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FC Kansas City beats Seattle Reign to win NWSL championship


TUKWILA, Wash. -- FC Kansas City ruined what was supposed to be the closing chapter of the Seattle Reign’s triumphant redemption story on Sunday, winning the National Women’s Soccer League final, 2-1. Amy Rodriguez scored both of Kansas City’s goals, with longtime friend and teammate Lauren Holiday assisting.

Seattle started and finished the first half on the attack, pressuring through its top players and giving Kansas City little time on the ball in the back. After the initial pressure subsided, Kansas City settled in and found space to connect passes it gave away early in the match.

On the stroke of 15 minutes, Seattle goalkeeper Hope Solo handled the ball for the first time. Four minutes later, Erika Tymrak swung in a knee-height cross that eluded everybody and ran out for a goal kick, and Kansas City continued to build on its newfound momentum.

Rodriguez struck for the first time in the 22nd minute, taking down Holiday’s diagonal ball and lifting it over a sliding Solo into the net. In the 56th, Holiday dribbled through the left side of Seattle’s defense before sliding a square pass across the penalty area for Rodriguez to finish again.

Holiday and Rodriguez have played together since age 16, and they live together in the Kansas City area. The chemistry they developed through years together in the United States national team program was particularly evident in the second goal on Sunday, as Holiday played a ball across with hardly a glance toward the path her teammate was running into the area.

Rodriguez’s 13 regular-season goals were second in the NWSL only to Seattle’s Kim Little, who scored 16. She has thrived in Kansas City, although it could have easily been in Reign colors that she played her best season as a professional.

As part of the United States national team allocation, Rodriguez was one of Seattle’s first players in 2013, but she missed the entire season due to her pregnancy. She joined Kansas City via trade in the offseason after playing zero minutes and only attending one Seattle match.

“I actually attended one game here last year, and it was against Kansas City, believe it or not. So it’s kind of a poetic ending to this whole thing,” she said. “I was so excited to play in Seattle. I love this city. I love everything about it. The team’s so good here. It would have been nice to play for them.”

Rodriguez is now primed to play a role in the U.S.’s World Cup qualifiers in October after becoming the top American goal scorer in its domestic league. She finished with the highest goal tally of her career, one better than the 12 she scored in the 2010 Women’s Professional Soccer regular season.

“What a season,” Rodriguez said. “This turned out to be much more than I ever expected.”

Despite her two final goals, it was the provider, Holiday, who won the championship game’s MVP award. Seattle manager Laura Harvey called her one of the best playmakers in the world after the match.

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“She’s an exceptional talent, and when you give her time on the ball, she’ll absolutely destroy you, and that’s what she did,” Harvey said, standing a few feet away from Holiday in the media mixed zone. “I’ve said for a long time, I’ve always believed her and Kim Little are the best No. 10s in the world.”

For Little, the final was more frustrating than most of her season. Seemingly able to split NWSL defenses at will from March until August, she ran into a Kansas City back line that offered her no clear looks at goal.

She took two shots in the final 20 minutes, rolling both into goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart’s hands under pressure from the top of the penalty area. Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said that as the clock ticked down, his team remembered what it learned from meeting Seattle in the regular season to close out the match.

“The last season was a great school actually for us,” he said. “In order to win the big one this year, we looked a lot into those games that we gave up points late, and I think that’s what made us tougher.”

In their last two regular-season meetings in 2014, Kansas City jumped out to one-goal leads -- through Rodriguez again both times -- but ended up conceding an equalizing goal both times. Rodriguez’s second tally, missing in the previous meetings, proved to be the key difference.

Seattle finished the season with its third loss after securing the NWSL Shield championship on July 30. Before its first loss on July 12 against the Chicago Red Stars, Seattle rattled off 13 wins and three draws. In 2013, the Reign finished second from bottom in the league, after a series of injuries and unusual circumstances left them without any U.S. national team players for the first three months, including Rodriguez.

Down 2-0 for the first time in 2014 on Sunday, Seattle threw numbers forward in the final 15 minutes. Despite pulling a goal back, Harvey said the comeback started too late.

“We needed to reply and reply quickly,” she said after the match. “If the game had been going for five minutes more, then maybe we would have gotten the equalizer.”

Seattle finally scored in the 87th minute, touching off a frantic finish after Megan Rapinoe shot through a goal-area scramble to make it 2-1. She had one final opportunity to equalize, an open volley in stoppage time that she lined up well, but couldn’t make a solid connection to send it toward goal.

Rapinoe’s failed final volley served as a microcosm of the entire match for the Reign, summing up a frustrating game in which no opportunities seemed to bounce their way. After losing at home to the Portland Thorns in the semifinals last year, FC Kansas City made sure it would not lose another match deep in the playoffs.

Kansas City fans encapsulated the feeling in a banner tied to the chain-link fence behind the team bench, where a small cluster of supporters stood among 4,252 largely Reign fans at Starfire Stadium.

“This year, we finish it.”