On Thursday, which is officially Seattle Reign FC Day in Washington state, the Seattle Reign look to win the franchises' first NWSL championship title. With the NWSL Shield already in their possession, the team will need to defeat a tough FC Kansas City squad to walk away as NWSL champions. Yes, that would be the same FCKC that defeated the Reign in the final last year.
There's a lot on the line for both teams. FCKC could become the first U.S. women's pro soccer team to win back-to-back titles, while the Reign are vying to become the first team in the NWSL to win both the Shield and championship in the same season. Which team will make history?
Thad from The Blue Testament answers Three Questions to help you prepare for an exciting NWSL championship match.
SaH: FC Kansas City has given up the fewest goals this season (20), and posted 5 shutouts in August/September. The backline, led by three-time Defender of the Year Becky Sauerbrunn, doesn't let much get through. Well, every hero has a weakness. What's theirs?
tBT: The World Cup. When Sauerbrunn was away the back line was obviously and understandably not as good. With Becky back, LePeilbet playing close to her former national team form the center is really solid. Leigh Ann Robinson on the right is still one of the best. Becca Moros may be the weakest pure defender on the left but the veteran is no slouch and likes to get forward as well.
SaH: It took FCKC some time to click post-World Cup, but they now look pretty unstoppable. A-Rod has scored 7 times since August 1. What finally came together for the team?
tBT: It took the national team players some time to shake off their US roles and training. With the Blues it was Holiday to Rodriguez last year for a great deal of success. This year Holiday was asked to be much more defensive mid for Jill Ellis than she is for Vlatko Andonovski and A-Rod was tasked with being a supporting forward for the US instead of the main target with the Blues. HAO (Heather O'Reilly) never had a chance to get in sync with Kansas City but finally has some real practice with the team and a chance to get to know some of the non-USWNT players.
SaH: This team is loaded with USWNT stars (ARod, Cheney, HAO, Broon), but you also have a long list of additional talent that often get overlooked. Who would you say is the most underrated player on the team that could have a big impact in the final?
tBT: Anyone who has watched the women's leagues know about Jen Buczkowski and how well she has played that holding mid role over the years. Well everyone except the US coaching staff that is. She is too obvious of an answer so I will say Mandy Laddish. She joined FC Kansas City late last year and never really rounded into form while trying to play catch up. This year she was there at the start, knew what to expect and got some playing time with the US players called up. Mandy gained confidence and realized she can play well at this level. While she is mostly a holding mid partner with Buz, Laddish will get forward and can laser a shot upper 90 as well.
BONUS SaH QUESTION: It's Lauren Holiday's final season of professional soccer (nooooo!). Reign fans all remember her influence in the 2014 NWSL final. How important is she to the team?
tBT: I cannot stress how important she is to FC Kansas City. I may be biased but I rate her as the best all around player on the US and would have loved to seen her let loose to create and attack earlier under Ellis. Andonovski has not made that mistake. When she is needed to score she does, when she is need to create she does. When she is needed to defend she can even do that. Andonovski will be hard pressed to come up with a replacement (although I know he has a plan). I wish her well and to go have a wonderful married life but she will be sorely missed in Kansas City.
* * *
tBT: Let's clear out the elephant in the room. The NWSL took away the benefit of finishing first and having home field advantage. How mad/irritated were Seattle fans that the final is being played at the home of a big rival? Are Reign fans okay with it being a "showcase" instead of traditional home field advantage?
SaH: The Reign are unstoppable at home. The team still hasn't lost at Memorial Stadium in the two years playing there. Not a single match. An NWSL final at Memorial would always be preferred by fans and the team, so fans were quite upset when the location was unveiled. Win the league and we don't get to host the final? And it's at our rival's stadium? And you're telling us now?
What's calmed everyone down, however, is the fact that the team is so excited to be playing in Portland. Coach Harvey has said repeatedly that Portland would be their second choice. They love the atmosphere, the pitch, and the fact that they can get 15,000+ people in the stands for a women's soccer game.
tBT: With these two teams being a replay of last year, is there a revenge factor for the team?
SaH: It might feel like a revenge match, especially if you head to the Reign homepage right now, where the promotional language reads: "Revenge is a dish best served bold," a play on the Reign's slogan: "Fortune favors the bold." But I would argue that revenge is not what's driving the team. It's an opportunity for some Reign redemption. Last year, despite an incredible Reign FC season, FCKC earned that championship. This year, the team knows what it felt like to be so close and lose it in heartbreaking fashion, and never wants to feel like that again. Look out.
tBT: FC Kansas City head coach Vlatko Andonovski and assistant coach/technical director Huw Williams always highly praise Laura Harvey, even back in 2013 when the Reign failed to make the playoffs. They consistently praise her as the best coach and how good of a team she has put together. Is there some mutual love from Harvey and the fans for the Blues coach?
SaH: There is certainly mutual love for Coach Andonovski and his style of play. When FCKC came to Seattle during the World Cup break, Harvey applauded the team for not altering their style of play—despite being without some of their most important players. She believes "any team that gets a result against KC comes away feeling really great about themselves." Both coaches focus on playing up their strengths, keeping their shape, and playing creative soccer, and Reign fans respect FC Kansas City for that. Plus, you gave us Merritt Mathias, who has been a key part of the Reign offense this season. Thanks, Vlatko.
BONUS tBT QUESTION: Now that all is almost said and done for the year, you really haven't missed Sydney Leroux after all? Should FC Kansas City try to pick her up in the off season so she and Dom Dwyer can both be happy?
SaH: With Holiday retiring, there could be a need for some additional forward talent, so it's not out of the question for FC Kansas City to bring her in. Leroux is a speedy, powerful player, but she did not thrive in the Reign system. That's not to say she wouldn't succeed in Kansas City, but since the team plays a very similar style of soccer—keeping the ball on the ground, quick passing, finding holes in the defense—I'm not certain it is the best place for Leroux. I would gladly be proven wrong, however, as I want Leroux to succeed at both the club and national levels.
The NWSL championship match kicks off at 6:30 p.m. PT and will air on FOX Sports 1.