The end of the National Women's Soccer League's 2015 season has a familiar feel to it.
Following a 2014 campaign that concluded with FC Kansas City beating the Seattle Reign for the league title, FCKC and the Reign meet again on the final stage on Thursday night after, again, Seattle ran away with the regular-season league title. The two teams have been equal in head-to-head matches the past two seasons, each with two wins, two losses and two draws.
Kansas City has arguably gotten the better of the match-up, though, taking last year’s final in Seattle. Certainly, no team has given the Reign as much trouble as FCKC since a dismal inaugural NWSL season in the Emerald City.
In a one-off game, a season’s worth of form goes out the window, but FCKC coach Vlatko Andonovski still labeled his team as the underdog heading into the final at Portland's Providence Park.
“[Seattle] won the league for a reason: they’re the best team in the league, no question about it,” he said on a conference call with reporters last week. “It’s not going to be easy to compete against them. First, they’ve scored more goals than anybody else, but one thing that Seattle is also good at is, they had the second-best defense according to the goals allowed, so they’re a good team all over the place.”
The Reign won the NWSL Shield by 10 points over the second-placed Chicago Red Stars, behind Scotland international Kim Little’s 10-goal, seven-assist season. Beverly Yanez (nine goals), Jess Fishlock (eight goals), Megan Rapinoe (five assists) and Haley Kopmeyer (four shutouts) also landed among the league’s statistical leaders.
Crystal Dunn, Washington Spirit
Dunn (15 goals)
Defender of the Year
Becky Sauerbrunn, FC Kansas City
Goalkeeper of the Year
Michelle Betos, Portland Thorns FC
Rookie of the Year
Danielle Colaprico, Chicago Red Stars
Coach of the Year
Laura Harvey, Seattle Reign
As Andonovski alluded to, Seattle scored 41 goals to lead the league and only conceded 21 all season. His own FCKC was the only better defensive team in the NWSL, giving up 20 goals with goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart putting up a league-leading eight clean sheets.
In the attack, Amy Rodriguez was in the top 10 in both goals and assists with six and four, respectively, but Kansas City was again stronger as a team than its individual numbers would indicate. Andonovski’s tactical plans and strong collective defending carried FCKC through the season, leading to another final appearance.
“It’s going to be a good game and a good show,” Andonovski said. “Both teams are very creative and can change games on a dime.”
Neutralizing Seattle’s attack could boil down to stifling its three-player central midfield. Keelin Winters anchors a triangle with Little and Fishlock ahead of her, leaving Andonovski with a clear goal in mind in preparing his team.
“The first thing we’re going to have to focus on is matching up the work rate and the mentality of the midfielders,” he said. “I feel like everything starts from there for them and then moves up.”
Fishlock and Little have made the NWSL Best XI in each season they’ve been stateside, while Winters continues to be one of the smarter and more underrated holding midfielders in the United States national team pool. Their complementary roles create the Reign’s league-best attack.
Of course, Kansas City won the midfield battle a year ago in the championship game, giving the away team a 2-1 win at Starfire. Lauren Holiday assisted both goals, with Rodriguez finishing them off, leading Reign manager and 2014 and 2015 NWSL Coach of the Year Laura Harvey to call her one of the world’s best playmakers.
Thursday’s final will be Holiday’s last professional match, as she announced her retirement after winning the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup with the U.S.
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“I think I’ve cried over this way too much because it really does sadden me to think that I’m not going to play with one of my best friends anymore,” Rodriguez said. “I’m really excited for her … but I’m also sad to be losing one of my most favorite players to play with. I can’t tell you how many times she makes others and myself look good on the field because of all the work that she does.”
Holiday has the chance to go out after winning a unique World Cup-domestic league double. FCKC’s Rodriguez, Becky Sauerbrunn and Heather O’Reilly, along with Rapinoe and Hope Solo on the opposite end, will be playing for the same distinction.
“It’s really important that we complete the task of finishing out a great summer,” Rodriguez said. “Winning the World Cup was awesome and I’m so excited and proud to do so, but I don’t think I’ll feel as happy with the year unless I can win this championship.”