PORTLAND, Ore. – Watching this year’s National Women’s Soccer League final felt as close to watching a familiar film as possible with a live sporting event. FC Kansas City beat the Seattle Reign 1-0 on Wednesday in a rematch of their 2014 title game.
The teams were the same as last year. The result was the same. Amy Rodriguez even maintained her record as the only goalscorer between the two, her 78th-minute header off Heather O’Reilly’s cross the solitary goal after a 2-1 result last time.
Somebody tweaked the script just slightly for this remake, though. FCKC put 10 shots toward goal to Seattle’s seven on Sunday after the Reign ruled decisively in that category, 14-5, in 2014.
“Last year, we were very dominant in the final,” Seattle coach Laura Harvey said after the game. “I didn’t feel that this year.”
Still, the FCKC defense survived a couple scares early in the second half before scoring on the opposite end. Most notably, Megan Rapinoe hit the post from 22 yards out in the 63rd minute on the Reign’s best chance of the night.
As the Blues proved last year, they didn’t need much of an opening to make the decisive play, especially in front of the league’s best defense that conceded just 20 goals in 20 regular-season matches. Goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart has also led the league in shutouts each of its three seasons.
“All it takes is just one little moment,” Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “When these ladies get a moment like that, they know how to punish teams.”
That moment came when Seattle had to take right back Kendall Fletcher out of the game with an injury. Immediately, FCKC mounted an attack down its left side toward her replacement, Elli Reed, that ended with Rodriguez’s headed goal.
“Her being put under so much pressure so quickly coming on is always difficult,” Seattle coach Laura Harvey said. “The longer the game went on, I just sensed that the team that scored first was then going to be in the best position.”
The Reign mustered just one more shot on target after conceding, which also came from Rapinoe. She latched onto substitute Katrine Veje’s cutback from the left wing but could only smash it into Barnhart’s cradling arms.
Seattle packed the penalty area as the clock wound down, but as it did for much of the game, it struggled to find an end product in attack. Unlike on most nights these past two seasons, amidst the astonishing 97 goals the team has scored, it didn’t come easily in the final.
“The longer the game goes on, and you’re just not getting those breaks really, you just sense that it might not be your night,” Harvey said. “They reduced us to shooting from distance, and then when we tried to play the ball that we love to try and play, they stopped it.”
It’s difficult to ask much more of the Reign than to execute its philosophy as well as it has in two consecutive finals. Seattle's players showed great composure to play through Kansas City’s defense, particularly in the second half on Thursday, and played with a nuance to its game rarely seen in a league still growing.
At the same time, the Reign’s moves didn’t have enough bite to them in the final third.
“We could’ve been a little more aggressive with our finishing,” Rapinoe said. “Sometimes, we want to make it too perfect. A lot of times, we can. We’re that good, and we can have that kind of quality inside the box, but I think we needed to test them a little bit more.”
Rapinoe was one of six players on either team attempting to win a World Cup and domestic championship in the same year, along with USWNT and Seattle teammate Hope Solo. Instead, fellow Americans Rodriguez, O’Reilly, Lauren Holiday and Becky Sauerbrunn ended up with the unique double.
Kansas City took special pride in winning what was Holiday’s last match as a professional to send her out a champion. She announced her retirement after winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
“To win for club and country is absolutely the best feeling in the world,” Holiday said. “The winning is absolutely wonderful, but the friendships are what I’m going to cherish the most [about her career]. That’s what I’m going to take away, and that’s what I’m going to miss, for sure.”
Sunday put a cap on Holiday’s career that included 132 appearances for the U.S., beginning with a call-up her freshman year of college. She won two Olympic gold medals with the national team and a World Cup to go along with her 2013 NWSL MVP award.
“I’m very happy winning this game, but more than anything else, I’m very happy that as a team, we were able to win for [Holiday],” Andonovski said.
After her last match in the NWSL, Holiday also had some parting words for the league that will begin its fourth season in the spring, surpassing every incarnation of women’s professional soccer before it in the U.S.:
“The league has to continue to grow,” she said. “I’m a huge supporter, as long as it continues to be more professional each year, higher pay each year and a good working environment for everyone on the team.”