The 2015 Seattle Reign season ends on Thursday night in Portland. And no matter what happens in that final match, it will have been another tremendously successful season under Laura Harvey. The team was once again the best in the league over the full season, embraced a relentless attacking style, and featured a player who should be in included in any conversation about the best women's player in the world. Thursday night will decide whether that very good season will be elevated to perfection or forever marred by a final regret.
The team standing in the way is the very same FC Kansas City that traveled to Seattle in the last final and left with the trophy in hand. And they are built on the same all-American foundation of Becky Sauerbrunn in the back, Lauren Holiday in the middle, and Amy Rodriguez at the tip of the spear. Their only significant loss from last season was Merritt Mathias — now with the Reign — but they ably replaced her with yet another U.S. international in Heather O'Reilly. KC enter the final having won 5 of their last 6 — 4 by shutout — including a 3-0 thumping of Chicago on the road in the semifinal.
Rodriguez, of course, was also once a Reign player. She was allocated to Seattle but sat out the entire inaugural season to have a child. That offseason, she was sent to KC as part of a series of trades that eventually landed the Reign Sydney Leroux. What seemed like alchemy at the time turned out to be a failed experiment, as Leroux never really fit into Seattle's possession style and was unceremoniously sent to Western New York just before this season kicked off for (in effect) Amber Brooks and the unused rights to Abby Wambach. In a short history of headline-grabbing wheeling and dealing that has mostly come good, the A-Rod for Leroux multi-deal stands out as one of Harvey's biggest mistakes. Imagining the current Seattle team with Rodriguez leading the line in front of Kim Little is literally mind-boggling.
Instead, she now terrorizes from the Midwest. While she's mostly an afterthought in international play behind superstars Alex Morgan and Leroux, in the league the 5'4" striker towers over them. She will hang on the edge of the Seattle back line looking to get behind on counterattacks and through balls from the midfield. And once she gets behind, her speed and close control means it's almost inevitable that she will get off a dangerous shot. It was two such dangerous shots that found the net in Tukwila to give KC the win in the 2014 final. We may need a career game from Hope Solo to stop the chances that Rodriguez will earn.
Those balls will primarily come from Lauren Holiday. Holiday, who has already announced that this will be her final club match before retiring from the game at the end of the year, was miscast by Jill Ellis as a holding midfielder in the World Cup — mostly because Ellis didn't bother to call up any actual holding midfielders (but that's a story for another day). In Kansas City she shines as an attacking, playmaking midfielder. She runs channels and finds open teammates in the offensive third as well as anyone in the league. In last year's final she assisted both of A-Rod's goals and if they're to win this year she'll likely be the one to do it again. For Seattle to win, Keelin Winters will have to park on top of Holiday and deny her the space and air to find those killer passes.
At the defensive end, Kansas City is built around Sauerbrunn, who amidst the fevered excitement around rising star Julie Johnston at the World Cup was the actual foundation of the U.S. defense. When the Johnston hype-train derailed around gaffes in the final stages, "Broon" was there to clean up. She is, if such a thing could be measured, almost certainly the best central defender in the world. Her positioning and timing are impeccable, and Seattle's best bet is to try to pull her out of position with movement from Bev Yanez to clear space for Seattle's other attackers.
Or just go around her. Her partner is Spokane's own Amy LePeilbet. LePeilbet was once a national team regular, but she lost nearly two years to a knee injury. Now she's fully recovered and has been converted from a fullback to a center back. The transition couldn't have gone better, as she finished as a league Best XI player and Defender of the Year finalist. It's a testament to the strength of KC's defense that she's considered the weaker of their two center-backs.
Given that central strength, Seattle's best bet might be to get to the end-line from the flanks. That's a skill that winger Katrine Veje excels at, as does Little as she drifts across the attack. KC's fullbacks are veterans Rebecca Moros and Leigh Ann Robinson. Neither would be considered a real weakness on another team, but they're not All-Stars either. Most of Chicago's good chances in the semifinal came from getting deep on the flanks and moving centrally from there.
Regardless of how they try to do it, Seattle will be challenged to score. And shutting A-Rod and Holiday out completely will be as much of a challenge. So despite winning the regular season going away, the Reign face their toughest test of the campaign in the final moments, when the biggest prize is just within reach. As it should be.