5 Burning Questions For National Women's Soccer League Final
Seattle Reign FC knows how difficult it is to start at the base of the mountain. FC Kansas City knows how difficult the final few steps to the summit can be. One of two journeys will be completed when the two best teams in the National Women's Soccer League this season meet Sunday afternoon in the league's championship game (ESPN2, 3 p.m. ET).
A distant seventh out of eight teams in the league's first season, Seattle retooled in the offseason and rode the results to the top of the table and a spot in the championship game with last week's 2-1 semifinal win against the Washington Spirit. Kansas City earned the No. 2 seed in the playoffs a season ago, but lost a lead and eventually the game in a semifinal against Portland Thorns FC. Again the No. 2 seed and again pitted against Portland in a semifinal this season, Kansas City this time earned an extra game with its 2-0 semifinal win.
Seattle and Kansas City played three times in the regular season, with Seattle winning the first encounter 3-2 in May when Keelin Winters scored late after Kansas City erased a 2-0 deficit and the next two games ending in draws.
While we wait for a winner, here are five questions that surround Sunday's game.
1. When is home-field advantage not home-field advantage?
How about when the visiting Kansas City lineup has played more games at Starfire Stadium than Reign standouts such as Kendall Fletcher, Nahomi Kawasumi and Kim Little?
The Reign earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by running away with the league's best record in the regular season. And part of the reason they ran away with the best record is they never lost at Memorial Stadium. But the team's home is unavailable this weekend because of Bumbershoot, the iconic Seattle arts and music festival held each Labor Day weekend with Memorial Stadium as its main stage (nearby Key Arena had filled that role in recent years, but potential WNBA scheduling concerns with the Seattle Storm played a role in reversing course).
With larger venues such as Husky Stadium on the campus of the University of Washington and CenturyLink Field either unworkable or unavailable, that necessitated a return to smaller-capacity Starfire Soccer Stadium in Tukwila, Washington, just south of downtown Seattle, where the Reign played home games in their inaugural 2013 season.
Although Reign coach Laura Harvey admitted her team took pride in making Memorial Stadium a fortress, she noted that much of the roster is familiar with the new venue and that the expected sellout crowd will do its part.
"Anyone who's been to Starfire will know it's an exceptional football facility," Harvey said. "And anyone who's been to any of the [U.S.] Open Cup games that the Sounders men have there, which we were at a couple of weeks ago, it's a phenomenal atmosphere when the place is packed."
Yet a week after Portland coach Paul Riley vented about what he perceived as a facility not worthy of the occasion after a semifinal in Kansas City's intimate Durwood Stadium, the league's showcase event will take place in a stadium with similarly limited capacity. Asked about Riley's comments, NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey reiterated the league's desire at its founding not to repeat the mistakes of previous leagues that overextended themselves, but she also said stadiums would be among a list of topics studied in the offseason.
"We wish we could all be Portland, obviously, when it comes to attendance," Bailey said. "And that's something we're all going to strive for."
Still, perhaps the size of the stadium and familiarity of the pitch aren't the aspects of home-field advantage that matter most. Whether in Seattle or Tukwila, Sunday's forecasted high temperature in the Puget Sound area is around 70 degrees. Although not quite as stifling as a week ago, Kansas City is still expected to reach 90 degrees with plenty of humidity the same afternoon. For that reason alone, the Reign will be happy to be home in the Pacific Northwest.
2. Who will play the No. 10 role better?
NWSL fans don't need a reminder that any opportunity to watch Little is reason to set the DVR. But for casual fans who missed a late start time in Seattle's semifinal, Sunday's game might serve as a nationally televised introduction to the Scottish star whose move from Arsenal to Seattle proved so seamless that she earned NWSL MVP honors.
The league's leading goal scorer this season, she is subtly spectacular.
"I think the thing about Kim that makes her as special as she is, she does the very simple things at the highest of quality," Reign midfielder Jessica Fishlock said. "It's something like that that I think makes her as good as she is. You probably won't see her doing 10,000 step-overs and then get past people that way, but her first touch and the way she opens her body and the way that she [controls] her body -- it's simple, but it's of the highest quality. And you don't find that often."
But if Little, for all her accomplishments, is a new name for some, even the most casual women's soccer viewers will likely be well acquainted with the No. 10 on the other side of the field, even if they -- along with many of her teammates and coaches -- continue to think of her as Lauren Cheney more than a year after her marriage to NBA player and fellow UCLA product Jrue Holiday. The U.S. women's national standout was, in Riley's words, the best player on the pitch in last week's semifinal, a pitch that also included Vero Boquete, Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, among others. Holiday is the young league's career assists leader with seven in each of the first two seasons, but she is also its career goals leader, with eight this season and 12 a year ago.
The undercard, or perhaps a co-headliner, to that duel should be Seattle's Megan Rapinoe and Kansas City's Erika Tymrak. Although not a like-for-like positional comparison given the way the teams are likely to line up, they are two of the most skilled, creative and audacious American players in the sport at the moment.
Rapinoe has demonstrated that on the international stage time and again. Still trying to find a regular place with the national team, Tymrak has a golden opportunity to impress Sunday. On its heels early in last week's semifinal, Kansas City pushed back and earned its share of possession in part through Tymrak's adventurous runs. Knocked off her feet repeatedly by Portland fouls and temporarily forced to the sideline, Tymrak listened to coach Vlatko Andonovski tell her to just go out and have fun, to do what she does so well.
"The only way you can stop her is if you foul her," Andonovski said after that game. "I don't think you can stop Erika when she's on fire. Erika plays well when she enjoys it."
