This week is “What If? Week” at SB Nation, in which sites are exploring alternate realities. At Sounder at Heart, we’ll be looking at a variety of scenarios. For this edition, we’re going to consider a minor schedule change. What if the 2014 NWSL Championship was held one week later, on Sept. 7, rather than over Labor Day weekend?
Fortress Memorial. Those who watched Seattle Reign FC games in 2014 and 2015 know the moniker well. Those powerhouse teams went undefeated over two full seasons at home, steamrolling their competition on the way to back-to-back NWSL Shields. The stadium was far from perfect, but players praised the intimate feeling, the tight lines, the way the crowd felt like it was right on top of the action cheering them on, and the fact that it was indisputably theirs. Memorial Stadium was a huge step forward for the team after a miserable inaugural year sharing Starfire Stadium.
But that home undefeated streak carries an asterisk, one that will forever haunt everyone connected to those teams, players and fans alike. The 2014 NWSL Championship game was hosted by the Reign on Aug. 31, but due to a scheduling conflict — Bumbershoot — it couldn’t be hosted at Memorial Stadium and there were only six days between the semifinal and the final. The Reign fell, 2-1, to FC Kansas City in one last “home” game at Starfire in front of a sell-out crowd of only 4,252 fans. The championship loss tarnished that otherwise spectacular season, and the following year the league switched to neutral-site venues for the final to avoid such issues in the future.
The new reality
With nearly two weeks to build hype and advertise the game following their comeback win over the Washington Spirit in the semifinal, Reign FC seize on the opportunity to market aggressively. They set up a tent at Bumbershoot to advertise the match the following week, and attend the Sounders match on Aug. 30, where they are introduced at halftime to promote the championship game. The Reign have championship weekend almost entirely to themselves – the Sounders are off, the Mariners are on the road, the Seahawks played on Thursday, and the Storm season is over. Only UW Huskies football have a home game, at noon the day before.
Ticket sales are brisk. Within a few days, the team announces that they’ve sold out of lower grandstand tickets in the north grandstand, and will be opening portions of the south grandstand for the first time ever. After a cool and drizzly Labor Day weekend, weather the following week is gorgeous, with highs on Sunday forecast to reach the low 80s. The walk-up crowd is strong, even with a noon kickoff, and attendance is eventually announced at 8,504, easily surpassing their prior largest crowd from earlier in the season.
The fans are treated to a spectacular game, pitting a defensive mastermind against the juggernaut that is the Reign FC attack. FC Kansas City shocks everyone by jumping out to an early lead thanks to an Amy Rodriguez goal in the 22nd minute, and the crowd is feeling tense after she gets a second shortly after halftime to build what feels like it could be an insurmountable lead for The Blues. But Reign FC have been unstoppable at Memorial Stadium for a reason.
They know the tight lines and fast pitch better than anyone, and have a lineup built to exploit that advantage. Kim Little is a wizard in tiny spaces, with the ball somehow magically clinging to her boot as she bobs and weaves through crowds. Naho Kawasumi has the uncanny ability to conjure up pockets of space amid densely packed defenses. Megan Rapinoe doesn’t need GPS tracking to deliver a ball on a dime in those pockets.
The comeback starts with a corner kick. Little has served so many of those into the box at Memorial that she knows precisely how much power is needed to loft the ball over the keeper but drop it at the back post on the narrow pitch. The ball finds Kendall Fletcher’s head, and the Reign are within a goal. Ten minutes later, Little puts her name on the scoresheet a second time by coolly burying a penalty after Jess Fishlock is fouled just inside the box. The match is level and the crowd erupts, spurring the Reign on to find a winner in the final 15 minutes.
Their pleas are rewarded with four minutes remaining, when Rapinoe bursts down the flank and receives a pass from Little near the corner flag. Rapinoe holds the ball there for a moment, assessing the situation and waiting for teammates to get into position. Time feels as if it is standing still. She suddenly bursts to life, making a quick feint and a cut as she dribbles toward the goal to juke an overly aggressive defender. The entire Kansas City defense has shifted toward her, recognizing the threat... exactly what she hoped would happen. With the outside of her right boot, she strikes a low, hard cross that threads its way through a tangle of legs as it curls away from goal. The one leg the cross fails to avoid is that of Naho Kawasumi, who has made a late run toward goal and one-times the ball into the back of the net.
The stadium shakes amid the deafening roar that follows, leaving some in the press box — which hangs precariously over the stands — to question whether they have all of their affairs in order should this be the end. The final four minutes and stoppage time are a blur, with the players running on a huge surge of adrenaline amid a cacophony of cheering. Jess Fishlock appears to be in six places at once, snuffing out every FCKC attack and holding the ball to kill time. When the referee finally blows for full time the team rushes onto the field to celebrate their second trophy of the season. Little is named championship game MVP and blushes as she is interviewed by ESPN.
Over the following weeks the team is celebrated around town. Little receives a Golden Scarf when the Sounders host RSL on Sept. 12, and the entire team is honored at halftime. Hope Solo raises the 12th Man flag for the Seahawks on Sept. 21. LevyFilms releases a documentary with the game footage and interviews they filmed throughout the season. The team sees a spike in season-ticket deposits for 2015. They still don’t have enough tickets sold to offset the massive expenses they would incur if they were to move to CenturyLink Field, but are well on their way to sustainability at Memorial Stadium and could double their average attendance of 3,770 from 2014.
