Inside the Kansas City Current's turnaround from last place to the NWSL Championship

Explaining the remarkable turnaround of Kansas City Current (1:32)

Julie Foudy joins the Futbol Americas team to discuss the incredible turnaround of Kansas City Current. (1:32)

The origin story of the Kansas City Current's run to the NWSL Championship begins with a victory over OL Reign.

Not the 2-0 win on Sunday over the Shield-winning Reign in the semifinal in Seattle. That gutsy result clinched the Current's spot in this year's NWSL Championship, set for Saturday at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., where they will face the favored Portland Thorns. But it was hardly the starting point for the Current. Rather, the Current's stunning turnaround from last-placed team in 2021 to championship contender in 2022 began taking shape more than a year ago, when the Current managed a 1-0 victory over OL Reign on Aug. 14, 2021.

At the time, Kansas City didn't even have a permanent name or branding -- the first-year team had simply been known as "KC NWSL." They also failed to win any of their first 13 games of the 2021 regular season. Including the preseason NWSL Challenge Cup, the team went 17 games without a victory heading into that match against the Reign.

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A 1-0 win over the Reign marked the start of a six-game unbeaten streak at home on the team's converted baseball field -- another byproduct of the team's rushed NWSL entry after Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen was removed from the league and his team relocated to Kansas City.

Players believed that Kansas City was better than the team's record suggested, but the stats were brutal. The team that would later be named the Current finished bottom of the 10-team table with 16 points from 24 games, 14 of which were losses.

Goalkeeper AD Franch reflected last week on that win over the Reign last year, the team's first in its history. "We wanted to keep moving forward. They didn't want to be where they were. It was unfortunate where they were last year, and where we were -- sorry."

Franch was apologizing for oscillating between "they" and "we," but it's understandable: she arrived in Kansas City via a trade announced three days after that first-ever victory over the Reign. She is a Kansas native who had a common goal with her new team: the desire for a fresh start. "Last year's last bit was like, 'OK, we can do this,' " Franch said. "It gave us a little bit of a belief to start this process moving forward this year."

Kansas City made other big moves around the time Franch arrived last year, acquiring forward Kristen Hamilton and attacking defender Hailie Mace as part of a larger trade. It was clear even by mid-2021 that the focus was on building toward 2022, on and off the field. Each of those players is integral to Kansas City's appearance in the NWSL Championship.

Big acquisitions and big absences in Kansas City

After a last-place finish in 2021, Kansas City saved their biggest blockbuster acquisitions for the offseason. In separate trades with the North Carolina Courage, the Current acquired U.S. women's national team stars Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams.

Mewis came to Kansas City already considered one of the best midfielders in the world, particularly after her season with Manchester City in 2020-21. Williams was one of the NWSL's all-time top scorers, and a forward with the ability to contribute deeper on the field.

With Mewis and Williams joining a roster that already had potential, Kansas City looked like a team ready to make serious progress in 2022. Yet things didn't go to plan: neither Mewis nor Williams took the field for a single minute in the regular season in 2022.

A knee injury that was initially described as minor became long-term for Mewis and in early August, she was finally placed on the season-ending injury list. She only played in a pair of preseason NWSL Challenge Cup games in March before getting shut down. Williams, meanwhile, went down injured in the final minutes of the team's first game of the calendar year, the Challenge Cup opener. Doctors discovered long-term injuries to her hamstring and hip, and she was ruled out for the remainder of the season.

Before the regular season had even begun, the Current's new centerpiece players were on the shelf, and it was now Matt Potter's problem to deal with -- he took over as head coach of the Current in the offseason, replacing Huw Williams, who moved into a behind-the-scenes role as director of soccer operations. Potter spent the previous two years in charge of the U.S. U-23 women, often referred to as the second team for the senior side. He joined because he saw potential in Kansas City's project.

"When I came into the club, I understood what it was that ownership had set in terms of the expectation, the ambition that they've shown," Potter said this week. "And to be perfectly honest, that was very much aligned with my own thinking and the way we wanted to play. To be honest, I was just grateful that I'd have the opportunity to be able to lead the group, because I was so excited about the project. I was in a good place, anyway, but this project is something I think everybody would love to be part of."

Immediately, Potter knew there was potential on the roster. From the team's new acquisitions to veterans like Desiree Scott and rookies like Elyse Bennett and Alex Loera, there was individual talent, but what the group needed was direction. And what the individuals required was the opportunity to be placed in roles that would allow them to thrive.

Potter went unconventional -- at least for what has typically worked in the NWSL -- establishing a fluid 3-5-2 formation and resolutely sticking with it throughout the season. Within that system, the Current got career years from NWSL midfielder Lo'eau LaBonta and jack-of-all-trades defender Kristen Edmonds, two NWSL journeywomen.

Elizabeth Ball also enjoyed her best season to date as the anchor of the back three. Mace and Kate Del Fava -- who scored in last weekend's semifinal to send the Current to the NWSL Championship -- thrived as wingbacks with two-way responsibilities. And Loera served various duties this season as a center-back and defensive midfielder before scoring the game-winning goal in the semifinal while playing a more advanced midfield role.

LaBonta finished the regular season tied with Cece Kizer for the team lead in goals, with seven (five of LaBonta's were penalties). Kizer proved to be a savvy midseason addition via a trade with Racing Louisville FC, as she and Hamilton formed a productive partnership up top.

