Kansas City Current midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta, an eight year NWSL veteran, has been enjoying her best ever season in 2022. The 29-year-old from Rancho Cucamonga, California, has scored eight goals (six on penalties) and helped Kansas City land a spot in Sunday’s NWSL semifinal vs. OL Reign.
Ahead of the NWSL semifinals, On Her Turf caught up with LaBonta about Kansas City’s success this season, the many ups and downs of her pro soccer career, what goes into her iconic cellies, and how long she plans to continue playing.
This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
On Her Turf: I’d love to start with a quick clarification question. I always hear people refer to you as “Lo” – but is “Lo” how your full first name is pronounced or are they just calling you “Lo” as a nickname?
Lo’eau LaBonta: It’s so funny. People think my name is just ‘Lo.’ And they’re like, why does it have so many letters?! But no, my actual first name is (pronounced) lo-AYE-ow.
On Her Turf: When you meet someone new, how do you introduce yourself?
LaBonta: It depends. If I’m meeting another Hawaiian, I will tell them my full name. If I’m meeting anybody else, I leave it at ‘Lo.’ Sometimes it leads to the question, ‘What’s that short for?’ People’s first thought is always Lauren. I’ve had people just straight up call me Lauren. And I’m like, never have I put that anywhere. So yeah, it’s always a little bit of a discussion. But I love my full name and I’m very proud of it. It’s just when people can’t say it and butcher it, I’m like, ‘I’ll make it very simple for you.’
Author’s note: here’s a recording of Lo’eau LaBonta pronouncing her full first name:
On Her Turf: Let’s talk about Kansas City’s success in the NWSL this season. (After finishing last in 2021), you’re heading into the NWSL Semifinals this weekend and you personally are already guaranteed your best ever finish to an NWSL season. What do you think clicked into place for the team?
LaBonta: I mean, it’s crazy. We made a lot of moves in the offseason, but then obviously, a lot of those players got hurt, unfortunately. I was telling Sam Mewis the other day that I always thought about midfielders in this league that I wanted to play with and she was, for sure, at the top of that list. We got a couple of minutes in together, but it’s definitely heartbreaking that it was so short. But there’s always (the possibility) when she recovers.
This team, we spent a lot of time together in Bradenton, Florida. We were just together constantly. We had meetings in the morning, we had practice, we ran together, we started this crazy new lifting program. And then we got a new coach (Matt Potter), obviously. And he just implemented these very basic principles that – week-in and week-out – we built on.
I think because we started at square one and everybody bought in, it was very easy to build a successful team. I’m telling you, it’s not a starting 11. We literally have a starting 20. Anybody can fall in there. As I’ve said in interviews before, we call them gamechangers, not subs. We have some of the best technical staff, we have a great sports science staff. So everybody – from top to bottom – has had a part in our success this year, for sure.
On Her Turf: When you say the team follows these “basic principles” – what are those?
LaBonta: It’s so funny because I think our coaches have said them in interviews and people don’t realize it because they’re very basic and broad. And that’s because it’s a mentality that he likes to preach and then our styles can (fit) into it. So as long as you’re doing the things – ‘attack and pass with intent’ or ‘protect the center’ – these are very basic soccer phrases. But if you know that, and the person next to you knows that, it’s easy for you to be successful because you’re on the same page.
On Her Turf: In terms of stats, results, goals scored… it feels like a ‘breakout’ season for you. But is that how you think of it?
LaBonta: Yes and no. One of my assistant coaches (told me) a GM asked her, ‘What have you done with Lo LaBonta this year? She’s standing out.’ It’s crazy to me because I just had to score so many goals to stand out. A lot of these things I’ve been doing in games — assisting on passes, tackling – I’ve done all these years. It’s just this year, because I’ve gotten 2000 PKs, people tend to notice (the other stuff) as well.
But I would say for sure I also feel fitter this year, I haven’t had any injuries, and I just have really good people around me. I would never say I’m an individual player so everything I do, I do it even better because I have the support of my teammates around me.
On Her Turf: In terms of your career in the NWSL… I want to confirm the full timeline. So after you finished your college soccer career at Stanford in 2014, you were drafted to Sky Blue – 34th overall in the 2015 NWSL Draft – played a few games and then got waived. The next year, you were picked up by FC Kansas City, you played there for two seasons (2016-17), and then that team folded. Then you go to the Utah Royals and play three seasons (2018-20) until the team was sold. You came back in Kansas City when the new franchise started in 2021 — and the team finished last in the NWSL standings. All of that uncertainty and disruption, like so many things in the NWSL, does not seem like a recipe for success. Looking back now, what stands out to you most from those years? And how did you manage to keep going despite all of the stops and starts?
LaBonta: I think that just shows, for me, soccer has always been my passion.
You know, at Stanford, I was always winning. I think I was projected to go top-10 (in the NWSL draft) and instead I went third-to-last… Like, that’s not my best stat. Then (I get to) Sky Blue, an absolute wreck of organization at the time. We didn’t know where we were going to be training on days. I ended up having to move in with my athletic trainer and (live in) a trailer. It was a mess. It was absolutely unacceptable.
At the time, I didn’t see it this way, but when I was waived and finished up my degree at Stanford… it just helped me reset and find my love of the sport again.
And then I got picked up by Kansas City, which was coached by Vlatko (Andonovski). He just helped me see the game in a different way. I absolutely loved playing there. He treated the subs and the starters the same. I (knew) he was a coach that was truly going to help me develop. He just made me love the game even more, he made me find things in my game that I could develop and make better than people around me.