However, although the Championship game was a huge success for the Reign, the aesthetics and technical capabilities of Memorial Stadium left a lot to be desired from a broadcast perspective. ESPN and others within the NWSL were dissatisfied with the production quality of the 2014 Championship game. There is discussion within the league of moving the final to a neutral site, both to increase ticket sales and avoid such aesthetic issues in the future. Merritt Paulson offers Providence Park as a host venue. There’s general agreement among owners that this proposal makes sense and they lean toward adopting it, but Bill Predmore is able to convince them to hold off on any final decision until after the 2015 World Cup.
The first months of the 2015 season go similarly to 2014 for the Reign. They have a brief early stumble, but once again settle in as heavy favorites to repeat both as regular season and playoff champions. Attendance hovers around 5,000 fans over the first five home games, before the league and world take a break to watch the World Cup in Canada. The United States completely dismantle Japan in the final, and hype for women’s soccer in the USA reaches a new all-time high. NWSL teams see ticket sales skyrocket overnight, and Reign FC are no exception. Their first home game after the World Cup sees nearly 10,000 in attendance, and the team scrambles to make repairs and upgrades to the stadium to handle the crush. They work with Seattle Schools to give everything a fresh coat of paint, install new fixtures in the restrooms, and add hook-ups for additional food trucks and vendors.
Ticket sales remain strong for the next few home games and the league playoff race is becoming clear. Predmore is able to return to the league with a new proposal. With the NWSL Championship scheduled for a Thursday evening and Reign attendance and revenue significantly higher than the prior year, CenturyLink Field is available and a feasible option should they earn the right to host the game. The league and new broadcast partner Fox agree to this proposal.
The 2015 playoff semifinals play out quite similar to 2014. Once again, the Reign dispatch the Spirit at Memorial Stadium, while FC Kansas City defeat the Chicago Red Stars to set up a championship rematch in Seattle. Due to an international window, there are nearly three weeks between the semifinals and final, giving the Reign even more time to market the game. They partner with the Sounders to offer a package deal of an NWSL Championship game ticket along with an upper-bowl ticket to the Sounders/Galaxy game four days later. The USWNT have a Victory Tour game scheduled for Seattle three weeks after the NWSL Championship game, giving another opportunity for the team to cross-promote events.
Ultimately, 18,174 fans turn out to see the Reign attempt to defend their title at CenturyLink Field. The wider pitch makes things more challenging for the hosts, causing a lot of crosses and corners to fall short of their intended target. FCKC is unable to take advantage, however, and the teams go into halftime scoreless. Both teams have a number of quality chances early in the second half and the wide-open play draws the crowd into the game. The buzz grows ever louder as fans can feel a goal coming, although it remains unclear which side will strike first.
Finally Kansas City scores in the 78th minute. Benefitting from the wide pitch, the Blues are able to send Heather O’Reilly on a long overlapping run to chase down a through-ball, and Amy Rodriguez connects with her ensuing cross into the box. The crowd responds by pushing even harder to spur the Reign on for an equalizer. They are rewarded for their persistence in the 87th minute, when Katrine Veje plays a low cross to the top of the box, which Rapinoe strikes one-time with power. The shot fizzes past Nicole Barnhart’s outstretched fingertips and deflects off the inside of the post to equalize. The match goes to extra time and the volume gets even louder. A Little free kick ricochets off the crossbar and out of play in the 104th minute. Amy Rodriguez forces a huge save from Hope Solo two minutes later. The tension is palpable, but about to get heavier as the referee blows for full time and the game will be decided by kicks from the spot.
Solo and her long-time national team understudy Barnhart take the long walk from midfield to the south goal. The Reign go first, and Little buries her kick, as she always does. Rodriguez matches her cool demeanor and finish. Reign captain Keelin Winters goes next, but puts her shot just wide of the left post. Lauren Holiday puts Kansas City ahead with a powerful shot to the upper corner and a moment of dread falls over those in attendance. Fishlock then steps to the spot and stares down Barnhart for what feels like an eternity before placing her shot neatly into the lower right corner. Solo comes up huge to stop O’Reilly’s strong shot, guessing correctly which way her USWNT teammate would go. The feeling of dread passes from the crowd. Bev Yanez makes the tally 3-2 for the Reign after feigning a move toward the left before ultimately putting her shot straight up the middle. Jen Buczkowski steps up next for the Blues, but once again Solo comes up big, this time with a kick save. Rapinoe comes to the spot next with an opportunity to win the game. There’s an electricity in the air, even as the fans go silent while she places and then adjusts the positioning of the ball. Rapinoe gradually accelerates as she approaches the ball, eyes fixed downward to avoid revealing anything about her intentions. In a moment of déjà vu from a half-hour earlier, she hammers the shot just past the diving Barnhart and off the inside of the post. The Reign have won their second championship title, and the crowd goes into a frenzy. Solo is named the championship game MVP.
In the aftermath of the win, Reign FC announce they will play half of their 2016 season home games at CenturyLink Field. The move is a big gamble, and one that they will have to make without Little, who announces that she is returning to England after winning back-to-back championships in Seattle. Laura Harvey’s name is being mentioned for national team coaching jobs in several countries, and although none are currently looking for a coach, such a move feels inevitable at some point.