KC's Stealth Champions
FC Kansas City players are hardly noticed around town.
Amy Rodriguez has a bounce in her step. She normally does with the little man out in front. The 27-year-old mom is in her happy place when 1-year-old Ryan's revving the handle on a baby stroller that blends in with all of the others. The mall traffic buzzes past with nary an acknowledgment. No one seems to notice one of our country's most distinguished soccer players.
Amy Rodriguez is A Rod, as in U.S. Women's National Team sensation, as in two-time Olympic gold medalist. She's made more than a hundred appearances for Team USA while scoring 27 goals in the name of country.
But here, in civilian clothes, with her blonde hair pulled back and over-sized sunglasses perched on top of her head, Rodriguez is virtually anonymous.
"For sure, a lot of my neighbors still don't know what I do," Rodriguez says. "I'm just one of the moms down the street."
A Rod also happens to be a star forward for FC Kansas City, our local entry in the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL). In September, she scored both FCKC goals in the league finals to stun top-seed Seattle, 2-1. Earlier, she celebrated Mother’s Day by scoring twice in a win against Washington.
If you've never heard of the team or league, welcome to the lopsided majority. "Less than 1 percent (know who I am),” Becky Sauerbrunn says. ”I would say there's a very small likelihood."
Sauerbrunn is an FCKC center-back who was voted the NWSL's top defender, the league’s only repeat award-winner. She's also developed into one of the most rock-solid players on the U.S. team. But defenders don’t necessarily sell tickets, and that’s a problem.
In year two, FCKC’s attendance dropped significantly after a move from Shawnee Mission North District Stadium to UMKC.
“We didn’t attract enough of the Johnson County soccer community,” says Huw Williams, the team’s director of soccer operations. “The perception is that it is far, not easy to get to.”
In 2014, FCKC wanted a soccer-specific venue, not a high school field with football lines, but the team took a hit in stadium capacity by moving. Three thousand is only reachable at UMKC when you attract a standing room only crowd. By comparison, the Portland Thorns led the league in attendance, averaging over 13,000 fans in a 12-game home schedule. FCKC was next to last out of the nine teams at around 2,000.
The Thorns benefit from an alliance with the Timber, Portland’s Major League Soccer entry. That means the women’s team gets a bump in prestige and is able to make its merchandise available at the Timber’s MLS online shop and at Providence Park, the stadium they share. FCKC gear is nowhere to be found in our local stores.
And then, there’s the star factor. The Thorns’ poster-girl is 25-year-old Alex Morgan, the modern day Suzy Chapstick. The bubbly national team star has more than 1.5 million followers on Twitter and satisfies them daily by tweeting every time she applies her new hydration lock lip balm. And that’s just one of several sponsors.
Exposure like that is good for the NWSL and Thorns, but FCKC has no equal, unless you’re talking league titles. Those franchises are tied at one a piece.
“I feel like it (a championship) puts you on the map,” Rodriguez says. “People want to feel a part of a winning program. It was really huge for us. Now our name is out there.”
Sauerbrunn adds, “I had never made it into a final as a pro, so it was icing on the cake. I felt I had responsibility as a co-captain.”
“The first thing, we’re on ESPN, so there’s all that talk about the soccer capital stuff,” Williams says. “It’s cool to follow in the footsteps of Sporting KC. But we’re under the radar. The front office hasn’t done as good a job as the girls on the field. They’ve been way better, but we are determined and committed to catch up.”
Part of that has to do with a manpower shortage. FCKC recently upped its office staff to a still modest eight full-timers with a goal of being more aggressive in sales and marketing. They're dropping ticket prices for 2015 and offering incentives for those who renew season tickets. In the championship season, they tried to scrape by with five in an office, also dedicated to the men’s indoor team, the Missouri Comets, which brings to mind a relevant flashback. Thirty years ago, when the MISL Kansas City Comets routinely packed Kemper Arena, the team put a premium on players making public appearances.
Goalkeeper Alan Mayer says he was out in the community up to 300 times in a year, going to schools, attending Rotary Club meetings or calling numbers at Bingo Alley “and it was awesome.”
Comets star Gino Schiraldi adds that he routinely did two to three appearances a week during the season and that number nearly doubled afterwards.
Sauerbrunn admits the FCKC ladies might’ve only individually made five or six appearances, at clinics or tournaments, over the course of the entire season.
Rodriguez says she could have done more.
“I wasn’t that involved in the community,” she says. “I’ll try to do that more, reaching out.”
Rodriguez’ first year here was complicated by being a new mom with a husband on the West Coast and not knowing exactly how her body would respond after pregnancy and childbirth.
Check and checkmate.
Rodriguez says she's made good friends here in a year's time and got closer to teammates like Lauren Holiday and Nicole Barnhart. Similar to Rodriguez and Sauerbrunn, they are all allocations from the national team so their salaries are picked up by the U.S. Soccer Federation. That means payroll relief for FCKC.
The unknowns for next year include potential roster changes and considering venues that allow alcohol to be served. UMKC doesn’t; SM North didn’t. The players would prefer to keep it simple and focus on things they can control. Working, winning, caring.
“We just found a group of like-minded players and level-headed players,” Sauerbrunn says. “There were no chemistry problems. We live together in-season. We like spending time together. We love each other.”
Next year, we’ll see if a bigger number of fans care enough to love them back.