FC Kansas City is in its second consecutive offseason of ownership drama, and its staff will be relieved to have finally found a permanent solution. Unfortunately, it isn’t one that will keep an NWSL team in Kansas City, but it’s still a move that’ll be hailed as a second-best-case scenario.
Last Thursday, Major League Soccer team Real Salt Lake announced that it will start a new NWSL club. Owner Dell Loy Hansen said the team would be “one of 10” in the 2018 season, virtually confirming that it would replace FCKC, though neither the league nor RSL was able to announce that at the press conference. But on Monday, NWSL announced that all of FCKC’s contracts, draft picks, and places in waiver and player distribution orders would be transferred to RSL. In 2019, RSL will be treated like an expansion club and receive the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
Last offseason, NWSL was forced to quickly engineer the sale of FCKC after a story broke about its owners allegedly sending sexist and demeaning emails about women’s soccer players. Chris, Brad, and Greg Likens denied the story, claiming that their disgruntled co-owner Brian Budzinski fabricated the emails. Nevertheless, FCKC was eventually sold to Minnesota-based businessman Elam Baer.
But Baer was accused of being a largely absentee owner this season, with FCKC operating on a shoestring budget and struggling to meet league-minimum standards. Attendance plummeted. And at the end of the season, beloved coach Vlatko Andonovski decided to leave for rivals Seattle Reign FC after FCKC inexplicably failed to offer him a new contract. It looked as if there would be an NWSL club without anyone in charge of soccer operations heading into the offseason.
Thankfully, the careers of the FCKC players who will make the move to Utah appear to be in good hands with Hansen and his staff. While RSL didn’t make the playoffs this season, the club has been a consistent performer over the last decade, while Hansen has been willing to invest in a youth academy and designated players. RSL also founded a USL affiliate in 2015, Real Monarchs, which made the playoffs and had an average attendance of 2,577 this season.
RSL has been engaged in discussions with NWSL since 2014, and the organization getting an NWSL team always seemed to be a foregone conclusion. However, Hansen wanted to make sure that Monarchs were well-established before adding a third team. With Monarchs’ recent on-field and attendance successes, he likely feels his organization is in a good place to take on an NWSL franchise.
“Our goal is build the very best women’s sports organization in America, “Hansen said in an NWSL press release. He continued, indicating how quickly this came together: “Only 15 days ago was I asked to look into this opportunity, and as we learned about the NWSL vision from the league office and met with A&E executives as well as U.S. Soccer about their aspirations on and off the field, we knew we not only wanted to join as quickly as possible and participate, but we believe that our current infrastructure as well as the development initiatives on the RSL horizon align perfectly. Our community is already passionate about women’s sports, and we believe that empowering and advancing the women’s game accelerates the change to build a better Utah.”
While women’s soccer fans can be happy that FCKC’s players and staff will finally have a stable owner with experience in professional soccer, local fans will be wondering why something couldn’t be done to keep their club operational in Kansas City. Sporting Kansas City owner Robb Heineman and president Jake Reid have both indicated that they were exploring the possibility of buying FCKC on multiple occasions, but that never materialized.
Hansen and his staff now face serious challenges en route to making RSL a team that can compete for a playoff spot in 2018. Andonovski is among the most highly regarded coaches in American soccer, and players stayed in Kansas City to play for him when they had other options. The club will need a home-run hire to prevent a large number of players from retiring, leaving for Europe, or requesting trades. Whatever front office staff the club hires will also have a short time to prepare for the NWSL draft, where RSL will pick No. 1 overall.
But there’s also a great foundation to build on, if the new staff can convince players to stick around. Captain Becky Sauerbrunn, vice-captain Nicole Barnhart, Yael Averbuch, Desiree Scott, and Amy Rodriguez are great veteran leaders. Sydney Leroux showed flashes of brilliance in her first season back from pregnancy and could be a superstar again with the right talent around her. Christina Gibbons, Shea Groom, and Katie Bowen are talented young players who could become franchise cornerstones, as could the No. 4 overall pick. All of these players could perform better next season with access to the best ownership support and facilities they’ve experienced in their careers.
FC Kansas City disappearing stinks for FCKC fans. It stinks for players and staff who didn’t want to move. But if Sporting Kansas City wasn’t interested in buying the team immediately, this is the second-best thing the league and players could have hoped for. RSL has a stable and committed ownership group, as well as great fans that will turn out to watch its new women’s team. This move undoubtedly makes NWSL a stronger league.