Clearly the two best teams in the NWSL in 2014 will meet in Seattle on Sunday afternoon to decide a champion. Seattle won the season series, but the last two meetings of these teams, including one less than a month ago in Kansas City, have been 1-1 draws. The final regular season meeting saw a late Megan Rapinoe strike cancel out Amy Rodriguez’s early opener. Notably, in that last match, Seattle did not start Naho. Kendall Fletcher, or Elli Reed, while FCKC played with Sarah Hagen in the attack. Tactically, this one will look similar, but with shifted personnel.
How They Got Here
Regular season champions Seattle raced out to an early lead in the table with seven straight wins and sixteen matches unbeaten. They finished losing just two games, including one against Portland on the last day with everything already wrapped up. The semi-final win against Washington was a tense match, with the club again being forced to come from behind and needing a Hope Solo penalty save on Diana Matheson before Megan Rapinoe’s late winner.
FC Kansas City started slowly, winning just one of their first four but were just about Seattle’s equals for a good chunk of the middle of the season, going nine unbeaten and winning seven in a row at one point before a shattering 7-1 defeat to Portland. Despite winning just one of their final four regular season matches, the club outclassed Portland in searing heat in their semi-final, never looking like conceding against the Thorns’ high dollar superstars and easing to a 2-0 victory to reach the final.
Laura Harvey got a contract extension from Seattle after a torrid 2013 season, raising skepticism across many corners, but the Reign brass were proven right after Harvey delivered the regular season title to the club in dominating fashion this season. Harvey successfully rebuilt an embarrassingly poorly constructed squad in the offseason by adding international attacking talent like Naho and Kim Little, trading for Sydney Leroux and signing veteran American grafters like Beverly Goebel and Kendall Fletcher for depth. There were perhaps questions about the club’s mental fortitude under Harvey after they seemingly mailed it in late last season, but Seattle gained the most points from losing positions this season with twenty-two, underlining the Reign boss’ motivational skills and tactical acumen.
Big questions and big expectations also hung over Vlatko Andonovski going into the new season after the meltdown at the end of last season. His side was deeply criticized for the late-game blowups that ultimately cost them the regular season title and the semi-final against Portland at the end of 2013. It’s arguable as to whether they corrected that totally, as FCKC was still guilty of dropping the third most points from winning positions in the league this season. Still, Andonovski was able to steer the ship to safer waters after a rough start, and the club came up big in the semi-final win against Portland to kill off the ghosts of last season.
There’s little really to discuss. Hope Solo is the world’s best goalkeeper and showed as much this season behind a much more settled backline. FCKC’s Nicole Barnhart isn’t far off as well and has again been solid for the club this season behind a backline with two new starters. Solo is perhaps the more accomplished penalty stopper, showing her skills by stuffing Diana Matheson against Washington in the semi-final, but the odds of a goalkeeping error settling this one seem especially slim.
Cox vs Mathias
This may be the area of the pitch where Seattle enjoys the greatest advantage. Merritt Mathias is the clear weak link in the side for FCKC, and right wing has been something of a revolving door for the club this season. Mathias may yet keep her spot in the starting lineup in this one more on her ability as a wide defender than anything else, having played full-back last season. That should allow FCKC to try and pin Megan Rapinoe back with two full-backs, at the expense of their attacking potential down that wing.
Stephanie Cox has enjoyed a very good season at left-back for the Reign after just getting back into the team at the end of last season following the birth of her child. Depending on if Mathias tries to hang back and pressure Rapinoe, there could be space to exploit down the left flank, making this a matchup to watch.
Tymrak vs Reed
The only real selection question among the two teams concerns Elli Reed, who missed the semi-final against Washington with an MCL injury. Practice reports make it seem that the right-back will return for this one, though if she misses out, Lauren Barnes figures to slide over with Kate Deines coming in at center-back. Reed has improved markedly as a defender this season, but this is not the opponent she’ll want to face if she’s not fully fit.
Erika Tymrak hasn’t quite matched her dazzling rookie season with FCKC but has still been a positive midfield force for the club this season. Her direct dribbling, playmaking ability, and creativity injects life into the attack, and Tymrak could thrive against a less than fully fit Reed. Reed has largely outgrown her foul prone ways, but look for the Florida alum to run right at the Seattle right-back early to test her defensively.