Obviously, it wasn’t the best of situations. We were training on terrible turf that was like cement and then we would go play on what was one of the best pitches, but (there would only be) 15 people in the stands.
That’s also when I started dating my now husband (Roger Espinoza) — and then we got moved to Utah.
In Utah, it was very organized. We had a great setup, we had a city that was really supporting us. And then, you know, all the 2020 stuff happened and we got sold back here.
Last year, coming in last, it was hard to find the motivation to continue, to show up every day and give it your all. But that’s one thing I think every NWSL player has done. We aren’t paid like normal pro athletes are paid so we’re here because we love the sport. We love the people around us. We love showing up and being rewarded at the end of the week with a game. So I think one thing I’ve always had is my passion for the sport and that’s why I continue to play.
I told myself I was going to play two years in the league. I’m in my eighth right now, I think, I’ve lost count. But it’s because I know I can continue to get better. I don’t think I’ve peaked yet. And I’ve loved it so much. And this year has almost been a reward for all those years that I kind of suffered.
On Her Turf: Can I ask how much longer you think you’re going to keep playing?
LaBonta: Honestly, for me, I have no end (date). I had those two years, I went past it, I kept getting better, I kept playing more.
Don’t worry, this is not happening anytime soon but, for female athletes, I think it’s a huge flex when they have a kid and then come back and play. Not many people can say they’ve done that, no male athlete can say they’ve done that. So I think that would be a goal in the very far future. But you know, that means I just have to keep playing for a while.
On Her Turf: It strikes me that more players are now able to make that choice. When I look at the NWSL collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and the benefits and protections for athletes who are parents… it’s not necessarily just a more appealing option, but it’s a possible option.
LaBonta: Exactly. It’s possible now.
On Her Turf: In terms of the CBA… I’m curious if you had any realizations this season like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know this was a benefit but I’m so happy we have it.’
LaBonta: One of the biggest ones is that people are allowed to take mental health days, no questions asked.
I think as professional athletes, or even collegiate athletes, you push no matter what. If you’re not feeling good, mentally or physically, whatever is going on, you’ve always been told to put it behind you, to show up to practice, and give your all.
The fact that we can now take a step back and (say), ‘I can get injured doing this’ or ‘this is just not good for me’ or ‘I won’t be a good teammate.’ Whatever it is, if it’s a family emergency, whatever, you have the ability to step away with no strings attached.
When the Yates report came out, I (told my teammates), ‘Guys, take these days. We don’t have a game for two weeks.’ Some people have gone through personal things so I was just pushing them to take a day and not be the person that’s just trying to be strong when, at the end of the day, it’s having an effect on you.
On Her Turf: Thanks for sharing that – I knew that the CBA included six months of paid mental health leave, but I didn’t realize players had the option of taking mental health days throughout the season, so that’s really great. Switching directions, I can’t let the celly queen go without asking about her cellies. What is your process for coming up with them? And how many cellies do you have in your back pocket going into each game?
LaBonta: I’ll answer your second question first… I have scored so early in a few games this year, I’ve done my celebration and thought, ‘Oh no, if I score again, what am I going to do?’ And I have no idea because as soon as I use one celly, I don’t think of another one until the day before (the next game). Some people think I put a lot of thought into it and I don’t. I probably should if I’m going to get questions like this and people’s expectations are already (so high).
Lo’eau LaBonta had us worried there for a second. 😅 pic.twitter.com/VROBFrdz7A
— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) August 20, 2022
I think I’ve always just wanted to celebrate. As soon as that one (twerking after the fake injury) went viral, I was like, ‘We are for sure going to make this a thing now.’ And it makes me so happy.
Like I said, I have the biggest passion for this sport and this just makes it even more fun. I mean, look at our second goal against Houston. I did the no-look pass to Kate (Del Fava), who scored her first goal, and I just tackled her. I felt so bad I didn’t even let her celebrate. I was like, ‘I didn’t live up to what I said! Am I a fraud right now?’ But we were just in our emotions and it was the greatest time.
On Her Turf: Going back to your journey from Kansas City to Utah and back… On the Kansas City’s roster, it’s just you and Desiree Scott who went through all of that together, right? Could you tell me a little about your bond with Desiree, both on and off the field?
LaBonta: Gosh, Desiree Scott is my heart. She’s one of the most loving human beings. She’s also one of the best leaders because she leads with love. Obviously, you see her on the field just demolishing and tackling people, but she truly is the heart of our team. I think she’s up for our ally award and everybody, for sure, was voting for her.
We’ve been together this whole time… we bonded over going out, we bonded over trauma — like all the bad coaches we’ve had together, all the bad seasons we’ve had together. And this is her first time in playoffs as well.
My husband was at the playoff game this last weekend and he was like, ‘Who was that person running out on the field and to your circle?’ It was Desiree Scott… she was suspended that game and we don’t know if she’ll get fined coming on the field but I don’t care, we will all pitch in for it because she is our heart. She’s our captain and she needed to be there, celebrating with us. She is the best teammate, the best human being – and that’s what you need in a captain.
On Her Turf: I love that, thanks so much for sharing. Looking ahead to the OL Reign and the NWSL Semifinals this weekend… What is Kansas City’s focus heading into the game?
LaBonta: With Reign, obviously they’re a very strong team. They’re the Shield winners. They’re very, very deadly going towards the goal. We played them twice this year. They beat us once, we beat them once. So it’s a good tie breaker. And we were missing people when we played them and they were missing people when we beat them. They are a very impressive team… So I think it’s going to be a battle for sure. And I hope, obviously, that we come out on top. Hopefully they were just resting (these last two weeks) and aren’t in their top shape when they play us (laughs).
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC