What's up with the 2015 NWSL championship game?

Fishlock

The 2015 NWSL championship game between the Seattle Reign and FC Kansas City is tonight, Thursday, October 1 at 9:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. Here’s everything you need to know about the game.

What’s the plot?

This is not just a single elimination championship game, it’s also a rematch. These two teams met last year in the 2014 NWSL Championship game, which FC Kansas City won 2-1. The Reign came back better than ever this year and have been at the top of the standings basically all year. During the 20 game regular season, the Reign only lost three games. They won 13 of the other 17, tying the other four. This record put them head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Of the other eight teams, not a single one was able to break double-digits and win even ten games. FC Kansas City came in third place this year, the lowest showing ever for this freakishly consistent team, but did have the second highest tally of wins with nine.

Both teams are built around strong defensive play. Both teams have excellent goalies and strong, cohesive defensive units. Of the eight defenders in the NWSL honored by being selected to the league’s Best XI or Second XI (imaginary starting lineups voted on by NWSL journalists, club officials, and players), a whopping six of them will be playing in this game, three from each team. It’s from the midfield up that the teams start to differ. The Reign’s offense is driven by an overwhelmingly talented group of individual stars in the midfield who have found a wonderful balance playing together. FC Kansas City is a more traditional offensive team built around a wonderful partnership between a playmaking midfielder and an opportunistic striker.

Neither team was challenged very much in their semifinal matches. Although the Washington Spirit were able to hold the Reign to a 0-0 tie for the first three quarters of their match, this was mostly thanks to an incredible effort on the part of their goalie. The Spirit never really threatened to score and eventually the Reign broke through their bunker. Once they scored once, they just started scoring, and it was 3-0 when the game ended. FC Kansas City also won their semifinal by that same score. They jumped on the Chicago Red Stars early, thanks to an unforgivable blunder by the Red Stars keeper. This changed the dynamic of the game and ended whatever chance the Red Stars might have had to play the game on their terms. Kansas City never let up and won in comfortable fashion.

The Seattle Reign are looking for revenge for last year’s championship loss to Kansas City and simultaneously expecting a coronation after being the best team in the league all season. FC Kansas City will be playing for their teammate, Lauren Holiday, who is retiring after today’s game. She wants to go out with a victory and her teammates want her too even more.

Who are the players we know from the U.S. women’s national team?

The Seattle Reign have two familiar faces:

  • Hope Solo, who prowls the Reign’s goal with exactly the same amount of authority as she does the USWNT’s.
  • Megan Rapinoe, who unlike many of her teammates, plays virtually the same role on her club team as she did on the national team. This is vital for the Reign because Rapinoe is at her best when she’s essentially a supremely talented freelancer on one side of the midfield. Forcing Rapinoe into a more central (literally and figuratively) role reduces her impact on the game, so it’s good for Seattle that they don’t need to do this.

FC Kansas City has four players from the USWNT:

  • Becky Sauerbrunn, the rock of the national team’s defense, is the same unflappable power for FC Kansas City. She won the NWSL’s Defensive Player of the Year award for the third time in a row this year. Since this is the third season of the NWSL’s existence, that means no one else has ever won it. They should just name the award after her and get it over with.
  • Amy Rodriguez was a complementary player on the national team but she’s a star for FC Kansas City. She is their Alex Morgan, their number nine, (even though she wears number eight on her jersey.) She’s the best bet to score for Kansas City in this game.
  • Lauren Holiday will be playing her last game of professional soccer today. It’s somewhat fitting that she goes out playing for her club team rather than the national team because, at least in recent years, only with her club team has she been able to play soccer the way she wants. Her best position is the one Carli Lloyd plays at the national team level – central attacking midfielder. Holiday is only a hair behind Lloyd at this position, but that hair was enough to push her into a less comfortable position during the World Cup. If you’ve only seen her play in recent national team games, you’ll be surprised at how dominant she can be.
  • Heather O’Reilly only played in one game during the 2015 World Cup but she should start this game for the Kansas City team. She’s a capable and veteran midfielder.

Who are some other players worth knowing about?

On the Seattle Reign:

  • Kim Little is considered the best player in the world not to make the World Cup. There’s a contingent of people who would claim she’s the best player in the world, period. The Scottish attacking midfielder will certainly be the most dangerous player on the field in this game. She can score from virtually any spot on the field and she’s not afraid to run by or around defenders as well.
  • Jess Fishlock is another player who suffers because Great Britain competes in soccer tournaments in its component nations. Since she is Welsh, that means she has an uphill battle to qualify for the World Cup or Olympics. Fishlock is a strong two-way midfielder whose play stands out on the field even though she is sometimes confused for Megan Rapinoe because of her hairstyle.
  • Merritt Mathias played in last year’s final for FC Kansas City. A striker on a midfield dominant team, she does the often thankless task of harrying opposing defenders and opening up space for her teammates with long, tiring runs.

On FC Kansas City

  • Nicole Barnhardt was Hope Solo’s backup goalie for many years before being overtaken by two younger goalkeepers in the lead-up to the 2015 World Cup. At the age of 33, she truly has not lost a step. Her presence on the field virtually negates the advantage in goal that Seattle usually has.
  • Jen Buczkowski hopes to be the answer to Kim Little. Buczkowski is a shut-down defensive midfielder who will shadow Little all over the field. She’ll look to frustrate Little by denying her the ball and punish her with professional fouls when she gets it. Much of FC Kansas City’s hopes rest on how well Buczowski can perform this monumental task.

What happened last time?

FC Kansas City won thanks to goals resulting from two incredible combinations between midfielder Lauren Holiday and striker Amy Rodriguez.

Look at the angle Rodriguez chooses to run into space between defenders without going offside. Holiday does a great job getting her the ball but Rodriguez should get the lion’s share of credit for this goal.

The second goal involves the same two players but is a different story. Lauren Holiday breaks off just an insane series of brilliant dribbling moves to create this goal. Watch her slalom between defenders before dropping the ball for Rodriguez to easily slot into the net.

Seattle fought back, and did eventually score, but it was too little, too late to catch FC Kansas City.

What else can I learn about the game?

Read Liviu Bird’s championship preview for Sports Illustrated’s Planet Futbol and Lauren Barker’s similar but even more comprehensive article for SB Nation. Graham Hays has five key things to watch for in the game, which he shares with us on ESPNW. Equalizer Soccer brings us a blog post by goaltender Hope Solo in which she describes and thanks each of her Seattle Reign teammates. Finally, listen to Five Thirty Eight’s Hot Takedown podcast. They bring on soccer fan and expert Alison McCann to talk about the current state and future potential of the NWSL.

What’s going to happen this time?

First of all, it’s going to be a great game. Most NWSL matches frankly don’t reach the heights of a World Cup match, but this one will. These two teams are packed with talent and have played together for longer than most national teams get to. They are supremely determined to win. My guess is that this is a scoreless game going into the 75th minute of play. At that point, with the tension ratcheted up as far as it can go and player’s legs starting to get tired, it will come down to which team makes the first mistake and which team can capitalize on it. FC Kansas City and the Holiday to Rodriguez combination is great, but the Reign simply has more options; more ways to score and win. The Seattle Reign comes out on top, 1-0.

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