NWSL: 5 Things You Need To Know Before Thursday's Championship Game
Once more the Pacific Northwest is the backdrop for a championship game in women's soccer. Almost three months after the United States beat Japan to win the World Cup in front of more than 50,000 people in Vancouver B.C., Providence Park in Portland, Oregon, takes its turn as host of the National Women's Soccer League final between FC Kansas City and Seattle Reign FC.
For U.S. World Cup winners Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo of Seattle and Lauren Holiday, Heather O'Reilly, Amy Rodriguez and Becky Sauerbrunn of Kansas City, Thursday's final is a chance to win a double with club and country that no American woman ever has had an opportunity to win in a calendar year. For others, international standouts whose countries didn't qualify for the World Cup or Americans who weren't there, it's the reward for months of work that offered little of the spotlight afforded those in Canada this past summer.
Let's start championship week with five things to know about the final.
1. The right teams are playing in Portland
It can be a stretch to suggest that any playoff reveals the best team in a given season, let alone the best team over any more substantial duration of time. Even in a regular season condensed for the World Cup, it took nearly 90 games for Seattle to clinch the NWSL Shield as the regular-season champion for the second year in a row. The Reign again ran away with the title, but it still took roughly five months of wins to do so. The postseason, by comparison, is three games. Sit those side by side, and it isn't difficult to see which sample size is more authoritative.
And yet Thursday's final at Providence Park is very much a legitimate measuring stick.
Despite finishing seventh out of eight teams in the league's inaugural season in 2013, Seattle's dominance ever since is such that it earned more points through the NWSL's first three seasons than any other team. But next on that list is Kansas City, the only team to qualify for the playoffs in all three seasons. If Kansas City beats the No. 1 seed in the final for the second consecutive season, it's as much a testament to the club's unerring consistency over the long haul as fluke of a small sample size. If Seattle wins, on the other hand, it adds the one résumé qualification it lacks.
The game is less useful as a referendum on team-building, but the finalists nonetheless offer an intriguing contrast.
FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski's accent tells the story of his Macedonian roots, but his team was built in a manner very familiar to most American sports leagues. In addition to a strong cast of initial U.S. Soccer allocations, Kansas City signed veterans like Jen Buczkowski and Leigh Ann Robinson, and used the draft, particularly later rounds, to stockpile pieces like Mandy Laddish, Erika Tymrak and Shea Groom, as well as Jenna Richmond (a starter last season who took this season off) and Kassey Kallman and Morgan Marlborough (assets that brought O'Reilly in the offseason).
Seattle has its share of domestic talent, trading for midfielder Keelin Winters and signing defenders like Lauren Barnes and Kendall Fletcher, but the only college draftee who played a minute this season was backup goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer. Instead, an international vision didn't stop with hiring former Arsenal boss Laura Harvey, now also general manager. Scotland's Kim Little and Wales' Jess Fishlock are every bit as important to the team's success as Rapinoe and Solo, while Denmark's Katrine Veje and Scotland's Rachel Corsie bolstered the ranks this season.
2. The best player in the world might not have played in the World Cup
No player in the world is in a better run of form at the moment than U.S. and Houston Dash midfielder Carli Lloyd, and any conversation about the world's best player over the long term is going to include several other names who played in the World Cup this summer, albeit too briefly in the cases of Brazil's Marta and Spain's Vero Boquete. But even in a game in Portland that features six members of the American roster that won the World Cup, Kim Little might be the best player on the field. Because she might be the best player in the world.
What should come with less debate than that contention is that Little, as with Liberia's George Weah in the men's game two decades ago, is the best player on the planet who didn't participate in the World Cup. She came close to guiding Scotland to the tournament, finishing behind Sweden in the group stage of qualification and losing a playoff against the Netherlands, but she instead spent a second consecutive summer in Seattle.
One of three Seattle players to take part in each of the team's 20 regular-season games, Little followed up her MVP effort of a season ago with 10 goals and seven assists. The goals tied for the second-most in the league, while no one else had more than five assists. If not for the play of Washington's Crystal Dunn, Little presumably would have repeated as MVP. And at 25 years old, she is younger even than players like Alex Morgan and Christen Press (or to put in Emerald City terms, younger than Russell Wilson).
One of the match-ups to savor in the final will be the attention paid to Little by Buczkowski. Among the most consistently excellent defensive midfielders of at least the past decade, Buczkowski is a tireless presence who shut down Boquete in a semifinal a year ago and was part of an effort that contained Little in the final. But Little also has scored three goals in six games against Kansas City, and the one she scored this year encapsulated the challenge of dealing with her for 90 minutes.
