If you ask Kansas City Current players to tell you how their worst-to-first Cinderella story began, they’ll likely point to nine months ago on the calendar — February 2022.
Leaving behind snowy, 40-degree weather for four weeks, the new-look squad headed to the Sunshine State and set up camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., just south of Tampa Bay.
“In preseason, I kept saying, ‘Something feels different,’” Current defender Kristen Edmonds told On Her Turf ahead of Saturday’s NWSL Championship matchup vs. the Portland Thorns. “We went to Florida for a month and within the first couple days, I just had this feeling, for me, something’s very different about this season.”
There were the obvious changes: a new general manager in Camille Levin Ashton, a new head coach in Matt Potter, and the blockbuster additions of USWNT stars Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams.
“We were just together constantly. We had meetings in the morning, we had practice, we ran together, we started this crazy new lifting program,” said eight-year NWSL veteran Lo’eau LaBonta. “… I think because we started at square one and everybody bought in, it was very easy to build a successful team.”
2022 NWSL Championship: Portland Thorns vs. Kansas City preview, how to watch, history
“Honestly, this [was] the hardest preseason I’ve ever been through in my entire career,” added Edmonds, who joined the NWSL in 2014. “I don’t know exactly what it was because there were days where I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m dead. I need a day off. I need an extra day off.’… But just being around the group and us being together all the time, and just the vibes that I was getting. It just seemed like we had something special, and obviously we did.”
“After last year, we kind of came with something to prove,” said midfielder Addie McCain, who joined Kansas City as a rookie in 2021. “So, it kind of felt like a fresh start. Everybody seemed to buy in to what the new staff had to offer, and it kind of paid off.”
To say their efforts paid off is an understatement. Just one season ago, the club started the 2021 campaign with the generic name “KC NWSL” after new owners took over. Playing on a converted baseball field, KC went winless for their first 17 games (including four Challenge Cup games) and didn’t secure a win until midway through August, beating the OL Reign 1-0. They finished the season at the bottom of the 10-team NWSL table, going 3-14-7.
But the club didn’t let last year’s struggles get in the way of this year’s opportunity, according to Potter, who helped usher in the concept of a new identity for the Current from the jump.
“It goes all the way back to preseason where we probably spent longer figuring out what’s the identity that we want the Kansas City Current to look like on and off the field,” he said.
MORE KC CURRENT COVERAGE: Alex Loera talks journey to Kansas City, 2022 NWSL Championship
But the 2022 NWSL season got off to a rocky start. After a solid preseason run landed the Current in the Challenge Cup semifinals, KC faced the regular season without either of their star acquisitions when Mewis (knee) and Williams (right hamstring and hip) were both sidelined with season-ending injuries. The Current went winless through their first five games, including a 3-0 blowout to the Thorns in their regular-season opener.
With Mewis and Williams on the sidelines, other players stepped up.
“It’s not a starting 11. We literally have a starting 20. Anybody can fall in there,” said LaBonta. “We call them gamechangers, not subs.”
The tide began to turn over Memorial Day weekend, when KC earned its first win of the season, a 1-0 victory over Racing Louisville. The triumph kicked off a 13-game unbeaten streak that pushed the Current into contention for the NWSL Shield by September.
The undefeated streak (the second-longest in NWSL history) was punctuated in June by a move into the team’s $18 million training facility, all of which was privately funded, according to owners Angie and Chris Long and co-owner Brittany Mahomes, who founded the team in December 2020. A bespoke, 11,500-seat stadium is on track for the 2024 season, marking the first stadium purpose-built for a U.S. women’s soccer team.
“Obviously, coming off a not-so-great season previously, I think a lot of people wouldn’t have thought that we could get here,” said midfielder Desiree Scott, who played with both of the club’s previous iterations (Kansas City FC, Utah Royals). “But as the season continued… I think that belief continued to grow with our winning streaks happening, just the way we were playing … We thought we can get here and here we are.”
The Current finished the regular season 10-6-6, dropping to fifth on the table but qualifying for their first NWSL Playoffs. They earned their spot in the final with a 2-0 victory over OL Reign, this year’s NWSL Shield winners. On Saturday night, the Current face a formidable foe in Portland, which is playing in its fourth NWSL Championship and has won twice before (2013, 2017).
“They certainly have found the joy of what they do and we try to get better every day. So if you’re living out those things, then this is just another opportunity to believe that we can go on and do great things. That’s what we’re preparing for and that’s what hopefully shows up (Saturday) night,” Potter said.
“I think the whole group is just like, ‘Why not us? Why can’t we be the ones to win it all? We’re here,'” echoed NWSL rookie defender Alex Loera.
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On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.
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‘Why not us?’: The Kansas City Current bought in to reach 2022 NWSL Championship originally appeared on NBCSports.com