As the Portland Thorns prepare to open the new NWSL season against FC Kansas City on Saturday (5:35pm PT, webstream at www.portlandthornsfc.com), find out everything you need to know about the opposition.
A brief history…
With Kansas City proving to be a hotbed for soccer after the rise of MLS' Sporting KC, the Likens family, who own the Missouri Comets indoor team, were keen to get involved in the NWSL and submitted a bid to create a team to be entered for the inaugural season, which was accepted.
There is a tradition of women’s soccer in Missouri with the Saint Louis Athletica previously competing in the now defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league. But this team is hoping for a longer existence as the NWSL starts off with eight teams in eight major soccer markets.
Where do they play their home games?
They play at the Shawnee Mission District Stadium. Rebuilt in 2005, it is a stadium primarily used for high school sports, but it will actually be the third-largest venue scheduled to be used in the NWSL this season.
Able to cater for up to 6,150 supporters, it is a stadium that can create a good atmosphere and MLS side Sporting Kansas City have played there in a US Open Cup match. The pitch is artificial surface, similar to JELD-WEN Field.
How did they prepare for the season?
After three pre-season games, they boast a perfect record of three victories with 18 goals scored and only two conceded. In their last warm-up game, they trashed the University of Nebraska 8-0 in front of around 400 supporters. It was a nice way to finish up their preparations.
FC KC recently agreed a deal to use Park University’s Hemingway Field as their training base. They held part of their pre-season training camp there, where the new players meshed with trialists and they did the bulk of their work ahead of the new NWSL season.
What players have they recruited?
The big captures for Kansas were US internationals Lauren Cheney and Nicole Barnhart, while Becky Sauerbrunn is also a proven talent. As part of the Player Allocation, they also picked up Canadian duo Desiree Scott and Lauren Sesselmann, plus Mexican pair Renae Cuellar and Marylin Diaz.
Apart from those big-name players, the most notable recruitment was that of US midfielder Kristen Mewis, who was selected as the third overall pick in the NWSL College Draft. Other players to watch out for include the trio of Erika Tymrak, Courtney Jones, and Jen Buczkowski.
Head coach: Vlatko Andonovski
Originally from Macedonia, Andonovski has made his name as coach in the US, where he has been heavily involved in youth and indoor soccer. He has held director of coaching positions and used his experience of playing in Europe to compliment his coaching qualifications. Andonovski will be assisted by Welsh coach Huw Williams.
Star Player: Lauren Cheney
Closing in on 100 caps for the United States, this playmaking attacker can cut a team open with a single pass or a darting run. She is precise, creative and clinical in front of goal, although her greatest asset is improving the players around her by bringing them into the game and setting them up with chances. When on form, she will be amongst the very best players in the NWSL.
One To Watch: Renae Cuellar
Described by many as Kansas City’s ‘secret weapon’ for the inaugural season, Cuellar is someone who the Thorns defense must keep a close eye on. Born in California, but representing Mexico, this 22-year-old forward possesses frightening pace and a truly lethal shot, so she should score a lot of goals over the course of the season.
What can the Thorns expect?
In their last pre-season game, Kansas set up in a 4-5-1 formation with Cuellar up front on her own. That hardly proved to be a burden though as he netted five of the team’s eight goals and linked well with the outside midfielders, Courtney Jones and Casey Loyd.
Kansas will be a very attack-minded team, especially when they can integrate Cheney into their starting line-up as she was away on international duty with the US recently. They will also look to dominate in midfield, where their extra player – if the same formation is rolled out – charged with providing defensive cover.
Who are their main threats?
The attacking pair of Cuellar and Cheney are the obvious threats as they are bound to bring a mixture of explosive pace and measured passing to Kansas’ forward play – so stopping them will have to be top of the Thorns’ to-do list on Saturday evening.
Goalkeeper Barnhart – a long-time back-up to Hope Solo – is an athletic shot-stopper with a good presence around her penalty area, while Sauerbrunn is the type of defender who can break attacks down before the opposition player sees her coming.
Did You Know?
FC Kansas City already has an official supporters group, who are called the Blue Crew. Expect to hear plenty of chants and songs from them as they attempt to make themselves heard in the season opener, where they have home-field advantage.
Gareth Maher is a contributing writer to PortlandThornsFC.com. He is a frequent soccer writer for the Irish Daily Mail in Dublin as well as ESPNFC.com.