French midfielder Claire Lavogez then arrived in the summer transfer window to add an additional attacking spark and complete the midfield, except she tore her ACL in the opening match of the playoffs and won't feature in Saturday's NWSL Championship. Yet at every step along the way, and with every injury setback, Potter found the right player for the right role, adapting the system to the personnel he had available.

Kansas City didn't wow anyone -- certainly not at the outset. The Current qualified for the Challenge Cup semifinals by winning a wide-open central division, but the regular season kicked off with a 3-0 loss in Portland to the Thorns, who they will end their 2022 campaign against on Saturday. The Current lost four of their first five regular-season games, picking up just one point before beating Louisville, 1-0 on May 30.

Yet that was the start of a 13-game unbeaten streak that put them in contention for the NWSL Shield by mid-September. They slipped to fifth on the final weekend of the regular season, forcing them to go on the road to beat the Houston Dash and then OL Reign in order to make the final.

From worst to first, on and off the field

In June, the Current moved into a training facility that owners Chris and Angie Long said cost $18 million, all privately funded. It immediately put Kansas City among the very best training facilities in the NWSL and, of equal importance, it served as tangible proof of the team's long-term vision.

For some players who came from less-ideal team setups, that feeling of investment from owners was new. The training center also offered a sense of permanence, something lacking in 2021 when the team, freshly plucked from Utah, had no name or identity. Although playing as "KC NWSL" for the first season was awkward, it was part of a pragmatic approach that allowed the club to vet potential names and crests. The temporary red-and-teal color scheme was a hit, and leadership eventually landed on the "Current" water-themed name, debuting it at halftime of the team's 2021 season finale.

The club also curiously spent last year playing home games at a baseball stadium, which ironically sits across the parking lot from one of the best soccer-specific venues in the country, Children's Mercy Park, home of Sporting Kansas City. Attendance at the baseball stadium was middle of the pack at just under 5,000 on average, but field conditions were inconsistent and the game presentation was below par.

Everything in Kansas City looked rushed and, to be fair, it had been. Few doubted the commitment of the ownership group of the Longs and Brittany Mahomes, while most empathized with them having only a three-month window between acquiring a team -- on a short timeline as the NWSL searched for solutions to its Dell Loy Hansen problem in Utah -- and playing competitive matches.

Despite initial bumps, ownership quickly delivered, and a rough season filled with losses and question marks started to show signs of progress.

First came news of the training facility and then, almost exactly one year ago, the club announced it would build a privately funded, downtown stadium. The 11,500-seat structure will be the first purpose-built for an NWSL team when it opens in 2024. Players, who were finally starting to see some victories on the field, also saw the long-term vision. They realized that there was potential to the project, despite its hurried start.

This season, the team moved out of the baseball diamond to Children's Mercy Park across the street, where they will play until their new bespoke stadium is constructed. Attendance grew to over 7,600 fans per game, and club president Allison Howard told ESPN last month that they expect to sell out every home game in the new stadium in 2024.

"Obviously, we had already seen the investment that the ownership was already putting into the club toward that latter end of the season when we unveiled our new branding, new stadium -- we were going to be playing our games at Sporting's stadium, at Children's Mercy," Hamilton said this week. "Those little things made a huge difference to us, that they believed in us, they were going to keep investing in us and push us to be the team that they thought we could be.

"Those little investments kind of stay in your mind through the offseason and help you kind of push yourself to where you want to get to."

One more win to complete the NWSL fairy tale

Kansas City is decidedly the underdog in Saturday's NWSL Championship. The Thorns are playing in their fourth playoff final and are in search of their third championship. They are perennial contenders, even if their journey this year included a coaching change and team makeover of its own on the field, and club changes, firings and fan distrust off the field.

The Current arrive in the final after a dramatic opening-round victory over Houston. LaBonta said afterward that she was just "living in the moment" and celebrating the win, her first in the postseason in seven years in the league.

"I wasn't tearing up like some of the other players were, and the veterans," LaBonta said. "I think just because, you know, a lot of us were on the team last year when we were in last and just all the work that we've put in, the grind and everything, I think it pays out in the end."

A gutsy 2-0 victory over Shield-winners OL Reign followed in the semifinal. Franch was the star of the game, making seven saves. Several of them were unbelievable, including a reflex save of Reign forward Jordyn Huitema's open header from six yards out in the first half.

Afterward, Franch said her favorite save was the one Loera made in the second half, when she cleared a loose ball off the line. Franch deflected praise toward her teammates in the postgame glow even as attention narrowed in on her performance. She knows what they went through in 2021, and how much it serves as the foundation to this run to the NWSL Championship.

"The players that have transitioned from last year's team to this year's team, they went through a lot," Franch said on Sunday. "When we [Hamilton] arrived, they were still going through stuff as a team, and they actually embraced us to come into this team. And that embracement really allowed us to feel like we were a part of the team, or me personally."

A notable change in the Current this season is the team's visible, collective joy. LaBonta made global headlines in August for her fake-hamstring-injury-turned-twerk celebration. Ever since, Current players have prepared celebrations from air guitars to special dances. On Saturday, they get one more opportunity to celebrate how far they've come in a short amount of time, from a last-place team searching for a first win to potential league champions.

"Right now, we get to continue a journey that we've been on all season," Potter said. "It's had everything in there. Everything's been in this season so far, and the fact that we get to play one more game and be together another week is pretty darn exciting."