NWSL Playoff Preview: FC Kansas City embarks on quest to repeat
The NWSL semifinals kick off this Sunday as reigning champion FC Kansas City travels to Toyota Park to take on the Chicago Red Stars, while the Washington Spirit clash with Seattle Reign FC.
This has been a busy summer for the NWSL, with bigger crowds than ever in the stands and watching on television in the wake of the World Cup. A few high-profile international stars joined the league since, including Brazilian Andressa, now of the Houston Dash, and Colombian Lady Andrade, who joined the Western New York Flash. This will hopefully be the beginning of a trend, with teams looking to recruit top players from Africa, Latin America, Asia and Australia, and Europe for the next season.
The presence of these new players, combined with star power of high-profiles from the U.S. and Canadian national teams, has made for a highly competitive season. The final four clubs represent well the league’s characteristic composition of powerful internationals and exceptional domestic players. Both matches are replete with offensive firepower and defensive class, and both of last year's finalists–Seattle and Kansas City–remain alive on a quest to return to the title game.
Here's how each semifinal matchup breaks down, with the winners advancing to the Oct. 1 final at Portland's Providence Park:
Seattle Reign FC (1) vs. Washington Spirit (4)
9:30 p.m. ET (Fox Sports 1), Memorial Stadium, Seattle
The semifinal matchup between the Reign and the Spirit is a rematch of last Saturday’s face-off, which saw Seattle win in the Spirit’s last home game of the season. That game quickly became what many have described as "chippy," and both sides will surely be coming back to the pitch fired up to face each other again.
Seattle, the NWSL Shield winner for a second straight year, has never lost a game at home. The Reign are led by legendary coach Laura Harvey, formerly of Arsenal Ladies FC. The side’s depth throughout the lineup is its greatest strength: from 2015 World Cup Golden Glove winner Hope Solo in goal to a back line anchored by center back Lauren Barnes, to the star-studded midfield, which includes Jess Fishlock, Kim Little and the USA's Megan Rapinoe.
The fleet-footed Little has played stunningly this season, and though she was quiet last week, Rapinoe and Fishlock effectively deconstructed the Spirit’s defense. The Reign will have powerful forward Beverly Yanez back from injury in time for Sunday, another dangerous challenge to the Spirit’s back line. Seattle only lost three times all season (tied for fewest in the league with Chicago) and enters the playoffs as favorite to win it all.
The Spirit will need a particularly brilliant game to pull of a victory but shouldn’t be counted out. That's because they boast 2015 NWSL Golden Boot winner Crystal Dunn. After being passed over by the U.S. for the World Cup, Dunn scored 15 goals in the regular season and is a strong candidate to win league MVP honors. Canada's Diana Matheson is particularly dangerous in combination with Dunn in the final third. Nigerian striker Francisca Ordega–signed by the team in March of this year–is another important facet of the Spirit's attack.
The Spirit’s defense is presently held together by USA backup Ashlyn Harris in goal. Megan Oyster, another candidate for Rookie of the Year, will be even more essential with USA's Ali Krieger missing the match to attend her father’s wedding.
Christine Nairn and Krieger provide creative offensive outlets bombing forward, but Krieger’s absence from her traditional position at right back was very noticeable last week.
Chicago Red Stars (2) vs. FC Kansas City (3)
1:30 p.m. ET (Fox Sports 1), Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Illinois
Chicago and Kansas City are evenly matched, and the game will set some of the game’s best players, both domestic and international, against one another in what promises to be a well-rounded battle.
The Chicago Red Stars are a quick, offensively potent side led by Christen Press’s 10 goals this season, which leaves her tied with Little for second in the league behind Dunn.
Though Chicago suffered a six-game winless streak this season, it turned a corner heading into the playoffs as the defense continues to put up strong performances. Julie Johnston’s return after the World Cup has made a notable impact on the back line fresh off her role that landed her on the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup All Star squad and as a finalist for the World Cup's Golden Ball.
Midfielder Danielle Colaprico, a Rookie of the Year finalist, provides a vital connection between the back line and the forwards. Chicago has another high-impact rookie in striker Sofia Huerta, who recorded six goals this season, but her status remains unclear as she is recovering from a knee injury.
If the defense holds and Press is let loose, the Red Stars will give FC Kansas City a run for its money.
FCKC enters the postseason on a five-game unbeaten streak. The club’s success is bolstered by a combination of a fierce front line, spearheaded by the USA's Amy Rodriguez, who recorded a brace against Sky Blue FC, and the retiring Lauren Holiday, who scored the game-winning goal in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final.
The midfield, with its host of highly experienced players, includes veterans Yael Averbuch, Jen Buczkowski and U.S. veteran Heather O’Reilly, as well as Sarah Hagen, who also netted a goal last week.
Kansas City’s defense, however, is its true strength, as it proved to be the stingiest unit in the league. The combination of goalkeeper Nicole Barnhardt and the backline anchored by U.S. stalwart Becky Sauerbrunn along with Amy LePeilbet, Becca Moros and Leigh Ann Robinson only conceded 20 times during the 20-game regular season.
Kansas City is a steady side whose consistency has the ability to wear opponents into the ground, which comes in handy against the seemingly tireless Red Stars. For FCKC to get back to the title game and have a chance to send Holiday out as a winner, it'll have to earn it.