Rapinoe vs Robinson
Leigh Ann Robinson started slow this season but eventually rounded into form, consistently starting at right-back this season after bouncing around both flanks last season. Robinson can be an absolute terror down the flanks in support of the attack, but her duties figure to be more defensive in this one in trying to keep Megan Rapinoe as far away as goal as possible. It’ll be interesting to see if Robinson tries to follow Rapinoe inside if she cuts inside to try and provide space for Cox on the overlap. Robinson figures to get support from Mathias in defense as well.
Rapinoe remains a remarkably frustrating player. She missed most of this season through injury, though it only hampered Seattle’s attack minimally in the end. The blonde-coifed Rapinoe has game breaking ability though and showed she can change fortunes in an instant when she netted the late winner for the Reign last weekend against the Spirit. She could be awful, she could be the difference, the only thing that’s certain with Rapinoe is that she’ll be one of the main focuses of this one, for better or for worse.
Naho vs Kallman
Japanese international Naho has been Seattle’s most consistent forward this season and has been one of the unsung stars of the league, largely overshadowed by Kim Little this season despite her tremendous play. With just a single shot on goal in three matches between these teams this season though, the Japanese forward has not been at her best for the Reign in these fixtures. With Rapinoe back to draw attention on the other flank though, Harvey will be hoping Naho has saved her best against FCKC for last.
Rookie Kassey Kallman has had an unheralded season at left-back for FCKC but has been impressive for much of the season. Having played center-back for the bulk of her college and youth international career, Kallman has taken to her new role as a full-back well. Still, she’s probably the least of the full-backs in this one in terms of attacking threat being a converted center-back. Holding Naho silent again in the final would have to be seen as a success for Kallman.
Rodriguez vs Barnes & Fletcher
It’s safe to say that Amy Rodriguez enjoys playing against Seattle, having netted two goals and five shots on goal in the three matches against the Reign this season. Odds are, FCKC is going to need similar production in the final if they’re to lift the title come late Sunday afternoon. Typically known as a forward that’s blown hot and cold in the past, Rodriguez has been red hot for most of the season after being traded in the offseason by the club that she had originally been allocated to, Seattle. She’ll lead the line here and must fancy her chances for a goal given her track record this season. If FCKC goes behind though, it’ll be interesting to see how she works with Sarah Hagen, who’ll inevitably be subbed in. The duo showed potential together at times this year but looked far from a finished product.
Kendall Fletcher was an under the radar signing for most but ended up being vital to Seattle’s defense turning into the league’s most formidable a season after being a revolving door. Fletcher also is a set piece threat, making her a potentially crucial part of the gameplan in what’s expected to be a close run match on Sunday. Lauren Barnes will either play in the middle if Elli Reed returns or out right if she doesn’t. Barnes has been a late bloomer but has nonetheless been a strong defender for the Reign in 2014. If Barnes does play at full-back, Kate Deines will come in at center-back. Deines is solid but unspectacular but isn’t Barnes.
Leroux vs Phillips & Sauerbrunn
Most expected Sydney Leroux to be one of the key pieces to a Seattle revival offensively this season, but the American international has been a major disappointment with the Reign to this point, scoring just five goals this season after being traded from Boston in the offseason. While Leroux played well in the semi-final win over Washington, Leroux also enters this final in the midst of a five-match goalless streak, worrying for Harvey and Reign supporters alike. Leroux has two shots on goal and zero goals and assists in three matches against FCKC this season, pointing to this not being the best matchup for the U.S. international.
The recently crowned NWSL Defensive Player of the Year, Becky Sauerbrunn has been widely touted as the world’s best center-back by friends and foes alike this season. Her defensive prowess is unquestioned after another pristine season at the heart of the FCKC defense, but her ability on the ball and constructing moves cannot be understated either. Nikki Phillips hasn’t matched her WPS form in her return to this level, but she’s been a fine replacement for Lauren Sesselmann as Sauerbrunn’s center-back partner nonetheless.
Leroux’s defensive workrate figures to be tested as well, as she may be called upon to try and press from the front to keep Sauerbrunn from carrying the ball out of defense.
Little vs Buczkowski
This might be the make or break matchup for both these clubs in the final. Kim Little was the dominant force in attack for the Reign this season, winning league MVP honors in her first season on these shores. Little has been pure destruction with the ball at her feet this season, tallying seventeen goals and seven assists to her name. If Little has a big match, and having scored two goals against FCKC this season you wouldn’t bet against her, Seattle has a good chance to be triumphant on Sunday.
