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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.

Phoenix Mercury Unveils $100 Million Practice Facility

phoenix mercury practice facility's diana taurasi courts
The 58,000-square-foot facility includes two indoor practice courts with built-in courtside technology. (Phoenix Mercury)

As part of the 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend festivities, the Phoenix Mercury officially opened the doors to their new state-of-the-art practice facility on Thursday.

Along with a host of player-driven amenities, the 58,000-square-foot, $100 million property showcases two full-sized basketball courts named after veteran Mercury star Diana Taurasi, complete with a one-of-a-kind Taurasi-inspired logo.

Phoenix mercury players celebrating at the new team training center's diana taurasi courts during wnba all-star weekend
The Mercury hosted a grand opening for their new practice facility during WNBA All-Star Weekend. (Phoenix Mercury)

The Diana Taurasi courts pay tribute to the three-time WNBA champion, six-time Olympian, 11-time WNBA All-Star, and the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer.

"Phoenix is the best basketball city in the world and continues to elevate the standard in women’s professional sports," said Mercury owner Mat Ishbia in a team release. "This practice facility is about hard work, passion, and greatness, all attributes that Diana Taurasi exemplifies, and we are honored to name our basketball courts after the greatest women’s basketball player of all time."

phoenix mercury weight room
From training to recovery, each aspect of the Mercury's new facility is geared toward player conditioning. (Phoenix Mercury)

With 24-hour access for players and staff, the practice courts feature built-in technologies capable of providing real-time performance analytics. The facility also includes a strength and cardio training area, indoor and outdoor turf training areas, a functional movement area, and a team meeting room with theater-style seating.

Amenities specific to athlete recovery are also on hand, including a dedicated physician and testing room, recovery room, hydrotherapy room with hot and cold plunge pools, freestanding underwater treadmill, and two massage rooms. The locker room is home to vanity stations, a sauna, a steam room, and a wellness room.

phoenix mercury players lounge
In addition to recovery and training areas, the facility also showcases a stocked player lounge. (Phoenix Mercury)

An area for players to relax and refuel, the onsite player lounge and kitchen is stocked with private chef, snack bar, pantry, and smoothie bar.

"This practice facility sets the standard for what it means to invest in women’s sports," said Phoenix Mercury and Phoenix Suns CEO Josh Bartelstein. "From performance to recovery to team culture, we are providing our players with the space and amenities they need to be and feel their best."

phoenix mercury training facility
The new training center is a part the Player 15 Group's downtown Phoenix campus. (Phoenix Mercury)

The Mercury's practice facility is located inside the Player 15 Group's team member campus, headquarters to owner Mat Ishbia’s sports, entertainment, real estate, and investment company. the Player 15 Group's team member campus. Debuting this past April, the grounds also house business facilities for the Phoenix Mercury, Phoenix Suns, Valley Suns, and arena operations.

Skills Challenge, 3-Point Contest Open 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend

Team WNBA on the court at 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend
The WNBA All-Star Game court will be buzzing with action on Friday night. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

While the 2024 All-Star Game doesn't tip off until Saturday, this year's WNBA Skills Challenge and STARRY 3-Point Contest promise to light up Phoenix's Footprint Center on Friday.

The evening's programming will allow fans to watch as towering center Brittney Griner shows off her speed and mobility before putting 2024's most statistically excellent three-point shooters to the test.

In addition to the two annual events, the night will also showcase the first-ever WNBA All-Star 3×3 Exhibition, with the Olympic-bound 3×3 National Team taking on USA Basketball's 3×3 U23 National Team.

To make things even more interesting, Aflac has promised to supplement the Skills Competition and 3-Point Contest's prize pool with a $55,000 bonus for each winner.

Team USA's Brittney Griner poses in her Paris Olympics uniform.
Mercury center Brittney Griner will test her speed at the All-Star Skills Challenge. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Skills Challenge highlights league's best

Perhaps the least straightforward event in Friday's series, the Skills Challenge — in which five players will compete in a timed obstacle course testing their dribbling, passing, speed, and shooting abilities —should come down to the wire. Each contestant will attempt to complete the course as quickly as possible, with the two fastest first-round players advancing to a head-to-head final.

Ten-time WNBA All-Star Griner (Phoenix) headlines the Skills Challenge roster, accompanied by Mercury teammate Sophie Cunningham as well as Allisha Gray (Atlanta), 2019 WNBA All-Star MVP Erica Wheeler (Indiana), and newly acquired Connecticut guard Marina Mabrey.

Mabrey will be competing in both the Skills Challenge and 3-Point Contest, taking the court for the first time since her requested trade from Chicago sent her the Sun.

Team WNBA's Jonquel Jones lines up a shot at Friday's All-Star practice.
Liberty ace Jonquel Jones leads Friday's stacked 3-Point Contest lineup. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Top shooters put their skills on display

Despite Sabrina Ionescu and Caitlin Clark reportedly declining to participate, some of the WNBA's best shooters will be on display in tonight's STARRY 3-Point Contest. Shooters will tally up points from five set shooting locations around the arc plus two additional "Starry Range" deep shots worth three points each.