Buczkowski's attention momentarily pulled away from Little after a teammate's turnover in the second half of that game, no one else picked up Little as she saw open space, made her run, settled a pass with a soft first touch off her chest and blasted a volley past a wrong-footed keeper.
She can dominate a game, but one moment is sometimes all she needs.
3. Lauren Holiday looks to go out on top
Two Olympic gold medals. One World Cup title. One NWSL title. One NWSL MVP. It's an impressive résumé, and it's one Lauren Holiday compiled entirely before her 28th birthday.
Winning the only competitive game she will play after that birthday would be the exclamation point.
The World Cup title is the prize Holiday wanted -- it's the prize any player wants. But it's also better that Holiday didn't ride off into the sunset after the win against Japan and make good on her announcement that she would retire at the conclusion of the U.S. victory tour. As valuable as she was for the United States throughout the tournament, her role important in giving the lineup the freedom to (eventually) push Lloyd forward to rampage through the later rounds, Holiday deserves to finish her playing career in the role that best suits her and which she most enjoys.
It's in that role that she was the best player through the totality of the league's first two seasons and even with Little and everyone else in the mix, could be again Thursday night.
Holiday was named the most valuable player in the postseason a year ago. If there was any argument, it came from those who favored Amy Rodriguez and the three goals she scored in two games. Given that the teammates and longtime friends only make each other better at the tip of Kansas City's spear, it's moot. Playing the attacking midfield role, Holiday was too much for either Portland in a semifinal or Seattle in the final to handle en route to the championship.
4. Both teams win because they defend
There has been plenty of space already devoted to the talent for producing goals shared by the finalists, but perhaps the best compliment that can be paid these teams is that they even score against each other. When FC Kansas City beat Seattle 1-0 on April 23, it marked the first and only time in six meetings over the past two seasons that either team kept a clean sheet.
When you can score against either of these defenses, you're doing something right.
Not that goals are easily found in games between these teams. In those six previous meetings since the start of last season, FC Kansas City scored eight goals and Seattle eight goals.
Overall, the Reign allowed the fewest goals in the league in each of the past two seasons. FC Kansas City ranked second or third in same category in each of the past three seasons.
Both teams have proven keepers, Solo still the best in the world at her position and FC Kansas City's Nicole Barnhart still not too far from the top of the same list, even after the end of her run as Solo's backup on the national team. Both teams play with what amounts to an extra layer of security in the midfield, Buczkowski and Mandy Laddish for Kansas City and Winters and Fishlock for Seattle, without sacrificing at the other end because of their versatility.
And as with the United States in the World Cup, foundation of success for both Seattle and Kansas City are their respective back lines. Eight defenders made either the NWSL's first or second "Best XI" all-league teams. Six of them will play in Thursday's final. Both teams faced back line questions before the season because of attrition. Both found answers, specifically Corsie for Seattle and former U.S. international Amy LePeilbet and Becca Moros for FCKC.
In Kansas City's case, there is direct crossover with the national team's stability in the presence of three-time reigning NWSL defender of the year Sauerbrunn (who it appears got the last laugh by receiving more deserved words of praise as a result of her baffling omission from the list of 10 finalists for the World Cup Golden Ball than she would have had she made the list).
5. The league wants the final to be its showcase
It appears the third champion in a women's professional league in this country won't be the final champion.
Simply making it to a fourth season might be a low bar for success, but it beats the all too familiar alternative. By placing the final at a predetermined site and expecting ticket sales that will match those of the first two finals combined, even when the timing of the announcement in the middle of a season was decidedly ham-handed, the NWSL hopes to show off both its best soccer and its best case for a professional franchise as an investment even, let's say, Adam Silver would appreciate.
And there are reasons to be optimistic about the league. Buoyed by a World Cup bounce, rather than dragged down by an interrupted season in which star players were absent for long periods, NWSL attendance reached new highs, both on a per-game basis and as a total figure (the latter notable because there were fewer dates than in either of the first two seasons).
All nine teams recorded improved attendance, an average of 5,046 across the league.
Of course, remove Portland from the count and the average drops to 3,721 per game. In fact, Portland and Houston, the two franchises affiliated with MLS teams, accounted for 49 percent of the league's total attendance, even though neither made the playoffs. Is that a blueprint or a problem?
And beyond helping the bottom line this year, the World Cup bounce is only really valuable if some of those attracted to NWSL games start to care about those teams the same way they do about the national team. Semifinal attendance and television ratings suggest otherwise, that when push comes to shove -- and shove is the opening Sunday of the NFL season -- only a core of NWSL fans are emotionally invested in teams.