Thursday’s NWSL Championship Match: A Preview

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By Karen Valenzuela, @VictoriaNoir89

Make no mistake about it.

After an action-packed season of fantastic soccer, Thursday’s National Women’s Soccer League championship match will see the two best teams in the league face off.

FC Kansas City, arguably the most ruthlessly consistent team throughout the first three years of the NWSL, and Seattle Reign FC, who have swept the Supporter’s Shield for best regular season record two years in a row, have been the two most dominant teams this year. The Reign finished the season 13-3-4, having scored 20 more goals than were scored against them. And FC Kansas City finished 9-6-5, with a differential of 12 goals.

Here are some things to look out for during Thursday’s big match:

Lauren Holiday

US Women’s National Team midfielder Lauren Holiday announced her retirement from professional soccer after Team USA won the World Cup title in July of this year, saying she would play out the rest of the season with FC Kansas City. This means that Thursday is her last professional match in the National Women’s Soccer League. She won’t just be missed by her FCKC teammates, but by soccer fans everywhere. With her dynamic play and ability to hold the ball, her beautiful through balls and long balls, she has been among the top players in goals and assists all three years. Her vision on the pitch goes largely unrivaled in the league. This is her last hurrah, and she’ll look to go out with a bang.

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Reign FC’s secret underrated weapon, Beverly Yanez

The forward has hugely impacted the Seattle Reign attack in the last two years. Japanese Nadeshiko.League pro team INAC Kobe Leonessa loaned Bev Goebel (she was still a Goebel back then) to Reign last year. She made such a huge impact that Laura Harvey kept her for the 2015 season. She goes largely unsung by the media as she’s surrounded by some huge fan favorites, but her presence on the pitch is massive. Even as a forward, her defensive work rate is as solid as her offensive work rate. Her constant pressure on the ball is integral to Reign’s success. Yanez fought back from an unfortunate hip injury mid-season to be subbed into her first match in over a month during the semifinal against Washington Spirit. Her first touch upon entering the match was the Reign’s first goal in the 71st minute, boosting the team’s confidence to eventually beat the Spirit 3-0. It’s hard to say how many minutes Yanez will get, but we will see her play on Thursday. No doubt.

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Amy Rodriguez

The real A-Rod. The USWNT/FCKC forward scored both goals against the Reign in the 2014 Championship match, which pushed her team onto the winner’s podium after a 2-1 defeat of Seattle. She is incredibly fast. She can take on multiple defenders at once to score the most difficult of goals, but she is also capable of scoring goals with rocket shots from outside the box. She is arguably Kansas City’s biggest offensive weapon. And with how she tore apart the Reign’s back line in the final last year, she’s going to be a huge target for FC Kansas City on Thursday.

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Both teams have the best defensive work rate in the league

While FC Kansas City and the Reign have amazing stars capable of scoring amazing goals, the key to their success has been in defense.

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FC Kansas City has a wickedly strong back line, with USWNT defender Becky “Broon” Sauerbrunn in the middle. Many say Broon is the best defender on the planet. After all, she won the NWSL Defender of the Year Award three years in a row, in spite of missing half of the 2015 matches while she was playing for USA in the World Cup. With Amy LePeilbet, who has had the season of her career by many accounts, the rest of the back line, and fantastic goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, they are the most difficult back line to get through. They’ll be tough for the Reign’s offense to break through. It might end up taking a bit of Reign magic.

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For the Reign, the back four have been solid this season, led by Lauren Barnes. And with the World Cup Golden Glove winner Hope Solo behind them, they might seem invincible even. But it isn’t just their back line that is involved in defense. Seattle is an incredibly difficult team to play against because every player on the pitch, whether she’s a defender, midfielder, or forward, puts relentless pressure on the other team. They force turnovers like no other team in the league, and many times they do it at the opposing team’s own 18-yard box, which is incredibly dangerous. You can’t score a goal if you can’t hold the ball for more than a few passes. Reign will look to pressure the likes of Lauren Holiday, Jen Buczkowski, Erika Tymrak, and Heather O’Reilly.

The Brits Abroad

Reign FC coach Laura Harvey, an Englishwoman herself, brought with her two British players who have made an incredible impact on Seattle Reign in the last two seasons especially.

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Welsh WNT midfielder Jess “Tiny Dragon” Fishlock (this is an unofficial nickname, for the record) has been with the Reign since the inaugural season, and has been rock solid in mid. She takes the hard tackles and gives them back. She’s sturdy and reliable. She’s the connection between the back line and the forwards. And she’s capable of some amazing last-gasp goals herself, including her goal in the August 29 home match against Sky Blue FC in which she scored the tying goal in the 90th minute, thus saving the Reign’s unbeaten-at-home streak from being broken by a solid Sky Blue performance.

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If you haven’t heard of Kim Little yet, check this video out. And then this one. Seattle’s Coach Harvey had coached Arsenal Ladies FC in the women’s English Premiere League for years before her move to Seattle for the 2013 season. Kim Little was on that Arsenal Ladies team, and became Harvey’s top transfer target. Immediately after transferring to Seattle Reign FC for the 2014 season, the Scot set the NWSL on fire. She not only received 2014’s Golden Boot for most goals scored in the season with 16, she also received the MVP award. While her 2015 season hasn’t been quite as surprisingly explosive as her 2014 season was, she was still nominated for MVP and topped the league in assists, while also being among the best in number of goals scored. She has 3 hat tricks (3 goals in one match) in 2015 alone, one for Seattle Reign and two for the Scottish WNT. Many have deemed Kim Little the best player in the world at only 25 years old. She will be imperative in the Reign being able to hold the ball, what with her ability to do so while fighting off sometimes as many as 4 or 5 opposing players at once. Seattle fans will also look for her to score. FCKC midfielder Jen Buczkowski will need to play the game of her life to keep Little at bay.

Reeeeunited And It Feeeeels So Goooood

FC Kansas City and Seattle Reign FC played each other in the final last season as well. It was an amazing match-up, and the game was exciting the whole way through. FCKC came out on top in the end, as hard as the Reign tried to come back. But this year, Seattle Reign wants to take it all home. And FCKC wants a repeat title. Both have a lot to play for, and a lot to prove. Neither team has the home field advantage this time, as the final will be played at Providence Park in Portland, where over 10,000 tickets have already been sold, so it’s going to be very interesting.

One of the biggest questions people are asking prior to Thursday’s final is if it will be the big stars of the USWNT who will be the difference in this match-up. FCKC and the Reign boast 6 national team players between them, Kansas City with four (Rodriguez, Holiday, Heather O’Reilly, and Becky Sauerbrunn) and Seattle with two (Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo). Seattle has “The Brits,” Danish international Katrine Veje, Keelin Winters, Bev Yanez, and Stephanie Cox – none of whom played in the World Cup. And Kansas City boasts Erika Tymrak, Sarah Hagen, Shea Groom, Jen Buczkowski, and a goalkeeper who has the season’s most shut-outs in Nicole Barnhart. These might be the women who become the talking points at the end of the match, whichever way it goes.

Will this be FCKC coach Vlatko Andonovski’s second title in three years? Or is 2015 Laura Harvey’s year?

We’ll know for sure on Thursday! Watch the rematch between returning champs FC Kansas City and 2-time Shield winners Seattle Reign FC live on Fox Sports 1 at 9:30 pm ET!


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