[dropcap size=small]W[/dropcap]e’ve finally made it to the business portion of the season — the 2014 National Women’s Soccer League Playoffs. Five teams have been eliminated from the season-long competition and we now have the Seattle Reign, FC Kansas City, the Portland Thorns, and the Washington Spirit as the survivors into the one-off rounds. Ninety minutes (or maybe 120 minutes, plus penalties) stand between two teams making it into the league championship game. Here’s a look at the two matchups and what could be the deciding factors in the semifinal rounds.
Portland Thorns FC vs. FC Kansas City
Saturday 1pm EST, Verizon Wireless Field at Durwood Stadium (ESPN2)
Previous meetings this season:
April 26: Portland 3-1 FCKC (@Providence Park)
June 28: FCKC 1-0 Portland (@Verizon Wireless Field)
July 13: Portland 7-1 FCKC (@Providence Park)
These two teams are quite familiar with each other when it comes to postseason action. In last season’s semifinals, the Portland Thorns came back from a 2-0 first-half deficit to win 3-2 in extra time. However, the teams don’t resemble their 2013 versions. Version 2013 of the Portland Thorns had everything rolling with the play of Karina LeBlanc in net and spark plug Mana Shim in the midfield. Now, the Thorns have Nadine Angerer minding net with a slightly stronger defense in front of her (though Nikki Marshall will be missed) while Vero Boquete has provided a spark on offense since arriving from Sweden. FC Kansas City hasn’t quite retained that flowing possession game it displayed in 2013 but gained a much needed scoring threat in Amy Rodriguez, who bagged 13 goals in the regular season. The Blues flow through her as well as the dynamic Lauren Holiday in the middle, and boast a perfect 8-0-4 record at home.
What Could Be The Difference
For FC Kansas City, the difference could very well be learning from the mistakes of semifinals past — finishing out the match instead of sitting back after taking an early lead. The Blues could have been in the finals last season had they continued to attack from start to finish. If FC Kansas City goes ahead early in this year’s semifinal, expect them to continue to push forward. For the Portland Thorns, the loss of Nikki Marshall in the back is significant so Paul Riley will have to rely on the combination play of Boquete and Allie Long in the midfield. The Thorns are a threat in the air and Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, and company will need to capitalize on service from the flanks and set pieces to be in business.
Washington Spirit vs. Seattle Reign FC
Sunday 11pm EST, Moda Health Pitch at Memorial Stadium (ESPN2)
Previous meeting this season:
April 23: Seattle 3-1 Washington (@Memorial Stadium)
May 3: Washington 1-2 Seattle (@Maryland SoccerPlex)
August 6: Seattle 1-1 Washington (@Memorial Stadium)
The Seattle Reign have been the National Women’s Soccer League’s best team in 2014. Laura Harvey made it clear after the 2013 season that she wasn’t satisfied with her team’s performance and wanted to make improvements. The result of the roster overhaul was the best record in the regular season, plus a Golden Boot award for Kim Little (16 goals in the regular season). They’ve been a force to be reckoned with and for roughly two-thirds of the season, had an undefeated and untied streak going before finally dropping points. Since taking over the coaching reins, Mark Parsons has made the Washington Spirit a very respectable side with a possession-oriented game. After some key offseason and midseason additions, the Spirit have put together a turnaround that sees them make the playoffs as a #4 seed. It will be a tough battle for the Spirit but they’ve played the Reign tough all season and in a one-off elimination scenario, anything is possible.
What Could Be The Difference
The difference for both teams will be dealing with travel fatigue for their international players. Although all four playoff teams will have to deal with similar issues, these two squads might be the most impacted. The advantage gauge leans toward Seattle a bit as the Reign have depth at nearly every position and thus have the potential to exploit teams’ weaknesses despite not being at full strength. However, without Jess Fishlock in the lineup in the last game of the regular season, the Reign looked very pedestrian in the middle of the pitch against the Portland Thorns. If the Washington Spirit want to be successful, they’ll need to find a way to match the Reign’s intensity in the midfield and look to create chances for Jodie Taylor and Diana Matheson against Seattle’s back line. If either of those players can get an early chance or two in Sunday’s match and convert while the defense holds firm, the Spirit could give themselves a real opportunity to be successful.
Earlier this week, I joined the Women’s Football Podcast to preview the NWSL semifinals along with Sarah Gehrke of The Soccer Desk and Dan Lauletta of The Equalizer. You can listen to our thoughts on the semifinals and our predictions for this weekend’s matches right here.