How FC Kansas City Shut Down Portland Thorns FC In NWSL Semifinals

Members of FC Kansas City line up for their pregame group photo before taking on the Portland Thorns FC in the NWSL semifinals. Graham Hays/espnW

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Portland Thorns FC coach Paul Riley will tell you there are two kinds of players who can make a difference on the soccer field: warriors and wizards. Warriors throw their bodies into challenges, run to the point of exhaustion and do all the work that creates opportunities for wizards to make use of the skills only they possess.

FC Kansas City midfielder Jen Buczkowski was one of Riley's favorite warriors when the two worked together with Philadelphia in Women's Professional Soccer, the league that preceded the National Women's Soccer League. But there were still times late in practices when a drill might give her reason to pull off -- or at least attempt -- some bit of dazzling skill. Then Buczkowski and defender Nikki Phillips, another of Riley's warriors now employed by FC Kansas City, would plead their cases as wizards.

But however plaintive they might have been, the pleas were never serious. Once a warrior, always a warrior.

"You do your thing," Buczkowski said. "I think that's kind of helped me be successful, just knowing the role I play. That's what I'm strong at, so that's what I'm going to bring to the team."

So it was that underneath a brutal summer sun that beat down from above and baked feet from below, Kansas City's warrior shut down Portland's wizard. Kansas City won't know where it will play next week's championship game until after Sunday's second semifinal between top seed Seattle and Washington (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET), but it knows it will be there after a 2-0 win against the Thorns.

And as FC Kansas City's Lauren Holiday broke open Saturday's game, setting up Kansas City's first goal with a perfect pass to Amy Rodriguez and making inevitable the result with the second goal, all Riley could do was watch from the sideline as a player he helped mold shadowed and suffocated his wizard, Vero Boquete.

"Buczkowski was brilliant today," Riley said of the 29-year-old defensive midfielder. "Her tackling, motivating the rest of the team around her. When you've got Buczkowski, you allow Lauren Holiday to run the show. And she ran the show from minute 1 to minute 90.

"But you need a Buczkowski to allow that."

It was close to insufferable Saturday in Kansas City, a cloudless sky doing nothing to ward off the sun on a day when temperatures hit 100 degrees. The artificial surface at Durwood Stadium on the campus of the University of Missouri-Kansas City only made the experience that much harsher for players.

Inside at halftime, they covered themselves in icy towels and took off cleats to soak their feet in ice water. Buczkowski, along with what she counted as perhaps six or seven teammates, took intravenous fluids during the intermission. During league-mandated cooling breaks in both the first and second half, similar to what was seen during the recent men's World Cup, players didn't even bother taking off their cleats. They just stuck their feet -- socks, cleats and all -- in coolers full of ice on the sideline.

"The turf is just so hot, the bottoms of your feet burn," Buczkowski said.

In other words, it was the last day you would want to spend chasing Boquete, the gifted Spanish midfielder who played alongside Buczkowski and for Riley en route to MVP honors with Philadelphia in WPS and looked arguably even better when she returned to the United States to join the Thorns midway through this season. Seattle's Kim Little made it clear she has company in the discussion, but the least that can be said is Boquete is as capable of single-handedly changing the shape of a game as any player in the world.

That's true even for a team with as much other star power as the defending NWSL champions.

"We know they're all good players -- I mean you have Alex Morgan there, you have Tobin Heath, [Christine] Sinclair, Allie Long -- but they're most dangerous when the ball gets to Vero," Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said. "They're not going to be as good if Vero doesn't get the ball, so what we tried to do is cut the supply to the other players by cutting the supply to Vero."

That made his plan obvious. He shelved the two-forward lineup he has used of late and clogged the midfield, all the better to funnel the game to where he wanted it played.

"I actually made this game a game between her and Vero," Andonovski said of Buczkowski. "Not between Portland and Kansas City."

Portland actually controlled possession in the game's opening stages. But unlike the last meeting between the teams, in which Boquete scored inside of three minutes to set off what would become a 7-1 rout, the Thorns couldn't turn that possession into quality chances. Gradually, Kansas City pushed back and the game shifted out of its own end into the midfield and Portland's end. And everywhere Boquete went, at least one player went with her -- usually Buczkowski, but also rookie Jenna Richmond.

Just how little space and time Boquete needed was clear in first-half stoppage time. Marked by two Kansas City players on the right side of the 18-yard box, she still managed to slide past both toward the end line and struck a shot from an impossibly tight angle that hit the post just below the corner of the goal frame. Elsewhere in the 18-yard box at the time, Buczkowski said she didn't even see the shot or know it was Boquete. She just heard the sound of the ball hitting the post, the sound of a reprieve.

There were other moments when a Boquete pass almost found the feet of someone like Sinclair or Long or when a free kick curled wide of the far post. But mostly, she had a face full of Buczkowski.

"Buzzy's just hard to play against," Riley said. "She's at you, she's fit, she's strong, she's good in the tackle, reads the game well. I mean, Vero was turning three, four times, she was still standing up and she's still watching the ball. She's still almost within a yard of her. I give her a lot of credit."

There was no such player to stop Holiday when she took an Erika Tymrak pass just outside the 18-yard box, waited for Rodriguez to make a smart run across the Portland back line and split two defenders and only then delivered the pass that Rodriguez put in the back of the net in the 63rd minute. Nor was there anyone to slow the U.S. national team standout when she sent a long pass from her own half toward Sarah Hagen on the left side and then sprinted forward into the box, took Hagen's return pass and scored.

Few other players in the world make those plays with the same regularity as Holiday, which is why she is most definitely, in Riley's world, a wizard -- and in his words, the best player on the field Saturday.

But she also didn't have to get through Buczkowski.

The story of the day for Kansas City was a couple of moments of brilliance and an hour and a half of hard work.

Riley ultimately sowed the seeds of his own demise back in Philadelphia.

"I have so much respect for him. I think he changed my game," Buczkowski said. "I think coming to Philadelphia, he just helped me so much. I gained so much confidence, and he believed in me. Everything he did improved me as a player. I owe a lot to him, I really do."

Buczkowski's performance was also fitting for the task at hand. A homemade sign that hung from a chain-link fence on the far side of the blue track that surrounded the field had a simple message: "This year we finish it."

Kansas City's season peaked with a 2-0 lead in the first half against Portland in a semifinal a year ago. The only problem was an hour of soccer remained. Portland scored once before halftime to cut the deficit in half, equalized in the second half and completed the comeback with Long's overtime goal that ultimately sent the Thorns to the championship match.

Andonovski admitted after Saturday's win that he hadn't been happy to see Portland coming to town again as the No. 3 seed. It was a team with too many assets, a team that on its day could be the best in the world. But when he got to practice Monday, he found his players almost giddy about the opportunity to rewrite history. They wanted Portland. They wanted to play 90 minutes.

Sure enough, as the minutes of stoppage time ticked away in the second half with the game decided, there was Buczkowski sliding in for a tackle and winning the ball cleanly off Boquete.

Her sort doesn't knock off early just because it's hot outside.

"With the way she plays and the needs the national team has, I think she is ready for the holding midfielder spot," Andonovski said. "And I wouldn't be surprised if she gets called in any time soon."

After all, every team needs warriors.