After a near last-place finish during the 2023 NWSL season, Kansas City Current are off to their best start in franchise history. The club is unbeaten through six games, with a new coaching staff, new international players, new rookies, and a brand new stadium -- the first ever built for an NWSL team. In between all the newness of Kansas City's many keys to early success include major performances by their veteran players.

Where to watch

Date: Sunday, May 5 | Time: 1 p.m. ET
Location: Shell Energy Stadium -- Houston, Texas
TV: CBS | Live Stream: Paramount+

Current midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo has been in the league since 2014, previously drafted by her "hometown" team, Chicago Red Stars. After nearly a decade with Chicago, the Naperville, IL native signed a new contract with the Current as a free agent ahead of the 2023 season. The offseason excitement quickly wore off as she had to manage a concussion injury throughout her first year with Kansas City, and the long grind of a losing season.

"I think our mentality from the beginning was like, 'let's just take this season one game at a time, long season.' There's lots of games. If we can just focus on the next game that's in front of us and learn from the previous game, and what we can do to be successful in the next game," said DiBernardo

"It's been really great for us because we're not looking too far forward. We're not looking at our past success because that's now over. So, what can we do to learn from our past, but be ready for that next game is kind of just where I think our mind and energy is going."

She notes that her own preparation for this season was very different. Her personal goals were simplified. Not just getting healthy, but feeling healthy. Wanting to feel good and play consistently again, to build her fitness and get games on the pitch again.  

"My mindset after my injury last year kind of like shifted. I just realized like how quickly it kind of could get taken away from you," she said. "I think I've kind of taken that pressure off of just performance and success and just being like 'okay, look, you don't know how long this is gonna last. Let's just enjoy it.' So I think that's kind of just been a mental shift for me."

Kansas City's attacking firepower

Kansas City's red-hot start to the season is an exciting one, with high-scoring games and 11 different goal scorers already. They're only the third team in league history to earn 16 points through their first six games of the season, and the previous two clubs that set the mark (2014 Seattle Reign FC, 2018 North Carolina Courage) went on to win the NWSL Shield in their respective seasons. 

DiBernardo jokes and smiles and mentions everyone should "calm down, settle down" so as not to get too ahead of their long-term plans, but even she is having an incredible start to the 2024 season. The NWSL veteran has scored three goals, recorded four assists, and is second on the team in chances created (14) while they dominate games.

For her, Kansas City's recent success is a sum of all parts, all finally coming together to tackle a lengthy 26-match season game by game.

"The offseason brought us a lot of change, and I think what we did really well here amongst everyone, was really use that long preseason to all get on the same page. I think with the new players, new staff, new briefing, we all kind of learned and grew together. And used that time to kind of set the base and the foundation of what we want to start the season with," said DiBernardo.

"We know what we're starting with is not where we want to end. So, I think it's just gonna be a process and we know it's gonna be a process, [and] I think we're excited for that. For that growth. I think it's something that we felt like we were missing about last year."

Appreciating the league's development

It's a grounded perspective. One that comes from a player who has had to navigate many highs and lows of an NWSL career. Playing on college turf fields, sharing lockers with students, dealing with nagging injuries, the disappointment of falling short in playoffs and championship finals, and a Chicago franchise whose former owner operated under micromanaged dysfunction

She has seen where the league started, its current ascension, and where it's headed. Kansas City Current is part of the long-term vision and hope for higher standards in the league. When the Current had their 2024 season opener in CPKC Stadium, she added to league history by scoring the first goal in the new arena. The inaugural game made more history as the scoreline ended with 9 goals, a 5-4 win for Kansas City over Portland Thorns, the highest-ever scoreline for an NWSL season opener. 

It also served as the first win for former U.S. women's national team coach Vlatko Andonovski, who returned to NWSL after the Current hired him in the offseason as new head coach and sporting director. Both coach and player have had long NWSL careers, and before his return to NWSL, DiBernardo had played more games against Andonovski than with him as a rostered player. 

"It was no secret, I knew personally that he's great in this league. He's shown he's been able to be successful. When he got named the head coach, I was excited because I had heard good things about him, and I was excited to experience that," she explained.

"He leads us in a way, that someone being in the league for so long, I understand. The tactics he's kind of using to make sure at the end, we're where we want to be. So it's been good. It's been nice. I think that role is something that is hard to come by in this league. There's not a ton of experienced coaches that have kind of been in the league year, after year, after year, and showed success. So I think it's, it's been something that we've really enjoyed."

The impact of Temwa Chawinga and Brazil's Bia Zaneratto

Getting to play alongside two talented international players has helped DiBernado and the Current reach the top of the table in just the first month of the season. Malawian international Temwa Chawinga and Brazil's Bia Zaneratto have taken over the league with their clinical finishing and creativity on the ball, each of them has scored four goals through six games. 

Chawinga's intelligence in timing and positioning is next level and her ability to gauge when to accelerate or hold up constantly shows off her presence of mind and tactical awareness. She's a true poacher of a goal scorer with her four goals coming from 2.89 expected goals, the fifth most in the league.

Zaneratto's efforts to create for others and herself make her a dangerous player to mark with her constant movement. He goal scoring coming more from moments of brilliance, and her three assists put her only behind DiBernardo herself and Washington rookie Croix Bethune who each have four. Their history playing together overseas in China has also smashed some of the "learning curve" narrative that exists around international players when they arrive at NWSL. 

"I didn't actually know that they had played together before and I was like, "'ha, this makes sense now!' So I think that definitely helps," DiBernardo quipped.

"Though they're both very experienced players and their quality is different. All of us have different qualities. So, I think that's what kind of allows us to complement each other. The coaching staff, they've given us kind of like a blueprint of ideas, to get us all kind of on the same page but then allow us to still have our own personality and creativity with how we play. It's helpful to allow us to be on the same page but not take away from who we are as players. That's something that as a team, we're really growing into."

It's been a bit of a roller coaster for Kansas City since they re-entered the league as an expansion franchise in 2021. They suffered a last-place finish in their inaugural season, then quickly rebounded to a runners-up appearance in the 2022 NWSL Championship, then settled for second-worst place in 2023. 

Andonovski is the fourth person to hold a managerial role with the team in its four-year history, but DiBernardo credits the franchise building blocks, resources, and coaching staff for helping the roster build a strong start to the season.

"That was part of the reason of what drew me to this club was their passion and resources to grow the game, and the expectation that it should be the norm. We had it with the training facility and that was like the first step, but with the stadium, I think it's it's so cool because it's it's ours and it feels like ours. When we step out on the field, we're like, 'This is our home and we want to protect it' and show our fans what this is all about.

It's been such a growth from when I first came into the league. So it's been really cool to know that some of these young players that are coming into the league, this is all they'll know, and I'm very happy for them. Because it took a lot of work for us older players, but it's something that hopefully they'll learn [from] and still continue to push the game forward," she elaborated.

DiBernardo's hope for the league is that the success that's happening in Kansas City is a standard moving forward. The upcoming generation of players will step into arenas and understand that recent league landscapes are something newer to the NWSL, and while reaching milestones is exciting, it's important not to be stagnant. 

"See what we've done and what we've experienced. Now this is something that we have, but we're not satisfied here. We want to still grow the game and push to that next level."