By CAITLIN MURRAY
Sometimes a game is just a game and sometimes a championship is just a championship. But for the Seattle Reign and FC Kansas City, Sunday’s final of the National Women’s Soccer League is a real shot at redemption for two teams that have had to live down some major disappointments.
It’s not the same kind of redemption for each of these sides that have had different seasons and, in the short lifespan of their clubs, very different histories. But for their own reasons, a win Sunday could bring some much sought-after vindication.
Some might argue that the Reign’s utter dominance in the NWSL this season is enough to erase the doubt and embarrassment from last season’s dismal performance, when they recorded just five wins and 14 losses in 22 games.
After some very aggressive off-season maneuvering from coach Laura Harvey, the Reign entered 2014 looking like an all-star team. In addition to allocated players Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe, they added Sydney Leroux, Scotland’s Kim Little, Japan’s Nahomi Kawasumi and more. Stacking the bench with talent worked — the Reign finished this regular season a full 13 points ahead of the closest team, FC Kansas City, having never fallen from the top spot.
The American-style system of having a playoffs means the Reign haven’t achieved all that much quite yet. Winning the regular season Shield doesn’t account for what the Reign really want, which is to be listed as the 2014 NWSL champion when it’s all said and done.
Much like the Reign this year, Kansas City was last year’s success story in a lot of ways. They swept the year-end awards in every category: golden boot, rookie, defender, goalkeeper, coach, MVP – they had the best of everything. And they played attractive, positive soccer that earned the team praise among fans and media.
And so, it wasn’t surprising when they went into last year’s home semifinal exuding confidence. They wore their alternate “black out” kits in the scorching Kansas City sun to show they meant business. Instead, they were left dumbstruck as the Portland Thorns clawed their way back from a deficit for the win, rendering those awards all the less important.
Kansas City hosted the Thorns for an exact rematch last week and ran away with a 2-0 win, but it’s still not enough for The Blues, a team that added this season’s leading scorer, Amy Rodriguez, in the off-season but kept its core group from 2013. The championship many predicted they’d win last year is now one game away.
“To make it to the final is definitely very rewarding, but we still feel like we have some unfinished business from last year,” said FC Kansas City defender Leigh Ann Robinson in a pre-final conference call.
In the NWSL history books, there won’t be an asterisk explaining that Kansas City was the best team up until the playoffs last year. And for the Reign, who have streamrolled the rest of the league this year, dropping Sunday’s championship would seem like a cruel ending to a beautifully executed season.
Both teams need a win in the championship to meet high expectations they’ve set for themselves, Kansas City over the past two years and the Reign over this year. But like the three regular season games between these two sides, expect Sunday to be a close battle.
These are two evenly matched clubs with similar strengths. Both sides play a possession-style game by moving the ball through the midfield. Both sides contain the league’s top scorers in Reign’s Little and the Blues’ Rodriguez and can rain down goals.
It won’t be as simple as neutralizing the top scorers though. The Reign has eight different goal-scorers, all having scored multiple goals. Not to be out-done, Kansas City has 12 different goal-scorers. What makes these teams so good is how complete they are.
In this season’s matchup series, the Reign won once, 3-2, and the other two matches ended in draws. The difference for the final, of course, is that a deadlock will move into extra time and, if necessary, penalty kicks.
“The games we’ve had against each other have all been really exciting and I think that will be exactly the same on Sunday,” said Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock. “It will literally be a case of the best team on the day will win because I don’t think there’s much between us at all.”
The Reign are unbeaten at home – but it’s hard to discern a meaningful pattern from a team that has lost just two games in 24 this season. To complicate matters more, their home venue all season was not available for the ESPN2 broadcast time slot so they will instead host the final at last year’s venue, Starfire Stadium, some 12 miles outside Seattle.
Home field advantage hasn’t really mattered for the Reign, even though both of their losses this season were on the road. The fact is, this isn’t a team that does well at certain venues or against certain types of teams. The 2014 version of the Reign is a team that does well almost always.
“Almost,” of course, won’t mean much in the NWSL history books. On Sunday, a new NWSL champion will be named and there won’t be any asterisks.
The match kicks off at noon local time, or 3 p.m. eastern, Sunday on ESPN2.
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