It will be baptism by fire for Kansas City NWSL Friday evening.
The club’s first game in the National Women’s Soccer League since returning to Kansas City finds KC NWSL in Oregon for a season opener against the two-time league champion and 2020 Fall Series winner Portland Thorns.
Quite frankly, Kansas City couldn’t ask for a more challenging start to the season. The Thorns are one of the most decorated teams in the league, both on a club and also on an individual-player level.
“You have to respect everything about this whole organization,” KC coach Huw Williams said of Portland on the eve of his own team’s 2021 Challenge Cup kickoff at 9:30 p.m. Central.
The North Carolina Courage is arguably the best team in the women’s pro league right now, having won the last two league championships and three NWSL Shields. But when it comes to league history, pedigree of players on the field and the intense atmosphere of Providence Park, Portland is right up there, too.
The Thorns boast a stacked roster featuring former FC Kansas City and current U.S. Women’s National Team captain Becky Sauerbrunn, USWNT mainstays Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn, legendary Canadian forward Christine Sinclaire and 2019 Big East goalkeeper of the year Shelby Hogan.
Here’s the positive news for Kansas City: Of those big-time players, only Hogan will be available for Portland Friday evening. Many of the league’s best players are out this weekend because of international call-ups. That’s also true for KC, which will be without midfielders Desiree Scott and Jordyn Listro (Canada) and forward Mariana Larroquette (Argentina).
All three KC NWSL players are important contributors, but the absence of Horan, Sauerbrunn and Sinclair figures to hurt the Thorns more.
“Our goal is to impose our style on the game,” Williams said. “Not adjust to who they have on the field, not adjust to how they want to play but actually force them, if we can, to adjust to us.”
Part of that adjustment will be trying to deal with Kansas City’s attack down the wings. The Thorns will most likely play a midfield diamond, meaning plenty of space will be afforded Kansas City’s attack-minded wingbacks.
The diamond midfield means Portland’s wingbacks — Meghan Klingenberg and Kelli Hubly — will have some space to attack down the wings. KC’s wingbacks will attack right back, setting the stage for a showdown between the teams’ defenders.
Friday’s game marks the NWSL debut of Finnish Thorns defender Natalia Kuikka. Just 25, Kuikka already boasts a vast amount of experience from four years at Florida State, as well as pro-level duty with a handful of Finnish and Swedish clubs.
“Natalia is tough, aggressive, played at Florida State in college — just a hard-nosed, ball-winning defender,” Williams said. “Good player, but it’s going to be her first test in this league as well, so let’s make it a test. Let’s put her under pressure, let’s see if we can create turnovers off of her.”
Much of that duty will fall on KC captain Amy Rodriguez. The 34-year-old enjoyed a mixed preseason, picking up goals against the semi-pro Orlando FC Royals and K-State, but Williams wants to see more from his star forward.
“Huw’s always told us, you don’t make any shots that you don’t take and you’re not going to score any goals if you’re not shooting,” Rodriguez said. “I hope that we can put a lot of goals in the back of the net in tomorrow’s game against Portland, and for me personally, that’s my job, that’s what I do, and I’m willing to put that on my shoulders.”