This Sunday, Seattle Reign FC head to Memorial Stadium for their second home match of the 2016 NWSL season. It will be a battle between the two-time NWSL Shield winners, Reign FC, and back-to-back NWSL champions, FC Kansas City.
We don't have to go into detail about the last time these two clubs met. In fact, I've blocked it out of my mind and am looking toward the future. And the future is looking a little uncertain for both teams, for different reasons. After two matches, the Reign currently sit in third with 3 points, but recently learned they will be without Jess Fishlock due to a tibia fracture. FCKC, meanwhile, is in ninth after a loss and draw in their first two games.
While the Reign will be without Fishlock, KC will be without their lone goal-scorer this season, Shea Groom, who picked up two yellow cards against Portland last weekend.
SaH: FCKC lost a lot of players in the offseason. Which player's absence has been felt the most so far this year?
tBT: The season is still young but it has to be Lauren Holiday. We feel that even though she was highly regarded at the national team level, as good as she was she was still underrated. When we needed her to score in the first year she did. When we got A-Rod and we needed her to setup the opportunities she did. When the national team decided she should be a d-mid she did that. There really was no position she couldn't excel at if the need arose. Someone else has to step up and score and create but it is doubtful we find someone that can do it all so well.
SaH: Despite losing some significant talent, FCKC has a smart coach in Vlatko Andonovski. What makes you confident Vlatko can lead the team to the playoffs again?
tBT: I really think if they make the playoffs he deserves coach of the year with how much change he has to deal with this season. On the positive side he has had to deal with a lot of change every year just not quite this much.
But why do we have confidence? In 2013 he was an unknown that coached indoor and youth soccer and took a good team to the playoffs the first year and built a reputation as a team players wanted to play for. The second year they lost a d-mid, a center back and an outside back and forwards, switched the offense from Holiday scoring to Holiday creating and had to break A-Rod of her USWNT trained direct runs. The third year he lost a center back, outside back and d-mid but put it all together again just in time.
Each time the team lost talent and experience but kept the same philosophy, style and belief. At this point I will believe in him repeating until he fails to do it a couple times.
SaH: Which new addition to the FCKC team do you suspect will have the biggest impact this season?
tBT: Getting Desiree Scott back is huge for the Blues. She has fit back in quickly and it will be key for FC Kansas City to not give up a lot of goals this year. If Scott doesn't count since she returned to the team I would have to say Katie Bowen, the New Zealand international. She was in preseason but had to go back to school but should be able to play several spots once she has re-joined the team.
tBT: It seems like the trio of Fishlock, Little and Winters has been one constant and possibly the biggest strength for the Reign. How will Harvey deal with Fishlock being out for a few weeks?
SaH: There is, simply, no way the Reign can truly replace Fishlock. She is an engine on both sides of the field with unrivaled energy. For those who watched the Reign play Boston last week, they saw how this team can struggle defensively with Fishlock out in the second half. The problem this year is Seattle has no real like-for-like player to step into her role. Last season, Amber Brooks and Mariah Bullock spent time as a holding midfielder, but both are no longer on the team.
There are a lot of options for Harvey, however. She could bring in more of an attacking midfielder, move to a 4-4-2 instead of a 4-3-3, or utilize one of her defenders in the midfield. I have faith that Harvey will find a solid strategy, but the team will still miss Fishlock immensely.
tBT: FCKC head coach Vlatko Andonovski has consistently praised Laura Harvey as one of the best if not the best coach in the league, even the first year when Seattle did not make the playoffs. With the mutual history between these two team, think the respect is mutual now?
SaH: Vlatko has to be one of the most underrated coaches in the NWSL. Laura Harvey has consistently praised him for a number of reasons. I think the most important one might be that Vlatko finds a way to bring out the best in every player -- playing to their strengths and finding their best positions. He certainly did this for Amy Rodriguez, who has been a destroyer of defenses since heading to FCKC.
Last year, when FCKC was struggling, Harvey praised the team for not straying from their gameplan, despite having a number of key players missing. I think the respect has been mutual for a long time, and gets that much deeper every time you break our hearts in the final.
tBT: If someone could wave a magic wand and guarantee Seattle would again be in the NWSL final in 2016 but it would mean you would be facing FC Kansas City again. Would you take it?
SaH: If you're guaranteeing me another trip to the NWSL final, heck yeah I'd take that. We always know FC Kansas City is going to have a smart gameplan if we face them in the final, but that just makes the game all that more exciting. Now, if you asked me if we would be in favor of taking another NWSL shield if that meant losing in the final, I'd probably have to say no. We want that championship.
The match kicks off Sunday, May 1 at 4:00 p.m. PT. If you can't make it to Memorial Stadium for the game, you can follow the free livestream on YouTube.