At the end of the NWSL Championship game, there's a medal ceremony. The team that loses the game goes first, with each player having their name called out and having a medal placed around their neck. It's a very soccer thing to do, something no other sport bothers with, reserving those public postgame formalities for the players that actually want to be there.
But this odd exercise also gives us some interesting moments. We got one on Sunday.
Hope Solo had just been given her medal (yes, it's actually sliver). She took a quick look at it and almost immediately took it off, standing there as her teammates each accepted theirs.
Even though she eventually thought better of it -- putting it back, just as her teammates were all doing -- the message she was sending was fairly clear: The Seattle Reign were never inclined to accept second place.
From the very first game of the season -- a romping 3-0 win over the Boston Breakers -- the Reign had been the league's elite team. They started the season with seven straight wins, didn't lose their first match until the third month of the season and clinched the NWSL's best record with five matches left to play. Their 16-2-6 record and +30 goal-difference were the best marks ever posted by a North American professional women's soccer team and they have a serious claim as the most talented women's team ever assembled.
Failing to win the championship doesn't change any of that, of course, but it does leave the team without the crowning achievement it really deserved.
"I think the hard thing for us now is how to make this team better,'' Reign head coach and general manager Laura Harvey said in postgame comments. "To be honest, I'm not sure how you do that. That's the thing we have to try to overcome. I think next year will be a very tough year with the schedule, the World Cup, so I don't think it will look anything like this year."
What Harvey said next, though, was the part that really makes the Reign's second-place finish so painful.
"No one will have a season like we had. It won't happen again."
Unfortunately, she's probably right.
At the very least, the World Cup is going to wreak havoc on the Reign's roster. As many as 10 players from the current roster could be going to Canada 2015. But the reality is, the Reign can't possibly keep this team together anyway. All indications are that even if Nahomi Kawasumi wants to play for the Reign next year, it won't be until after the World Cup. The United States national team players will miss 7-8 games (more than a third of the season) and players like Kim Little could miss significant time as well.
The band could, feasibly, get back together for the stretch run. Heck, they might even win the NWSL Championship that eluded them on Sunday. But any hopes of repeating what happened this season are just crazy. The Reign put together a season for the ages. They had a locker room that, by all accounts, got along perfectly. The players all spoke so highly of Harvey and of the experience that it was hard to imagine it not ending in the best possible way.
But somehow it did.
FC Kansas City had played the Reign tough all year, earning a pair of ties and forcing Seattle to come from behind twice to win the other. Several Reign players, in fact, said Sunday's game was the best they had played Kansas City all year. And while it might be tempting to say the Reign deserved a better result -- they had more shots, more possession, more chances -- KC was the better team. They packed in their defense, forced the Reign to shoot through traffic, absorbed the pressure and were absolutely deadly on counter-attacks. Harvey called Lauren Holiday one of the best playmakers in the world. In twice setting up roommate Amy Rodriguez, she was at least the best on the field that day.
The thing about playoffs is that being better on a given day is good enough, though. The Reign were undeniably the best team in the league. They did everything possible to put themselves in position to win. But a pair of outstanding plays and a couple of superb finishes were all KC needed to be crowned champion.
Someday, the Reign players and coaches will hopefully be able to look back on this season and remember how special it was. They'll look at the roster and probably laugh to themselves at how ridiculous it was that it was even assembled. Kim Little might be the best No. 10 in the world -- even if Holiday was better for a day. Watching Jess Fishlock play a box-to-box midfield was truly a treat. Having Kawasumi and Megan Rapinoe on either wing seems almost unfair. Sydney Leroux, who's poised to challenge the American international scoring record, never found her stride and it never seemed to matter. The likes of Keelin Winter, Stephanie Cox and Bev Goebel would be some teams' best players, but were mere footnotes on this squad.
Sure, they'll always have the NWSL Shield, thankfully awarded to the regular-season's best team. In time, the Reign may be able to convince themselves that was enough, a true mark of a great team. If Harvey really has built a great foundation, this could go down in history as the year women's soccer in Seattle really took hold. This team could very well have started a bold new era.
But by the time Harvey reached the postgame interview there was no sign of her medal. Shortly after receiving it, she had placed it in her pocket. Wouldn't be hard to imagine it getting lost in the wash.