By Mike McCall
Heading into last week’s season opener against the Portland Thorns, FC Kansas City forward Renae Cuéllar knew she had a chance.
She even went so far as to write it down on her to-do list: Score the first goal in National Women’s Soccer League history.
Cuéllar gave herself decent odds, but even for the confident 22-year-old, what happened next was beyond expectations. She never imagined that just two minutes and 10 seconds into the dawn of a new league, she’d have the ball at her left foot with only the goalkeeper to beat.
She got there by making a diagonal run between two defenders, controlling a long pass and touching it ahead on the left side, and there was no way she was missing from there.
With a standing-room-only home crowd of 6,784 at Shawnee Mission District Stadium that included her family, she slammed a shot that beat Portland goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc on the near side.
And she still can’t quite believe it.
“I definitely think it hasn’t sunk in yet,” Cuéllar, whose goal powered FC Kansas City to a 1-1 draw against the NWSL’s preseason title favorites. “For me, it was a great accomplishment and a great feeling, but sometimes I ask myself, ‘Did that really happen?’
“Especially since it was in the first two minutes of the game.”
Go back to that list of goals, and there’s another, more long-term item on there: Lead the league in scoring.
“At least in the top three,” she said.
That’s a league, mind you, that includes FIFA World Player of the Year Abby Wambach (Western N.Y. Flash), the high-powered Portland pairing of Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, as well as others like Boston’s Sydney Leroux.
KC head coach Vlatko Andonovski even did a double take when he heard Cuéllar’s ambitions during the preseason.
“She goes, ‘I’ll be the leading scorer in the league. I’ll score goals all the time,’” Andonovski recalled. “I’m thinking to myself, this girl just came out of college. That’s a lot of confidence. But you know what? I know it has only been one game, but so far she’s 100 percent.”
And Andonovski knows better than to knock the confidence his forward built during a college career at Arizona and Oklahoma. He lists her determination and love of scoring as her best attributes, which were on display this preseason in Cuéllar’s five-goal, one-assist jaw-dropper of a performance against the University of Nebraska.
Those are precious qualities for FC Kansas City as their first season goes on. After a sellout debut draw against the NWSL’s most high-profile team, they want to keep aiming higher.
The club doesn’t boast any superstars, but a mix of U.S. veterans — goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, defender Becky Sauerbrunn and forward Lauren Cheney — and young talent like Kristie Mewis, Erika Tymrak and Cuéllar makes for a roster with promise.
Cuéllar will be counted on to be a force up top, making her a possible breakout player this year. Raised in La Puente, Calif., she came up through the U.S. national team system before switching to play for Mexico. She scored two goals for el Tri at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany in 2010 and hopes to do the same for the full national team at the 2015 World Cup in Canada.
But first comes the NWSL, where she’s part of a young and somewhat overlooked FC Kansas City team.
Half of the roster is under 24, but what the club lacks in star power and age, it plans to make up with confidence and good old-fashioned hard work.
“If everyone else practices five times a week, we’re going to practice six times a week, and if everyone else practices six times a week, we’re going to practice seven times a week,” Andonovski said. “We will work harder than everyone else, and we will fight for every point this season.”
Cuéllar echoes that mentality, adding a dash of the ever-president, matter-of-fact confidence that she’ll carry into Saturday night’s home game against the Boston Breakers.
She expects a trip to the finals of the NWSL playoffs, and by the end of the year, for FC Kansas City to prove it belonged alongside Portland and Western NY in preseason predictions of who would win the league.
“I definitely think we can win it,” she said. “I think we have all the tools.”