2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones (New York) will enter a battle of the bigs with Washington's Stefanie Dolson, who sits second in the league in three-point field goal percentage this season with 48.5%.

But Jones and Dolson will face stiff competition from Kayla McBride (Minnesota), who leads the league in three-pointers made, as well as the aforementioned Gray and Mabrey.

Team USA 3x3 players Cierra Burdick, Hailey Van Lith, Rhyne Howard, and Dearica Hamby
Team USA's Cierra Burdick, Hailey Van Lith, Rhyne Howard, and Dearica Hamby will take on their U-23 counterparts in Friday's new 3×3 Exhibition. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Weekend adds 3×3 Exhibition to the mix

Tonight’s debut 3×3 Exhibition will serve as a warmup for Team USA's Rhyne Howard (Atlanta), former WNBA player Cierra Burdick, college star Hailey Van Lith (TCU), and Dearica Hamby (Los Angeles), who came on to replace Sparks teammate Cameron Brink after her season-ending ACL tear.

The Olympians' U-23 opposition is also gearing up for a major event, with collegiate squad members Christina Dalce (Maryland), Morgan Maly (Creighton), Cotie McMahon (Ohio State), Lucy Olsen (Iowa), Mikaylah Williams (LSU), and Serah Williams (Wisconsin) set to play in the 2024 FIBA 3x3 Nations League tournament in Mexico City starting July 22nd.

Where to watch the WNBA Skills Challenge and 3-Point Contest

All three events will air on ESPN starting at 9 PM ET on Friday, July 19th.

Olympians Face Fan Favorites at 2024 WNBA All-Star Game

Team WNBA rookie Angel Reese at 2024 WNBA All-Star Game team practice in Phoenix, Arizona
Team WNBA is gearing up to take on a stacked Team USA roster on Saturday. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Weekend has arrived, with orange carpet fits, courtside looks, and fierce competition adding up to one epic weekend in Phoenix, Arizona, all punctuated by the 2024 All-Star Game.

Here's everything you need to know ahead of Saturday's tip-off.

Alyssa Thomas high-fives her Team USA teammates at 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend
Alyssa Thomas and the rest of Team USA will face Team WNBA on Saturday. (Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Olympians and All-Stars take the court

The much discussed Team USA vs. Team WNBA format will take centerstage on Saturday, as Olympic preparation meets a few snubs and some surprising teammates.

The US has limited opportunities to build chemistry within their squad of top American talent, and will need to take their rotations seriously despite the game's friendly nature.

For Team WNBA, the All-Star Game could provide vets like Arike Ogunbowale and star rookies Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese the opportunity to publicly show how they match up against this year's Olympic roster, with thoughts toward the future.

Team WNBA's Angel Reese lines up a shot while fellow rookie Caitlin Clark looks on.
Saturday's showdown marks the first time rookies Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark will be teammates. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Star rookies link up for the first time

Saturday's showdown will also mark the first time Clark and Reese have ever suited up for the same team, taking the court for Team WNBA in the highly anticipated team-up of two former college rivals.

"She's probably going to lead the game in rebounds," Clark quipped when asked about playing alongside Reese.

"This is not going to be the [last] time, I know we'll be All-Stars again," Reese said about playing with Clark on last week's NBA Today. "Hopefully in 2028 we'll be Olympians together, too."

Team WNBA head coach Cheryl Miller at practice before Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game
Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller will lead Team WNBA at Saturday's All-Star Game. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Game coaches face starting lineup decisions

Fans are keeping watch on Team USA's starting five, though recent injuries to Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier could affect head coach Cheryl Reeve's ability to immediately field the best group.

Meanwhile, WNBA legend Cheryl Miller — who coached the Phoenix Mercury from 1997-2000 — will serve as Team WNBA's boss for the night. Overall Top 10 All-Star vote-getters Clark, Ogunbowale, Aliyah Boston, and Dearica Hamby are expected to start the game for Team WNBA, alongside an additional player of Miller's discretion.

Olympians Collier and Stewart, plus A'ja Wilson, Kahleah Copper, Jackie Young, and Sabrina Ionescu also landed in the Top 10 of votes submitted by fans, media, and fellow players.

Where to watch the WNBA All-Star Game

The 2024 WNBA All-Star Game will tip off at 8:30 PM ET on Saturday, July 20th, on ESPN.

First-Time Olympian Kahleah Copper Is Seizing the Moment

Phoenix Mercury star Kahleah Copper playing in a WNBA game against the LA Sparks
Kahleah Copper's first season with the Mercury has been a banner one so far. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

Phoenix Mercury guard Kahleah Copper has been working toward this year's WNBA All-Star Weekend for a long time.

2024 won't be Copper's first trip to the All-Star Game — in fact, she's been an All-Star for four consecutive seasons. This weekend also won't be Copper's greatest individual achievement to date. Afterall, it's tough to beat winning Finals MVP as part of the 2021 WNBA Champion Chicago Sky. And this year isn't even Copper's first time playing the All-Star Game in her home arena; that was in Chicago in 2022.