Given the unenviable task of stopping Little on Sunday is Jen Buczkowski, still one of the league’s best pure defensive midfielders after another dominant season patrolling the midfield for FCKC. Buczkowski has actually been a bit more involved offensively this season, chipping in on some of the club’s goals, but it’d be a serious shock if she was used in anything but an almost purely defensive role in this one against Little. She has been consistently ignore by the USWNT hierarchy, but a dominant display on Sunday might increase the volume of the chorus demanding Buczkowski get her shot at the highest level.
Holiday vs Winters
The polar opposite of the above, FC Kansas City will be aiming to have Holiday, who has scored a goal and had an assist against Seattle this season, to run the show from the #10 spot in the 4-2-3-1. Holiday hasn’t quite been able to replicate her world crushing MVP form last season, but FCKC also has a proper scoring center forward this season in Rodriguez. Some of Holiday’s reputation as a small game show pony was whittled away with a one goal, one assist showing against Portland last weekend in the semi-final win. A similar showing on Sunday would likely have those assumptions dismissed for good.
It’s still hard to argue that Keelin Winters was worth the price Seattle paid to get her last season, but the Portland alum has still turned into a crucial piece of the midfield under Harvey this season. The least talked about in the Reign’s midfield trio, Winters has nonetheless been a star as the fulcrum in midfield this year in Seattle. She’ll have quite the task ahead of her though in stopping Holiday. Winters is probably more offensive minded than Buczkowski, but forward forays will probably be limited with Holiday squarely in her crosshairs on Sunday.
Fishlock vs Richmond
Just how much these two midfielders, the “glue” in each triangle for their sides, match up against each other is up in the air. Both will likely be tasked with helping out their defensive midfield mate in keeping the opposing #10 in check. Fishlock is the more direct and physical option in the middle of the park, while Richmond is more of the connective tissue, linking the back six and the front four. This could be a zone of situational change for FCKC though, as the club will likely bring in Katrina Gorry if needing offense and Amy LePeilbet if trying to close the game out late.
Andonovski didn’t dig into his subs bench until very, very late into the semi-final win against Portland, and one wonders if that hesitancy will bleed into the final. There are plenty of attacking options but very little in the way of options to shut up shop. The back four will likely go ninety (or one-twenty) unless the club really needs a goal, in which I’d argue Phillips is the likeliest to be sacrificed. Richmond will likely be replaced by LePeilbet if the club is protecting a lead late, while Gorry is the deep midfield option if the team needs offense. Frances Silva is an option on the right wing for Mathias but is much more attacking than the Texas A&M alum. Sarah Hagen is the big hitter up top, a true target forward and quite capable plan B if the team needs a goal. If Hagen is needed, it’ll be interesting to see who she replaces and how the team lines up. 4-2-3-1 with Hagen leading the line and Rodriguez wide or a 4-4-2 are both possibilities.
Seattle wasn’t exactly eager to sub either in their win against Washington, bringing on only Beverly Goebel in the win and only for a handful of minutes down the stretch. Goebel’s the clear option if the Reign is chasing a goal, though who she replaces, Leroux or Rapinoe, is more up in the air. From a stylistic fit, Leroux seems the stronger option to be pulled, but Rapinoe may not be totally match fit after missing most of the season through injury. There’s not much in the way of bench options to be confident in. Mariah Nogueira and Kate Deines are both shut up shop type options, though Harvey may want to just see it out with her three in midfield. Deines may nonetheless come in on the backline if Reed can’t go ninety minutes.
FCKC has the deeper bench, but will either manager make proactive changes after their steadfast semi-final displays with their starters?
The Reign have had a potentially toxic habit of falling behind to teams this season. They’ve also had the habit of coming back from those deficits though, having pulled back a league best twenty-two points from losing positions this season. There’s such a thing as flirting with danger too much though, and Seattle will not want to push their luck by falling behind here against a very talented FC Kansas City side.
By the same vein though, FC Kansas City dropped the third most points from winning positions this season, though it feels like the club still has killed off many of the demons that plagued them in similar situations last year. The big number to note though is the zero points FC Kansas City has pulled back from losing positions in 2014, an astonishing statistic. One wonders FCKC’s mindset if they do go behind to the Reign on Sunday and if they’ll have the mental fortitude to pull it back.
Finally, FC Kansas City has taken the lead on Seattle twice in their last two meetings this season and been forced to settle for 1-1 draws each time. FCKC will not be looking to make that a hat trick on Sunday afternoon.