The Red Stars face one of their biggest challenges of the season tomorrow night when they host the defending champions FC Kansas City. Chicago, one point out of first place with a game in hand, are in prime position to qualify for their first NWSL Playoffs. With the regular season racing towards its dramatic conclusion, the Red Stars will have to put it all on the line at Benedictine University tomorrow night.
We sat down with Thad Bell from The Blue Testament to get a closer look at the opposition.
HTiOT: So last season, FCKC qualified for the playoffs with room to spare (finishing 2nd place with 41 points) and went on to win the whole shebang. Right now they're hovering on the playoff bubble with six games to go. Why do you think KC hasn't been able to match or exceed their regular season performance from last season? Has the team struggled? Or did the rest of the league just get stronger?
Thad Bell: In 2013 FC Kansas City was successful because Lauren Holiday scored while Jen Buczkowski and Desiree Scott clogged the midfield and Becky Sauerbrunn cleaned everything else up. A few others contributed also.
In 2014 they were successful because Holiday set up Amy Rodriguez and she scored while Buczkowski and Jenna Richmond clogged up the attack and Sauerbrunn cleaned up everything else. And a few others contributed.
In 2015 they have been without Holiday, Rodriguez and Sauerbrunn most of the season and when they were there they still had a USWNT focus to them. Without them, for offense they had to rely on Erika Tymrak, Sarah Hagen and rookie Shea Groom. Tymrak and Hagen failed to deliver as expected while Groom did well, she needed some better balls consistently.
The answer is both. The rest of the league got stronger and FC Kansas City has struggled.
HTiOT: Amy Rodriguez was a huge part of KC's successful run last season, having posted 16 goals in 2014 (including both of Kansas City's goal in the Championship final). This season her shooting boots haven't been as explosive, having only one tally (although admittedly she's only made five appearances for the club). How important will A-Rod be in terms of getting KC over the red line and into the playoffs? Who else in the squad do you feel needs to step up?
TB: This answer is really a continuation of the previous question.
A-Rod has been on the verge of getting hot all year but just cannot get that spark started. That includes her time with the US as well as FC Kansas City. In St. Louis she rattled the post and crossbar so hard a couple times I am surprised they did not have to move the goal back to the right spot. She had been just wide, just high, too close to the keeper and sometimes way off. Even in Canada she was close but no goal.
Part of A-Rod’s issue specifically and FC Kansas City’s is that both her and Holiday had to play differently while with the US. Holiday had to play more box-to-box and d-mid style than her normal all out attacking mid role with the Blues. Rodriguez was typically one of two forwards for the US and was expected to create havoc and then get the ball to Wambach/Morgan/Press/Leroux also.
A-Rod was so effective last year with FCKC because of the relationship Holiday already had with her and then coach Vlatko Andonovski cultivated that connection to perfection.
Early in 2014 Rodriguez made a lot of direct runs and Holiday had to time the pass perfectly. Later in the season Andonovski had Rodriguez running parallel to goal along the defensive seams and Holiday could slide a ball into space without A-Rod being offside already and then Rodriguez could explode towards goal.
As mentioned above, Hagen and Tymrak were expected to step up but didn’t fully and now they really need the Holiday to Rodriguez connection to awaken.
HTiOT: Imagine that someone fired some kind of Weird Science raygun at you and Vlatko Andonovski, forcing you two to switch bodies for a weekend. (I read a lot of vintage comic books, can you tell?) That means you need to lead the team out against the Red Stars. How would you prepare the squad? What would you tell them to look out for? What would your keys to success be?
TB: Ok, yes that is a little bit of a weird way to ask the question but I like it.
FC Kansas city has been at their best in a 4-2-3-1 formation with that lone target forward and a couple strong d-mids parked in front of the defense. They have experimented with a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield but that has had limited success but either of those would be expected.
I think they need a bit of a shake up, get them playing like it is fun again. I would probably try to surprise Chicago and put out an all attacking lineup for the first 15-20 minutes or so and then flip them back to a more normal formation.
I would switch it up into more of a 4-2-2-2 and play both Holiday and A-Rod at forward together and push Tymrak and perhaps Frances Silva underneath. I would also look at using Heather O’Reilly’s speed out of the back. Let her play right back (moving Robinson to the left in place of Moros).
This would sacrifice the wide channels but hopefully Buz and Laddish could pin them and reduce shots while allowing FCKC to have a numerical mismatch centrally in the attack.
All in, go score goals, if we lose let it be a 7-6 game and not a 1-0 game. Hopefully that would get the offense a boost and used to scoring again but more likely it would get me (Andonovski) sent to a mental health professional.