But this will be Copper's first All-Star Weekend as an Olympian, a title she's been striving for since the moment the Tokyo Games ended in August 2021. Back then, the 29-year-old had been one of Team USA's final roster cuts prior to the Olympics. And from that day forward, she made it her mission to channel  her disappointment into becoming an indispensable part of the 2024 Paris Olympic squad

"I wouldn't change my process for anything," she told Just Women's Sports earlier this week as she prepared to join the national team at training camp in Phoenix. "I'm super grateful for it, it has definitely prepared me. It's a testament to my work ethic, and me just really being persistent about what it is that I want."

A proud product of North Philadelphia, Copper has always been big on manifesting, speaking her intentions confidently into the universe and never shying away from  ambitions no matter how far-fetched they sounded.

"It's important to set goals, manifest those things, talk about it," she said. "Because the more you speak it, you speak it into existence." 

She also displays those goals on her refrigerator at home, forcing herself to keep them front of mind every day. The day she was named to the Olympic roster, ESPN’s Holly Rowe posted one of these visual reminders to social media: A 2021 photo showing Copper wearing a Team USA t-shirt over her Chicago Sky warmups, smiling at the camera while holding up the homemade gold medal slung around her neck.

"Kahleah Copper put out [the] photo on the left in Aug. 2021 and manifested that she WOULD be an Olympian," Rowe’s caption read. "Today she made team USA. Dreams to reality." 

Kahleah Copper of the USA Basketball Women's National Team poses for a portrait during Training Camp in Phoenix
The 2024 Paris Games will mark Copper's Olympic debut. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper turns her focus to Team USA

With one dream realized, Copper is aware that the job isn't finished, as USA women's basketball is aiming to win a historic eighth-straight Olympic gold medal in Paris this summer. That path doesn't technically begin with All-Star Weekend — where Team USA will take on Team WNBA in a crucial tune-up game — but the trial run could make a difference when the team touches down in Europe next week.

"It's serious, because other countries, they spend a lot of time together, so their chemistry is great," Copper said of her Olympic competition. "We don't get that, we don't have that much time together. Just putting all the great players together is not enough. It's gonna take a lot more than that."

With a laugh, Copper acknowledged that Team USA’s task at hand could lightly dampen the occasionally raucous All-Star festivities ("Balance!" was an oft-repeated word). But it's a cost she and her national team colleagues are more than willing to pay if it helps them come out on top in Paris. 

Of course, Copper — along with club teammates Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner — will be enjoying home-court advantage when the All-Star Game tips off inside Phoenix’s Footprint Center on Saturday, a factor that might put them slightly more at ease. 

WNBA players kahleah copper and candace parker celebrating winning the 2021 championship with the chicago sky
Copper won a WNBA Championship in 2021 alongside one of her idols, Candace Parker. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

A "damn near perfect" new WNBA team

Copper made the move to the Mercury just this season after establishing herself as a respected star in Chicago. What she joined was a work in progress, one of a number of key 2024 signings under first-time head coach Nate Tibbetts. Having played for the Sky since 2017, Copper wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of the transition. But any positive manifestations she put out about her new team seemed to have done the trick.

"I said I would never go to the West Coast, I could never go that far from home," she said. "But I didn't know that this organization was what it was: Super professional, really taking care of everything. It's damn near perfect."

Copper herself has been damn near perfect, shooting 45% from the field while leading sixth-place Phoenix to a 13-12 record on the season. She’s also averaging a career-high 23.2 points per game, second highest in the league behind soon-to-be six-time WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson’s 27.2 points per game. It’s not lost on Copper that she’s playing in front of packed houses, with the Mercury accounting for some of the W’s biggest crowds throughout its 28-year run. 

"Here in Phoenix, our fans are amazing," Copper said. "They show up every single night."

Phoenix Mercury player Kahleah Copper poses on the court before the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game
Copper will play in her fourth consecutive All-Star Game on Saturday. (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper's All-Star home-court advantage

All-Star Weekend presents Copper even more opportunities to connect with her new city, including by making an appearance at American Express's interactive fan experience at WNBA Live 2024. As part of the activation, Copper recorded a few short stories about growing up a basketball fan, describing the posters of Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, and Ivory Latta she had as a child, and how she dreamed of joining her idols as a professional basketball player. 

The Rutgers grad said she was excited about connecting with Phoenix fans on their level, rooting herself in a shared love of the sport even as she moves from watching the WNBA on TV to becoming one of its brightest stars. The message is clear: If you want something bad enough, and you work for it hard enough, just about anything is possible.

But for all of Copper's personal manifestations, she's never lost sight of the most important thing: winning. And she won't stop grinding until she's posing for the cameras in Paris, holding up a real Olympic gold medal.

"When winning comes, the other stuff will come," she said. "The individual sh*t will come."

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