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?

2022 review: Underdog energy

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.

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The Current made the biggest splash of free agency, signing midfielder Debinha. (Jaylynn Nash/USA TODAY Sports)

Offseason moves: Building a superteam

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.

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Lo'eau Labonta and the Current thrived on their team chemistry last season. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

2023 Outlook: Keeping the culture

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.

The Chicago Red Stars offseason exodus continues, with midfielder and team captain Vanessa DiBernardo informing the Red Stars that she will not re-sign with the club.

A Naperville, Illinois, native, DiBernardo was drafted by Chicago in 2014 and has been with the club since then.

Her exit comes after free agents Morgan Gutrat, Danielle Colaprico and Rachel Hill also opted not to return to the club. Colaprico and Hill have signed with San Diego Wave FC.

In a statement Tuesday, DiBernardo called being a Red Star for nine years “more meaningful than I could have ever imagined.”

“Chicago will forever have a place in my heart, but it’s time for me to start a new chapter in my career,” she said. “I’m thankful to many people who have supported me on my journey, but I especially want to thank my teammates for making my time in Chicago so special. I’m also grateful for the staff who pushed me to be the best player I could be.”

DiBernardo’s exit comes as the club continues to deal with the fallout of the U.S. Soccer-commissioned investigation into abuse and sexual misconduct in the NWSL. The findings of the investigation focused heavily on the Red Stars.

Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler, who was implicated in the U.S. Soccer report of perpetuating a culture of abuse in the NWSL, announced last week his plans to sell the club. He already had been removed as chairman of the club’s board of directors.

In the wake of his removal as chairman, Red Stars player Arin Wright called the change “liberating.” She has since re-signed with the club.

But other players, including DiBernardo, have opted to move on from the Red Stars. Still, DiBernardo remains optimistic about the club’s future, she said Tuesday.

“I have faith this club is headed in the right direction, and I will be cheering it on from afar,” she said.

This past weekend of NWSL play, poor refereeing drove the narrative. 

Chicago Red Stars head coach Rory Dames was candid in his lengthy response after they beat the Houston Dash 2-1 on two own goals.

But it’s not just players and coaches spewing hot air. Take the following no-call on Red Stars midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo after she was taken down inside the box.

“The same hand ball that happened in the box happened three times outside the box and got called every time,” Dames said after the game. “Vanessa was clearly fouled. I don’t know if she was in the box or not in the box — I’ll have to go back and look at that it was close.”

Chicago isn’t the only team dealing with missed foul calls. The following no-call on Shea Groom also led to some protest.

The frustration over NWSL refereeing isn’t new. Dames’ comments point to a long-standing frustration over a concerning pattern of inconsistency.

The NWSL returns Saturday with a matchup between the North Carolina Courage and the Houston Dash at 7 p.m. ET.

Vanessa DiBernardo is a midfielder for the Chicago Red Stars of the NWSL

What has it been like since you returned home from the Challenge Cup?

It’s starting to feel kind of back to normal. It’s nice not being in a bubble.

I’m sure it must be nice not having to live in a hotel room. I’m curious though, do you have any concerns about playing outside of a bubble for the Fall Series?

Our team has been pretty good with communicating, I think before we went to Utah, we had restrictions on what we can and cannot do outside of practice. Just because what you do outside is going to affect everyone else as well. So I think we’ve definitely put some guidelines in place for everyone to follow, but it’s nice to kind of at least have the freedom to go outside and go for a walk and stuff like that. Just being at home and sleeping in your own bed is something we were taking a bit for granted.

And how do you feel about traveling for games?

I think it’s definitely tough. Here in Chicago, we’re in the middle of the country, so we’re going to have to travel by air regardless of which team we play. I think in an ideal world we would like to charter and that would be our first choice, but I think our team is going to do well and look at flight times and try to do the best they can to keep us as safe as possible. That’s what we’ve asked for as players, and they’ve listened, so I think we’re going to be okay. But there’s still a pandemic going on, so you have to be a little worried.

How has the league communicated with you in terms of addressing concerns that players have about traveling and staying safe?

They’ve sent us guidelines and stuff to follow, so that’s good. And I think just all the stuff that we learned before going into Utah has definitely helped. And if we have big concerns, we go to our player reps and they go to our Players Association and they try to give us answers to our questions. So I think the communication has been good so far, and hopefully as these weeks continue to progress nothing serious happens.

The format of these fall games are obviously very different from the tournament format at the Challenge Cup. How do you feel about that?

It’s definitely different. I didn’t really realize when we were in Utah, we actually played every team there, which I think we’re the only team that did that. So it will be nice to get a home and away game against two great clubs who we played in the tournament. Just playing them again so quickly will be a good adjustment, just to see where we’re at. It’s definitely weird only playing two teams, but it’s better than not playing any game, and I think it definitely helps that we’re staying in as much of a bubble as we can. And then just having the games on TV is huge. There’s one each weekend on the CBS network. I think that’s huge for us as a league, so we’re pretty excited about that.

What are some of your team’s goals for these games? 

We’re looking at these games as a way to try new things. And we’ll have a lot of young players, so just getting them experience. They’ll still be good games and challenging games. And in the NWSL, I think, experience is huge. So for some of our younger players, I think this series will be very helpful for them.

There are a lot of players from around the league that have either been loaned to teams in Europe or signed there. How do you think that will affect the Fall Series? 

I think across every team, there are players who have gone overseas, so teams will be missing some pieces that they had in Utah. But again, it’s just a big opportunity for younger players to come in and fill roles and have a great opportunity. It just allows teams to try new things without maybe some of their players that they rely on a bit more. So it’s definitely a different look and opportunity, and there’s not very many games, so you can kind of try something new each game and see what works best.

Your team has been practicing together now for a few weeks since the Challenge Cup ended. How would you describe the team’s mindset at the moment? 

We’re just trying to get back into things, get sharp and, again, there’s new players around and you’re trying to just get used to how each other plays. We didn’t have a lot of time going into Utah, and we had a lot of new players in our frontline that were new to the team. So I think this time has been good for us to kind of actually train with each other and not necessarily have a game after a game after a game.

What are some of your personal goals?

I think just getting out there, playing games and feeling like myself. I had an injury streak for a little bit, and last year I was coming back from an injury. So this year I feel like I’m actually healthy and using these games to kind of just get back into form and really just focusing on that is what I’m looking forward to.