3. Will Amy Rodriguez upstage Sydney Leroux?
United States coach Jill Ellis is not starved for choices at forward these days. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, who has made more than 100 appearances for the national team and is 27 years old, the glut of talent often leaves her as the name mentioned after those of peers Leroux, Morgan and Christen Press.
But at least when it comes to American goal scorers in the NWSL this season, Rodriguez has to be the first name mentioned.
Returning to competitive soccer after sitting out the 2013 NWSL season while pregnant with her first child, Rodriguez leads Kansas City with 13 goals, second to Little in the league and first by two goals among Americans. She was at it again a week ago, timing a run perfectly across Portland's back line and calmly avoiding keeper Nadine Angerer on the opening goal. Paired with Holiday, a close friend off the field, she has been as good as ever and perhaps better.
"We knew that she can get behind the line; we knew that she can make runs and she can expose back lines with speed," Andonovski said of adding Rodriguez, whose rights were held by Seattle a season ago. "The one thing she has done this year, more so than any other year before, and what made her different, is she's getting involved a little bit more in the buildup and she's getting more involved in the play. She gets the ball with her back to the goal and gets Lauren more involved."
On the other side Sunday, Leroux's goal total dropped from 11 in 1,694 minutes a season ago with the Boston Breakers to five in 1,873 minutes in her first season with Seattle. It's the nature of the beast for forwards that a drop in goal production can be interpreted as a drop in form. That Leroux is still scoring for the national team and is winning with Seattle suggests that might not be a fair conclusion. Unlike in Boston, where Harvey noted she was able to use her speed to get behind teams on the counterattack, she is tasked in Seattle with learning to make her presence felt when Seattle doesn't have the ball or when holding the ball up in tighter spaces while her team is in possession.
"We were going to have to develop her game in a different way to make sure that she stays in the game, and I think this year she's become a better footballer all around," Harvey said. "I understand the issue with fans, that often she's judged on goals, but I think her all-around game throughout the season has improved. She's worked hard on the things that she said herself she didn't think she was great at."
4. Why do you need to know Kendall Fletcher?
The quality of the finalists is reflected in the star power that will press forward trying to score goals Sunday, but these are also two of the league's three stingiest teams when it comes to conceding goals. Seattle allowed just 20 in 24 games this season, and Chicago was the only other team to concede fewer than Kansas City.
Some of that is that opponents are often on the back foot trying to defend all those offensive stars. Some of it is because the star wattage extends to goal, where Seattle's Hope Solo is the biggest of them all and Kansas City's Nicole Barnhart, long Solo's understudy on the national team, is similarly excellent. But a lot of it, more than perhaps is sometimes credited, is because these are teams with strong defensive identities across the back line and midfield.
For Kansas City, which saw defensive midfielder Jen Buczkowski do a number on Boquete and the Thorns a week ago, that begins with center back Becky Sauerbrunn. The United States national team cornerstone is going to be a favorite for NWSL Defender of the Year honors every season she is on the field for Kansas City, so it's neither surprising nor unwarranted that she received that honor for the second season in a row.
What was surprising was that Fletcher, the best-positioned Seattle defender, didn't finish in the top three in voting.
"I was quietly surprised that she wasn't voted higher in the defender-of-the-year category," Harvey said. "But I think sometimes our back line as a collective has been so good that maybe all of them got different votes throughout the season."
One of the countless University of North Carolina products in the pro game, Fletcher didn't play in the NWSL in the league's first season but made an immediate impact in Seattle. Continuity was a defensive asset for the Reign, who returned Lauren Barnes, Stephanie Cox and Elli Reed (likely to play Sunday after missing the semifinal with an injury) on the back line from a season ago, but Fletcher appears to be the ingredient that completed the recipe.
"I think if you look at our back line from last year to this year, she's the only real addition to that," Harvey said. "And I think she's been a huge addition. She has a mentality that she doesn't want to lose at anything, whether it be any game, any training game. She's brought that onto the field. She leads the line really well."
5. Did Seattle peak too soon?
Although Seattle lost its regular-season finale on the road against rival Portland, which had everything to play for with its postseason fate on the line, and flirted with disaster in its semifinal, when Solo turned away a late Washington penalty kick that could have given the visitor its second lead of the game, Harvey contended the only moment when her team showed any signs of losing focus or form came in the first half of a game at Kansas City on Aug. 2.
Down a goal at halftime in that game, which followed immediately after the Reign clinched the No. 1 playoff seed, the talk in the locker room focused on the team's identity.
Seattle has a 6-1-3 record this season against the other teams that reached the playoffs. But aside from a sublime 5-0 win against Portland that might represent the best the team can play, that success hasn't come painlessly. Four of the six wins were by a single goal, and only the aforementioned rout of the Thorns came by more than two goals.
For all of its overall dominance of the standings, this is not always a team that does things the easy way. So the semifinal struggle against Washington, when Seattle's high pressure still dictated play for sustained stretches, might not have been evidence of a team that peaked too soon this season as much as a team doing exactly what it does best -- competing for 90 minutes and believing in the woman in charge.
"We've come back and we've won many points from being behind, and a lot of it is because we want to play for Laura and we want to do well for Laura," Fishlock said. "I think we've got points this season purely because every single one of us will work as hard as we can to make sure that Laura is successful. When you have a coach that has that effect on you, not just personally and not just individually but as a group, then you know that person is special. And that is absolutely what Laura is."
So we're back where we began, with one team eager to complete a turnaround and another ready to finish what it started.