Photo by Meg Williams/Portland Thorns FC
By CAITLIN MURRAY
While the 2014 regular season of the National Women’s Soccer League has allowed some teams to change course and blaze a new trail, for others it’s looked like deja vu. With two very different playoff scenarios this weekend, both of those sentiments are set to play out.
Keeping old storylines alive, Saturday offers an identical rematch to last year’s semifinal between two very close teams, the Portland Thorns FC and FC Kansas City. The Thorns brought in a new coach, Paul Riley, and shuffled the roster, but found the exact same chemistry issues and inconsistency as last season. Kansas City again played attractive, positive soccer, but gave up games late.
Meanwhile, Sunday brings a matchup between two clubs that have worked hard to reinvent themselves. Last year’s two worst teams make their post-season debut as the Washington Spirit attempt to beat the Seattle Reign FC, a team that has all but steamrolled its way through the regular season.
With a slew of U.S. Women’s National Team stars back from a friendly this week — including the likes of Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux — the very best talent in women’s soccer will be on display as four teams fight for a spot in the NWSL championship.
Here’s a closer look at this weekend’s NWSL semifinal matchups:
FC KANSAS CITY vs. PORTLAND THORNS FC
Saturday, Aug. 23 at 1 pm ET / 10 am PT
Durwood Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
TV: ESPN2 / Online: ESPN3.com
This is the game FC Kansas City has probably been waiting for — an exact rematch of last year’s semifinal when the Kansas City Blues fell to the Portland Thorns at home in extra time.
“Last year, it didn’t end the way we wanted and we’ve had some interesting matchups with Portland this year,” Blues defender Leigh Ann Robinson said. “So, I think our entire team is excited about this game. It kind of lit a fire under us and we’re definitely going into it guns blazing.”
In this year’s three regular season matches between these sides, the victor was always the home team – including a lopsided 7-1 victory for the Thorns at Providence Park. But the semifinal will be on Kansas City’s turf, where the Blues have never lost a match this year, winning eight and drawing four.
The Thorns are the defending champions, having won the inaugural title last year — but they haven’t necessarily been playing like contenders for the championship for stretches this season. Two weeks ago, they suffered an embarrassing 2-0 loss to a floundering Boston Breakers side that has won just six games all season.
But last week, true to the inconsistency that has dogged them over the past two seasons, the Thorns eked their way through to the playoffs with a surprising 1-0 win over the league-leading Seattle Reign. The Thorns may be able carry confidence into the seminal final knowing that they found a path to victory in a high-stakes, must-win match — especially against a Reign team that had scored six goals but allowed none in their previous meetings.
Both sides have the attacking pieces to win games. In Portland’s corner, you have two of the international game’s most feared goal-scorers in Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair. Buoying Kansas City is Amy Rodriguez, runner-up for this year’s NWSL Golden Boot, and Lauren Holiday, last year’s Golden Boot winner.
But, just the same, both sides have found themselves giving up leads late. It could become a battle of goalkeepers between Nadine Angerer, last year’s FIFA Player of the Year, and Nicole Barnhart, last year’s NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year.
“I think these two teams are pretty evenly matched and it’s going to come down to those big moments again,” Thorns coach Paul Riley said. “We’ve been inefficient in a lot of big moments this year and hopefully we can become efficient real quick to get the job done.”
SEATTLE REIGN FC vs. WASHINGTON SPIRIT
Sunday, Aug. 24 at 11 pm ET / 8 pm PT
Memorial High Stadium, Seattle
TV: ESPN2 / Online: ESPN3.com
If there’s an underdog of the NWSL playoffs, it seems to be the Washington Spirit, the bottom-seeded team on the playoff table. After all, the first-place Seattle Reign lost just two matches in 23 during the regular season and the Reign has dominated these two sides’ three-game season series, with the Reign winning twice, plus one draw.
Scotland’s Kim Little has led not only the Reign, but the league in scoring with a whopping 16 goals this season, plus seven assists. But offensively, the Reign has too many other threats to contain easily — the club has eight different goal-scorers, all having scored multiple goals.
On paper, it’s easy to see why the Reign are so good. The names Hope Solo, Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe, Beverly Goebel and Nahomi Kawasumi only scratch the surface. They have the deepest bench in the league, a credit to plenty of off-season work by coach Laura Harvey after a very dismal 2013.
It’s hard to count the Spirit out already, though. They have a few things going for them. Starting goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris has been cleared to play after missing the last two weeks due to concussion. Jessica Fishlock, who has been the engine of the Reign midfield, amassing a league-high eight assists, had a national team match Thursday in Wales and may be fatigued if she does play.
But it’s all about peaking at the right time and Spirit coach Mark Parsons feels the pendulum swinging his team’s way. Over the last eight games, Seattle and Washington have the same record, but over the last four games, the Spirit have performed better, winning two to Reign’s one.
“When we look at the stats and the recent form, I think it tells us that there’s not a better time to play Seattle,” Parsons said. “I think we’re catching them at a good time and, to be honest, I think they’re catching us at a bad time. We’ve made a habit of finishing games really well – half our goals come in the last 30 minutes.”
The Reign have scored 50 goals this year (a league high) and allowed just 20 (a league low), meaning the Spirit will probably need to win this game on both sides of the ball.
In a surprising decision, the Spirit will try to do it without speedy forward Lisa De Vanna, who’s tallied one goal and four assists since joining the team halfway through the season. Parsons said he and his staff decided that not taking her along for the trip was “best for the team for this game and for the rest of the players.”
“She wants the ball every second of the game, which is obviously a great attribute and sometimes can be frustrating. Frustrating for herself and teammates,” Parsons said Thursday as he revealed she would not play with the Spirit again this season. “But she has made a huge impact since coming here and we’re grateful for that.”
What are your predictions for this weekend’s matchups? Can the Portland Thorns repeat history and get a win in Kansas City? Can the Washington Spirit beat the odds and unseat the Seattle Reign? What do these teams need to do to win?
Share your thoughts below.