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The Current pulled off one of Kansas City's best turnarounds. Here's why you should be watching

Reilly Wadsworth
Imagn Photos
Midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta, who, with teammate CeCe Kizer, leads the Kansas City Current in scoring, has seen the lows and highs of women’s pro soccer in Kansas City. Before joining the Current squad, she played for FC Kansas City in the last year of its existence.

With a new practice facility built in Riverside and a downtown stadium in the works, the professional women's soccer team has plenty of room to grow their image among the metro's youth players.

Despite the Kansas City Current’s rocky start this year, and a busy holiday weekend to contend with, a crowd of 6,484 people showed up at Children’s Mercy Park on a warm afternoon for the club’s Memorial Day matchup against Racing Louisville FC.

At the time, the Current appeared destined for a repeat of 2021, when they finished last in the National Women’s Soccer League standings. They began their 2022 campaign with four losses and a draw in their first five regular season matches.

But, three minutes into the match, Current midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta unleashed a penalty kick for the game’s only goal. That goal changed the course of the season.

Kansas City’s first-year coach Matt Potter said after the match he suspected greater things would come from LaBonta’s goal.

“You would think it would have settled us a little bit. Maybe it didn’t settle us,” he said. “Maybe, it was like, ‘Oh, hello — here we go!’”

And off they went. LaBonta’s strike triggered a 13-match unbeaten streak that didn’t end until Sept. 14, in Chicago. The run included a 2-1 win at Houston on July 1 that marked the franchise’s first ever road win.

The Current finished the regular season tied for third in the NWSL, with a 10-6-6 record. It’s the best reversal in Kansas City sports since the Chiefs went from 2-14 in 2012 to 11-5 the next year.

Now playoff-bound, the Current will again travel to Houston, on Oct. 16, for a win-or-go-home match against the Dash.

In the midst of that turnaround, the team will break ground Thursday at Berkley Riverfront Park on a new 11,000-seat stadium, scheduled to open in 2024.

LaBonta, who has seven goals this season, attributed the team’s turnaround to a new attacking mentality. The Current’s scoring co-leader said it was instilled by Potter, who’s insistent on making it the team’s identity.

Greg Echlin
KCUR 89.3
Matt Potter took over head coaching duties in 2022, and instilled the attacking identity that is fueling the Kansas City Current’s turnaround from a last place finish in 2021.

“Having that mentality — not just when we lose the ball — to get back and everybody running back,” LaBonta said, “but the same thing when the ball goes forward. Everybody’s got to run and get out there, too.”

Building for future success

The Current’s newfound success coincides with the opening of a sparkling new practice facility in Riverside, Missouri, complete with finely manicured turf and Kansas City’s downtown skyline as the backdrop. It’s the first training complex in the country built specifically for professional women’s soccer.

It’s a far cry from where the sport was in Kansas City five years ago, when a previous club called FC Kansas City dissolved. Though successful on the soccer pitch under Vlatko Andonovski, now the U.S. Women’s National Team coach, the team was poorly marketed. Practices often shifted between borrowed facilities in Johnson County, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri. Games alternated between the University of Missouri-Kansas City soccer stadium and the Swope Soccer Village.

Kansas City Current husband-and-wife cofounders Chris Long and Angie Long, later joined in ownership by Brittany Mahomes, made sure the return of women’s pro soccer would be different. The Long family took inspiration from the 2019 Women’s World Cup in Paris.

“Our daughter, Mary, played youth matches all around Paris and the surrounding areas,” Chris Long said. “You couldn’t leave that type of experience and not be in love with the global game.”

According to Nielsen ratings, the 2019 title match between the United States and The Netherlands was seen by more than 14 million viewers in the U.S., outperforming the men’s World Cup final the year before.

When the Longs purchased a soon-to-be-dissolved Utah franchise in 2020 and relocated it to Kansas City, they envisioned continued growth in the women’s game.

In their second year of ownership, and a few months after learning Kansas City will be one of 16 North American cities to host 2026 World Cup games, the Longs and Mahomes are literally changing the sport’s local landscape, on and off the field.

We want to shine a light, huge, on another one of these magical milestones in Kansas City’s history,” Chris Long said last month.

Strengthening community connections

While the Current have taken big steps forward on the field and in their facilities, their connection to youth players is a work in progress.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Bre Brandenburgh, cofounder of the KCK United girls soccer club, says her players often follow professional male footballers more closely than their female counterparts.

Team President Allison Howard, who was hired in May, learned the importance of creating team awareness from her previous job with the Los Angeles Lakers. She said a question she’s now working on in Kansas City is: “How can we use this name, this brand, for good in the community?”

There are girls clubs throughout the metro eagerly awaiting that answer.

Bre Brandenburgh cofounded the KCK United girls soccer club team with former Wyandotte High School soccer coach Josh Wikler.

As a player, Brandenburgh was inspired by “the 99ers,” the 1999 American team that won the World Cup held in the U.S., but she said most of her players follow men’s international teams more closely.

“That’s very common,” said Brandenburgh, who also works as a career counselor at Wyandotte High School. “Between our boys teams and our girls teams … they watch more international than they watch local.”

One exception is 16-year-old Mary Mendoza, a Turner High School student on Brandenburgh’s team. Though Mendoza has never attended a Current home match, she keeps close track of the team.

“I do follow them on Instagram,” she said, “and I think that they inspire other girls like me who play soccer.”

Destiny Marquez, a patrol officer for the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department, coaches a girls club team for 5- and 6-year-olds. Marquez said even at that young age, the girls on her team, called Little Ballers, tell her they strive to be professional players one day.

But Marquez confessed she didn’t know anything about the Current until she followed co-owner Mahomes on Instagram. After joining the police force, she learned more.

“In my (patrol) division, we work off-duty at their games, so there’s always a little sign-up sheet,” said Marquez.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Mary Mendoza, 16, is a Turner High School student who travels to Wyandotte High School to practice for the KCK United youth team.

Ben Aken, from the Current’s community relations department, said the team has been out and about, but conceded there’s still much work to be done to connect with youth clubs.

“It’s going to take time,” he said.

“As an organization, we’re so inspired by this team, going from the bottom of the league last year and rising up through this season,” said Aken. “We want to do our best for this team and give Kansas City an opportunity to know these players.”

If the Current’s successful streak continues into the playoffs, their brand will only grow more visible.

That awareness could trickle down to girls teams like KCK United and the Little Ballers, leading to more youth players in the stands of a new downtown stadium, and a new crop of players for them to look up to.

Corrected: October 6, 2022 at 10:16 AM CDT
Destiny Marquez’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. It has since been corrected.
Sports have an economic and social impact on our community and, as a sports reporter, I go beyond the scores and statistics. I also bring the human element to the sports figures who have a hand in shaping the future of not only their respective teams but our town. Reach me at gregechlin@aol.com.
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