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Kim Little ready to step into the spotlight

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For a player defined by her club performances, tonight's NWSL final is her chance to show the world what she can do.

Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

The field in Houston can only charitably be called a swamp. Rain has been pounding BBVA Stadium for a couple days, and there's an inch or two of water covering most of the field. The ball skips, players slide and the game being played between the visiting Seattle Reign and Houston Dash on Aug. 21 is barely soccer.

The Dash may be at home, but there is no homefield advantage when conditions are like this. No one trains in standing water. Heck, it's a minor miracle that everyone has even arrived to the stadium, as much of the region is literally flooded.

But for at least one player, it doesn't seem to matter. No matter the time, place or conditions, Kim Little is the best player on the pitch. Never is it more evident than today.

In the 41st minute, the Reign figure out how to use their not-so-secret weapon. Center back Lauren Barnes lofts a hopeful pass from deep in her own end down the field. Little, who starts her run a couple steps behind the deepest defender, is first to the ball after the bounce. By now, she's pulled a couple steps ahead of the defender. Somehow, despite dribbling a soccer ball in standing water and running in what must feel like quicksand, she pulls away after her first touch. By the time she's reached the penalty area, Little is clean through with only the goalkeeper to beat. Little shoots before the goalkeeper can close the angle and the ball hits the back of the net.

The game is effectively over, but Little isn't finished.

About 30 minutes later, Little gives the Reign a 2-0 lead when her shot from about 20 yards out skids off the soaking wet turf and beats the goalkeeper.

Little completes her hat trick in stoppage time on a play you really need to see in order to full appreciate.

Kim Little completes hat trick

Fox Soccer

Little manages to control a well-struck pass despite it being up around her waist, jukes the first defender, steps in front of another defender, watches as a third defender haplessly attempts a slide tackle, avoids a fourth defender and then calmly waits for the goalkeeper to commit before gently chipping the ball into the net. Blame poor defending or comical conditions, but few players in the world can do what Little did there.

***

While that was an obvious standout performance, it was hardly a surprising one. Since coming to the NWSL from English power Arsenal, Little has been arguably the league's best player and surely the most consistent offensive performer. She was the league MVP in 2014 and the runner-up this year. No one can match her 26 goals nor her 13 assists in two seasons of NWSL play.

The Reign, too, have been nearly unstoppable since Little joined them. Little helped turn around a team that was one of the league's doormats in 2013 to one that ran away with the regular-season title and helped get them to the championship game the following season.

The Reign weren't quite as dominant this year, but they again topped the regular-season table, and they've got a chance for title-game redemption when they face FC Kansas City in a rematch at Portland's Providence Park tonight. The game will be played in front of at least 12,000 fans and broadcast on national television (6:30 p.m., FoxSports 1).

"These types of platforms are when players like Kim really thrive," Reign head coach Laura Harvey said. "When the heat is really on, it’s the players of Kim's ability and Kim's mindset who are the ones who step up to the plate. They are the ones that will become the best players in the world if they can perform on the biggest stage."

Considering Little plays internationally for Scotland -- a country that has never qualified for a major women's tournament -- this will represent as big of a stage as Little is ever likely to get.

While virtually every American player's career is ultimately defined by their World Cup performances, Little is unlikely to ever get that chance. That may not be such a bad thing.

"Coming from Europe, the club game is right up there with the national team," Little said. "Club performances has always been important to me. Whether it’s Scotland or Seattle, I just try to do my best and make sure we win."

Reign FC vs. Sky Blue FC: Photos

Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

In the media, women's soccer is almost solely defined by the international game. There are, of course, women's clubs all over the world, but outside of the Women's World Cup it's hard to get anyone to notice.

But to those paying attention, Little has assembled quite a resume.

Before she made the move to the United States and NWSL, she was making a mockery of the United Kingdom. At 16, Little joined Scotland's Hiberian LFC and promptly led them to a perfect 30-0-0 2006-07 season that saw her score 55 goals. She followed that up with 33 goals in 18 games the next season and then moved to England.

Still just 17, Little hit the ground running despite joining a team that was in the process of winning a fifth straight English title and in the midst of a 51-match league winning streak. Little is soft spoken and hardly the kind of demand attention, but she immediately became the focal point of a team that featured some of England's most decorated and accomplished players.

In her first full year at Arsenal, Little scored 24 goals to lead Arsenal to a sixth consecutive title. She followed that up with three more title-winning campaigns, capped by an undefeated 2012-13 season in which she was also named the Women's Players' Player of the Year after scoring 23 goals across all competitions.

"She was already a cut above the rest really and could change games pretty quickly," said Harvey, who coached Little for much of that time. "She had a lot of responsibility for the team and for the success of the team, probably earlier than anyone would have really wanted her to, but she took it in stride and every week would put in performances that would blow your mind."

Little's final Arsenal season didn't go quite according to plan, though. Harvey had left to join the Reign and Arsenal slumped to third in the table, ending their nine-year run at the top and Little scored just three goals in the process.

A change was in order.

"I had been at Arsenal for six years and I really wanted to push myself to try to play in a different league," Little said. "Laura came to me with an opportunity to play in Seattle and introduced me to the organization, the owner and such. I felt like it wasn’t something I wanted to miss out on. I can say it was the best decision I made.

"I came to develop as a player and try to get better, I think it has definitely given me that. I’ve had to adapt to the style, I’ve had to do things more quickly, which has helped me in progressing."

Harvey's presence is perhaps the biggest reason why.

From the very beginning, Harvey has gone out of her way to ease Little's transition. Not only does Harvey's coaching philosophy -- built on quick passing and constant movement -- blend perfectly with Little's skill set, but there are off-field considerations as well. Harvey will often have Little over to her house where they'll sit on the sofa with a cup of tea talking about such reminders of home as the Premier League. Recently, Harvey hosted Little and several other British members of the team for a proper Sunday roast.

"It makes you feel like you’re at home," Little said. "It makes it easier for the team and for me to enjoy it. There’s been a really good atmosphere and a good environment to be in. It’s just been good to be a part of."

Reign vs. Breakers: Photos

Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

Win or lose, after tonight's game, Little is planning to return to the United Kingdom where she'll spend the offseason with her family and boyfriend. Beyond that, not much is clear. She could choose to go on loan, the way many of her Reign teammates will do. Her contract with the Reign is also up and it's at least a possibility she won't be back next season.

Chances are, some European club will be able to offer Little more than whatever she's making now.

But if this is the last the American audience gets to see of Little up close and personal, there's every reason to think she'll make it memorable.

"I have no doubt we could see the best of Kim Little (tonight) and if we do, we have a great chance of winning the game," Harvey said. "She thrives on that. She thrives on the big stage."