston Dash and then Shield winners OL Reign. A collective never-say-die attitude took them all the way to the 2022 NWSL final, where their inexperience showed in a 2-0 defeat to a Portland Thorns team ready for the big moment.
Rather than running it back with the benefit of hard-earned experience, the Current appeared unsatisfied with being runner-up. In the offseason, Levin Ashton took a clinical approach to push the roster to the next level, re-negotiating Sam Mewis’ contract as she continues to rehab her knee and abruptly sending Lynn Williams to Gotham FC in order to make room for other players.
The Current signed Vanessa DiBernardo and Morgan Gautrat away from Chicago, traded up for No. 2 draft pick Michelle Cooper and, most crucially, won the bidding war for Brazilian superstar Debinha. They’ve since also signed top Swedish outside back Hanna Glas.
Players have noted the club’s resources and facilities as some of the best in the world. But the decision to move Williams, in a trade the USWNT forward called “shocking,” also showcased the ruthlessness the team feels is necessary to improve in the long term.
Potter said he declined to bring non-roster invitees into Kansas City’s 2023 camp — reversing a common practice among NWSL teams — because making the 28-player roster (24 first-team and four supplemental) is going to be difficult enough for draft picks and other acquisitions.
“To be perfectly honest, there was an opportunity to bring in more players, but it would only be false hope for them,” he said. “Because the reality is to make this roster even with the players that we have here, it’s going to be super competitive.”
Early in preseason, Labonta wasn’t worried about the locker room being disrupted by big-name players.
“I actually had a meeting with Matt yesterday, and I was just saying that this team already, we have great human beings,” she said. “There’s not one bad person on this team.”
As for team rules, they’re keeping it simple: “Don’t be late, don’t leave your gear around. That’s literally it. That’s all that we have to enforce,” Labonta said.
While spirits are high in Kansas City, ambitious offseasons also present challenges in player management. Some players who carried the load last year were waived or traded in the offseason, and others who remain are going to see their roles on the team reduced when the roster is at full strength.
Even Labonta, one of the team’s breakout stars of 2022, has a new level of competition at her position.
“I think a lot of the people saw in the offseason signings, we signed about 12,000 midfielders — that’s my position — but it only makes it so much more competitive,” she said.
The team does have positional imbalances, having loaded up on central midfielders and wide defenders in the offseason. They lost defender Kristen Edmonds to free agency and will have to control games through the prowess of the midfield so they don’t get into high-risk shootouts. The Current should be well-positioned for the World Cup period — when they will be without Glas, Debinha and likely Franch — thanks to an influx of players who are used to participating in other teams’ systems and can get up to speed quickly.
No matter what, Kansas City players will be in fierce competition for playing time, with the hope that their deep midfield can score enough goals to compensate for vulnerabilities in the central defense.
“We talk often about competition being about striving together,” Potter said. “How can we, whoever’s out there, take the mantle of what we have as a team identity and express that for something bigger than ourselves?”
The NWSL has a history of the best team on paper not always being the squad that hoists the trophy at the end of the season. The Current are taking a very different approach than what worked for them last year, but if they can get the balance right, they might become unbeatable once the playoffs roll around.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.