The 2023 season has been short on bright spots for the Kansas City Current. But two of the biggest might be the development of two rookies who could be cornerstones for the club moving forward.
During the 2023 NWSL Draft, the Kansas City Current selected eight players. Five of them earned first-team contracts. Two have eclipsed 1,000 minutes, and one leads the team in minutes played this year.
Enter Michelle Cooper and Gabrielle Robinson.
Cooper was the second overall pick in the NWSL Draft. The Current acquired her by sending away USWNT forward Lynn Williams. Robinson was the Current’s third draft pick in the second round.
While their paths to establishing themselves within the team have been different, both provide promise for a team that is certainly looking to capitalize on the upcoming seasons in a new stadium.
Robinson and Ball establish strong rapport
Robinson’s goal when she first arrived was simply to make the team, she told The Star in an exclusive interview.
“If I played one minute, that was more than I expected,” Robinson said with a laugh.
How about 2,000? Robinson has amassed the most minutes (2,105) of any Current player and will likely hold that number for any player in her position — even if she didn’t play a minute the rest of the year.
“I feel like I came into this season just to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could play at a professional level,” Robinson said. “That didn’t mean for me to play or start.”
From the opening weekend, Robinson has proved she belonged. The Current started her alongside Elizabeth Ball on opening day, and Robinson was immediately tested against Kerolin from the North Carolina Courage. The Current lost that match, but there were promising signs from that early partnership.
But Ball suffered a severe hamstring injury late in that game, causing her to miss nearly two months. Once the Current got Ball back, the two proved to be a formidable defensive duo.
With Ball and Robinson as the center-back pairing, in over 996 minutes between the regular season and Challenge Cup, the Current only conceded nine goals — around 1 goal per 110 minutes. The Current have a goal differential of plus-11 with the duo on the field.
That partnership could’ve changed the course of the season for KC, and it could do so in the future.
Cooper re-learns her position
Michelle Cooper is known for scoring goals. She’s done it repeatedly at every level before being drafted to the Current. That led to high expectations, both externally and from Cooper herself.
“Honestly, no matter what number I would’ve hit, I think I would’ve been somewhat disappointed,” Cooper told The Star.
Managing her own expectations has been part of the adjustment to the pro level. And while the ball hasn’t hit the back of the net as much as she has wanted, there’s one area of her game that has developed — and notably so.
Cooper has primarily been a striker since high school — both at the youth national team level and in college. So when she ended up playing mostly as a winger for the Current, the adjustment to the position has been...
“It’s a lot different, and the level is much higher here,” Cooper said.
One of the main differences is simply the amount of running required.
That — and what happens when she’s in possession of the ball.
“I’m so used to just holding up the ball, and spinning out once I lay it off,” Cooper said. “So the one-vs.-ones have been huge, getting the crosses off and different angles of shots.”
She’s also picking up the ball farther from the opposing goalkeeper.
“Now I have at least three to four obstacles in front of me,” Cooper said. “(My) proximity to goal has been a lot farther than usual.”
Cooper is second on the on the team in “Shot Creating Actions” (3.3 per game), a soccer metric that accounts for passes, fouls drawn and defensive plays that lead to a shot on goal. The only player ahead of her in that category is international star Debinha.
That’s one of the underlying numbers that suggests a breakout season could be coming.
Establishing their future through versatility
Both Cooper and Robinson have had strong enough rookie seasons to be considered foundational pieces of the team moving forward. But other circumstances around the roster could make things a little more complicated.
At center back, where Robinson has played, Ball is locked up through at least the next season, and the club just added two players who started for their respective countries at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup — Stine Ballisager and Lauren.
The question on Cooper, on the other hand, is about her position. Will whoever leads the Current as manager in 2024 see her at winger or striker? At either spot, she’ll face plenty of competition — though there’s reason to believe she’s on the cusp of a breakout season when looking at her numbers.
“Of course it’s always nice to have the accolades, and the stats and numbers,” Cooper said, “But behind the scenes, how much I’ve grown this year as a person and a player has meant so much to me and is only going to help me in the later years of my career.”
Positional flexibility for both might be a good thing as they seek to continue their growth into their sophomore professional seasons. Cooper can comfortably play any of the front three positions, and Robinson’s comfort on the ball as a passer and dribbler has allowed her to play higher up the field both in college and the pros.
While she didn’t start in the Current’s 2-1 win over the Wave, Robinson came into the game as a sub in the midfield. During her collegiate career at West Virginia, Robinson played as a defensive midfielder at times.
“Honestly, I played everything in college,” Robinson said. “If my coach said we needed a nine, I was playing the nine. Obviously it’s a jump because it’s professional, but I’ve always (had) pride in being versatile.”