SHE NEVER INTENDED TO MAKE HISTORY
Jenna Winebrenner didn't look to make history when she joined the Kansas City Comets prior to this season.
She only wanted to help the team and put her degree in analytics to good use.
But the Kansas City, Mo. native did make history as the first female assistant coach in Major Arena Soccer League history.
Heck, Winebrenner didn't realize what ground she was breaking because she was more focused on helping the Comets.
"Yeah, I was very surprised by that news when a reporter called and told me that," she said earlier this week. “I've had so many females before me open so many doors for me. I thought, 'Oh, this probably has already been done before.’ That was just my mindset because of all the women that have paved the way for me.
"To be able to do that for girls behind me, it's just really special. It's growing the game and it's growing the game on the girls’ side, which is all you can ask for at this point."
Head coach Leo Gibson gave a thumb's up to Winebrenner when she was hired.
“We are so fortunate to add Jenna to our coaching staff,” he said. “Her understanding of the indoor game has already been a welcome addition to the players daily preparation.”
Winebrenner's main responsibilities are behind the scenes.
"I'm not on the bench screaming at the guys but I do some video work and analytics on game film,” she said. “Then I'm able to get out on the pitch and compete against them during practice, which has helped me prepare for preseason for the Current."
So far so good for Winebrenner, who also is about to prepare for her second National Women’s Soccer League season with the Kansas City Current.
"She's done a good job so far," goalkeeper coach Alan Mayer said. "We're excited with the opportunity. You're breaking a lot of barriers with the first women coach."
Added assistant goalkeeper coach Kenny Mayer: "She's been great. She's helping out with a lot of the video analysis, which we haven't really had in the past. Leo last year did a lot of individual videos with the guys but she's doing a lot of the team analysis, which has been immensely helpful. She adds another level of insight coming from the outdoor game."
Getting that respect from the players and coaches was immeasurable.
"I knew that they would be a little rough around the edges about me coming in," Winebrenner said. "I'm younger. I'm a female, the only female on the staff. I knew it'd be a little bit difficult. It would take some time, but I think they've always had respect for me.
"Once they were able to see the work that I can do and how I can help them and show them what they're doing on the field, as well as them knowing that I can play and compete with them, I think that just gives me a little bit more credibility and they can trust me a little bit more."
And there has been an added bonus for Winebrenner - she has trained and played in scrimmages with the Comets.
"It's an ideal situation for the offseason," she said about the Current. "Being in Kansas City, it's hard to get outside and the winters, it's snowing and cold and not the best weather. To be able to have an environment where I can compete and be pushed every single day and not have to worry about what the weather is going to be is ideal. It really came together. I've been really thankful for the guys allowing me to train and encouraging me to be myself on the field as well."
Under Gibson, Winebrenner felt that she has grown as a player.
"He's very knowledgeable and he knows what he's talking about," she said. "I love being worked out by him. I think he grows me as a player and challenges me in different ways that other coaches maybe don't, in my technique, and the way that I touch the ball. He expects me to be great at every touch, not just here or there. He's pushed me to be technically great.”
Winebrenner's most memorable moment wasn't as a coach, but on the carpet.
"When the guys started to accept me during practice training with them," she said. "You could really start to tell when they weren't so afraid of going into tackles with me or playing like I was just another player on the field. To see that switch in them and that they really challenged me has been great. Then having them come to me and ask really utilize me in my work that I'm doing for them and have them ask me for something has been a really cool thing to see as well."
You might say that Winebrenner has been used to getting a head start in the sport, playing at the age of three. When she was very young, she watched her older brother play.
"I was on the sidelines watching him play and probably not watching but running around making my parents chase me," she said. "My parents said, 'You know what?' She's always here. Why don't we just put her on the field anyway, get her energy out?' I started playing when I was three and I went directly into clubs, so I've just loved it ever since."
A Kansas City, Mo. native Winebrenner attended Park Hill High School before moving onto Notre Dame for four years before playing as a graduate student at Texas Christian University.
While growing up, she followed the Comets. Winebrenner never played on a youth team directed by Gibson, although "but somehow I always found my way to his practices and individual sessions to get some extra work in."
After she was taken by the Current in the fourth round as the 41st overall pick the 2022 National Women's Soccer League draft, Winebrenner wanted to expand her horizons and asked the Comets if there were any opportunities within the club.
