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Let’s face it: winning never gets old. I am a proud member of F.C. Kansas City and we won the 2015 N.W.S.L. Championship.
Two days after the championship game, as I began my drive from Kansas City to Washington, DC, where I will spend the offseason, I reflected on the seven months since I did the same drive in reverse. Back in March, as the mountainous highways of Maryland and West Virginia faded behind me and I officially entered the Midwest, I was hopeful that my drive was taking me towards a fulfilling professional experience. Joining F.C. Kansas City was no mystery, but I was still uncertain about the future. The team had won the 2014 N.W.S.L. Championship and clearly aimed to repeat. But could we do that? What if the few players who had left and the few who had joined, myself included, tipped the balance of their special chemistry? It seemed there was so much time, work, and luck standing between us and another championship.
I have been fortunate to be part of various championship teams throughout my career. Each experience hoisting a trophy is vastly different. Each team has a different personality, mentality, and method behind its success. Each journey to the moment of victory takes an unpredictable path. This season with F.C. Kansas City was uniquely special. As I drove back to the East Coast, I thought about the elements that allowed us to succeed, as well as all the moments never seen and people never acknowledged.
Here’s my countdown to victory:
10 + support and front office staff. Every team is comprised of much more than the 11 players on the field and coach on the sideline. F.C. Kansas City is a group of owners, managers, front office staff, players (including those who were not even on the roster) and fans who contributed all they could to ensure our success. Winning the N.W.S.L. Championship, in part, is defined by the number of times we asked our equipment manager to inflate or deflate the balls every training session. It is defined by the tireless work of our athletic trainer to set up his table and equipment any time and any place to take care of us physically. There were players at training every day who couldn't be in Portland for the Championship because they were not officially rostered. We had people booking travel, selling tickets, and steam pressing our numbers on jerseys. Their efforts, too, raised that trophy.
9 regular season wins. We were not flawless. We drew five games and lost six in the regular season. We did not dominate throughout the entire season and certainly had both good and bad spurts. But we stayed true to our style of play and kept our sights set on the first main goal: to make it into the playoffs. We didn’t talk about the Championship. It was one step, one game, at a time.
8 previous women's professional soccer seasons in the U.S. with no repeat champion. Arguably the most impressive part of winning the 2015 N.W.S.L. Championship is the fact that F.C. Kansas City is the first repeat champion. This is an important step for the development of the league. The Championship game featured the same matchup as last year: F.C. Kansas City versus Seattle Reign FC. This rematch is testament to the fact that trends are developing within the league. The parity and competitiveness among the nine teams is astounding. For clubs to begin to differentiate themselves, and to create rivalries, is vital to developing a league with personality and clear standards in terms of what it takes to win.
7 months of training, lifting weights, and watching video. One of the aspects of winning when it counts is tied to the work put in day in and day out to prepare for big moments. Sports is a delicate balance, and teams can over-do it, physically and emotionally. This leaves them with very little in the tank by the end of the season. I very much respect the training and preparation in Kansas City, because it is perfectly in perspective, with the finish line always in focus.
6th and final year playing professionally for Lauren Holiday. I remember as a college freshman the added motivation of trying to win the N.C.A.A. Championship in order to send our seniors out on a high note. This season felt similar. After the World Cup, Lauren Holiday announced her retirement following the 2015 N.W.S.L. season. Although we did not talk about it much as a team, and she (and we) tried to avoid a display of emotion, it was on all of our minds to send our good friend out on the very top. She had already won the World Cup this year, so this was ‘icing on the cake’.
5 offseason months to prepare. Much of the preparation for the season takes place in the long offseason. Roster acquisitions, analyzing the previous season, and players training in their own environments were enormous factors in setting the platform for this year’s success.
4 players who were part of the World Cup Championship team. This group had a ridiculous 2015. It is truly the stuff of which dreams are made.
3 coaches who insisted we stay faithful to a system and style of play. Every time I drove into our training complex, about an hour before training started, head coach Vlatko Andonovski was already out on the field, meticulously setting down cones for his training session. He enforced and reinforced the way he wanted us to play, even if it meant taking some risks with our possession in certain areas in order to redeem other advantages. When things were bad, or when we got punished in games for those risks, he never panicked or changed his plans. And when things were good, he was never overly exuberant (with the exception of when the final whistle blew in the Championship game!). This goes for our two assistant coaches as well. Their demeanor remained consistent. The tactics never changed. They had faith that it would all come together when it mattered. And it did.
2 halves against a quality opponent. I would be remiss to write about the 2015 N.W.S.L. season and not give credit where credit is due. Once again, Seattle was dominant throughout the regular season. They were organized, skillful, tenacious, and dangerous all over the field. As Vlatko told us before the game, the final would come down to a moment here or there. It was not a 90-minute game, but 90, one-minute games to be won. Seattle is a classy organization and a team that has shown quality consistently. It took us being at our absolute best to beat them.
1 moment of intense focus and perfect execution. For everything that goes into a Championship season, the irony is that the game is often won or lost in what seems like minutia: a small bounce, well-timed jump, or extra two yards of running. Without focus and execution in each and every moment, those small but pivotal plays will not go in a team's favor. It was the precision of the cross from Heather O'Reilly and then Amy Rodriquez being ready for her one clear chance that made the difference on the winning goal. A matter of inches. The margin of victory or defeat is often that small.
When F.C. Kansas City raised the trophy as N.W.S.L. Champions, we celebrated the moment, but equally the many moments, people, and efforts that set the platform for it to be possible. We are grateful for everyone and everything that made us victorious.
Get more from Yael at www.yaelaverbuch.com.