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The secrets behind the Kansas City Current’s stunning turnaround

Current midfielder Lo'eau Labonta is tied for the team lead with six goals this season. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

There isn’t just one secret behind the Kansas City Current’s 13-game unbeaten streak that has propelled last year’s basement dwellers to the top of the NWSL table. In less than a year, the club has made roster tweaks and coaching changes while investing significant capital into off-field support to forge a radical turnaround.

After winning just three games in 2021, the club’s first season since relocating from Utah, the Current now sit at the forefront of the NWSL Shield race with nine wins, four losses and five draws. In a year of firsts, their change in fortune is unprecedented.

Even with all the best-laid plans, changing a locker room culture after a disappointing season can be difficult. So, maybe the best place to start is the “douchebag jar.”

“If anybody ever catches you being a douchebag and not a good teammate, you have to contribute to that jar,” midfielder Lo’eau Labonta tells Just Women’s Sports. There’s currently only one problem with the jar, Labonta says: No one is messing up enough to have to contribute to it.

“Right now, because I handle that jar, I’ve been petty and have been like, ‘Oh, you didn’t give me a hug today, put money in the jar,’” she says with a laugh, noting that the end-of-season party might suffer because of a lack of funds. “But that’s how good this team is — we’re being self-accountable,” she continues. “And if it needs to go another level, all your teammates are going to be there.”

There’s an easygoing joy to the way Current players speak about their team culture, and that chemistry has paid off this year in spades, with four regular-season games left before they begin their quest for an NWSL title. Kansas City has found success with quick goals in transition and an all-in mentality that never lets a game get out of reach.

They’re known for roofing penalties into the back of the net, being tenacious defensively and performing goal celebrations that have gone viral far beyond the insular circles of women’s soccer. So, how did a team that struggled to find results emerge as one of the best NWSL stories of the year?

Defender Hailie Mace and the Current are on a 13-match unbeaten streak. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Becoming a team

Labonta has been ride-or-die for this group for a long time. She’s played for the club in three iterations: first as FC Kansas City, then the Utah Royals, and now as the Kansas City Current. Of the current squad, only Labonta and Desiree Scott are left from the final 2017 FC Kansas City roster. Being ready to move at a moment’s notice is an inherent part of professional sports, but wholesale change through roster upheaval and two relocations comes with bumps in the road and very little time to adjust.

As Labonta tells it, while the Utah Royals had serious issues in other areas — the team folded in 2020 after reports of racism and misogyny under owner Dell Loy Hansen — the facilities were some of the best she’s seen in her career. What the roster found in Kansas City upon their return was much more temporary, in ways that challenged them.

The club didn’t have a name, crest or facilities when the players first arrived, and they played their games in 2021 on a converted baseball field. There was never any question that owners Chris Long, Angie Long and Brittney Matthews were committed to creating something special, but players had to go through growing pains to get there.

The Current didn’t have a locker room to change in before or after training in 2021, instead using trailers for basic functions, which Labonta says made bonding off the field difficult. The group made conscientious efforts to change the locker-room energy during a difficult season, but sometimes the biggest contributing factor was lacking the physical space to do so.

“When you’re in a locker room in a group setting, somebody else is going to disagree with you,” she says. “So at least those harder conversations come out, and we build on that.”

Labonta also credits roster shake-ups for the team’s renewed purpose this season, including the trades that brought in Kristen Hamilton and Hailie Mace in 2021 and welcomed Cece Kizer and Addisyn Merrick in 2022.

“It was very difficult on the mental side to be here in Kansas City last year,” she says. “But then we bring in these new, fresh legs, people who have won on teams before, it just brought a new competitive edge.”

A clean slate

Despite taking some positive steps in the second half of 2021, the Current finished the season 10th in the NWSL table, with just 16 points in 24 games. From there, Kansas City moved head coach Huw Williams into a technical staff role and hired Matt Potter to replace him. Potter brought experience from coaching at the USWNT youth levels and from a long career in the NCAA.

When Current players reconvened in 2022, they had finally gotten their bearings and were determined not to let negativity seep into the locker room. With the promise of a new facility and a brand-new coaching staff, they sensed for the first time they had a chance at a clean slate.

Elyse Bennett has bought into the positive team culture set by coach Matt Potter and veterans from Day 1. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

Rookie Elyse Bennett, selected in the first round of the 2022 College Draft out of Washington State, recalls feeling like she was joining a club amid a turnaround. “I know from the vets and people who were here last year, they said it was a complete 180 from what they experienced last year,” she says.

Ownership paid for the team to travel to Florida and train at IMG Academy for a month during the preseason, which Labonta and Bennett both described as crucial to the team’s reset.

“We got a completely new coaching staff and we started from square one, and everybody bought in from there,” Labonta says.

“I don’t think I’ve been a part of a team where the chemistry has been this good,” adds Bennett.

The month they spent in Florida also gave the coaching staff enough time to identify every player’s strengths and establish their roles accordingly.

“I think that the coaches’ main focus in Florida was kind of establishing our structure and what we were planning to do as a team,” Bennett says. “Not looking specifically at different players, but more so just the roles that we needed to fill on the field.”

Leaving it all on the field

The Current have done the work off the field, opening a world-class training facility in June and breaking ground for a new stadium set to host games in 2023. As for on-field results, the club has produced faster than most people expected.

Kansas City made two blockbuster moves in the offseason, trading for three-time NWSL champion Lynn Williams as well as three-time NWSL champion and World Cup champion Sam Mewis. Due to injuries, neither star has played a regular-season game for the club, and yet their absences have not slowed Kansas City down much at all.

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to watch Kansas City methodically win games. While they occasionally get pulled out of shape or rely on AD Franch’s excellent goalkeeping to keep them in a match, they’re almost always able to flip a switch, move the ball with confidence and finish on the other end. Then, they celebrate those goals with an openness that we don’t always see in the NWSL.

When things aren’t always clicking in the midfield or on a final pass, sometimes the only response Labonta has is laughter. “I think we play our best when we’re having fun. And that’s why I do have a smile on my face a lot of the time, because I just enjoy seeing what my teammates can do,” she says.

That energy from Labonta, who is tied for the team lead with six goals this season, filters down to the rest of the Current.

“I think that it gives us the ability to be an individual and showcase our gifts. And Matt doesn’t dampen that. He allows us to play pretty freely, which is great,” says Bennett, who has three goals in her rookie season.

“I think that the way we play is also very methodical at times. It may not seem like we have something in place, but I feel like we’re all on the same page in terms of what we’re trying to do on the field, both offensively and defensively.”

Underdog energy

The Current aren’t the only NWSL team exceeding expectations this year, but they’re building something unique while setting a league precedent. Kansas City is the only city in NWSL history to have a folded team return, and the players don’t take that lightly.

“The style of play is what we owe to the fans. They showed up for us at a baseball field, and we weren’t giving them the best of results,” Labonta says. “This is the type of soccer I think the fans deserve. And so we as players are just grateful that we’re able to finally attain that and give that to them.”

As for what comes next, even if there’s more to the Current’s story than seemingly overnight success, they embrace the underdog moniker. What started as a strong Challenge Cup showing has turned into a legitimate shot at the best record in the NWSL, and the Current are ready to be known as much for what they do on the field as off of it.

“We’re not here just to show up to our facility and talk about our locker room and how great it is,” Labonta says. “We’re here to compete and get to playoffs, and try and win this whole thing.”

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.