"I know [managing partner] Brian Budzinski and he knew that I'm a local here. He knew I was going to be staying around in the offseason," she said. "This was the first time I've been back here in five years, just coming home from college. He knew my degrees are in analytics and I wanted to use those pretty quickly after school. They're pretty great degrees. I didn't want them to go to waste."
And they haven't.
At the age of 23, Winebrenner certainly has gotten a head start to what could be the second stage of her soccer career - coaching full-time.
"That's something I talked with Brian and Leo about," she said. "I know at some point, someone's going tell me that I can't play the game anymore. I don't really know life without it. Trying to find that niche of where I'm going to fit in after I'm done. ... This has been a great opportunity to open some doors for when that time comes."
The 5-7 Winebrenner has been quite content to live her "double life" as a player and coach.
Later this month, she will begin preseason training with the Current.
Winebrenner didn’t know how that will affect her status with the Comets.
"We're going to have to be flexible about it," she said. "Obviously, we're kind of in an unknown territory. I haven't been working with the Comets for previous years. We're going to roll with the punches and see how it goes. Most of my work is behind the scenes so I can do it from camp and still be helpful to the guys. I'm hoping to do that. I won't be competing with them at training anymore. I know they'll miss me, but I think most of my roles will stay the same."
As a KC native, Winebrenner hoped that she will be a role model for other area players.
She described playing for the Current as "a dream come true."
"When I heard my name during the draft to come home, it was just a very special moment for my family," Winebrenner said. "I haven't been home in a while so to be able to play in front of my grandparents. My grandma who can't travel. It's just something so special that not a lot of people get to do. Not only just being able to play here but being able to get back to the soccer community that brought me up and inspire and show young girls that I'm from Kansas City as well and they can do the exact same thing."
Last season, Winebrenner played in 11 matches and started six as she got her feet wet in the world of professional soccer.
"It was definitely eye-opening at first," she said. "I was like, 'Oh my goodness! I can't believe I'm on the field with these players.' But once the whistle you kind of get into this mindset of like, it's just another player on the field and I've played against very good players in the past in college and clubs. You kind of get over it after a little bit of playing. The field is where I feel most comfortable in this world. I think that helps me."
Still, the learning curve could be great at times, considering the NWSL has some of the best women's players on the planet. That also included U.S. international goalkeeper Adriana Franch and midfielder Samantha Mewis and Canadian midfielder Desiree Scott on Kansas City.
"I have a lot more to give than I that I thought coming out of college," she said. "I knew I was a good player. But I think this past year I really felt confidence in my ability to make plays and compete on the big stage. Being a center back and being a rookie is a tough thing to do. You're up against some of the best in the world, every game and even every practice with the Current because we have a good squad."
Marking the likes of such world-class players as U.S. Women's National Team strikers Alex Morgan and Sophia Smith, the 2022 U.S. Soccer female player of the year, was a challenge and a half.
"Just the change of pace is incredibly visible," Winebrenner said. "You can see how quick and smooth they are on the ball. And their decision making is just pristine at all times. Being a defender, you just have to be on your game at all times and be locked in. Luckily, I was surrounded by a lot of veterans on the field that had my back and were there when I needed them and to encourage me and to just cover my back.
"Every player in the league is a very good player so but at some point, you've got to turn around and say, 'I'm in this league and on this field for a reason as well. So, I must be valuable and a good player as well.' "
Not many pundits gave the Current much of a chance of doing well last season, but KC reached the final before losing to Smith and the Portland Thorns, 2-0, on Oct. 29.
"It was very memorable season, not only being the rookie season, but also just how well we did against all odds," Winebrenner said. "We didn't have many people that believed we could do that. So just to prove people wrong, game by game for the entire season was like just a great memory that I'll have for the rest of my life."
The Current’s first home game in the NWSL Challenge Cup stood out for Winebrenner. That was in a 3-0 loss to Racing Louisville April 2. KC, but there were more important memories to savor.
"I just remember the fireworks going off and getting chills being out on the field for the national anthem," she said. "That's something that will stick for me for the rest of my life."
Given what she has accomplished in the past 12 months with two KC soccer teams, 2022 could very well stick with Winebrenner for the rest of her life.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at email@example.com His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.