During last weekend’s National Women’s Soccer League playoffs, we were treated to two tactical battles. One semifinal was played in outrageous heat while the other saw the favorites fall behind but dig down deep to find to progress to this weekend’s final. One more to go.
Path to the Final
FC Kansas City learned its lesson from last year’s semifinal loss against the Portland Thorns and played the full 90 minutes and didn’t allow the visitors a foot back in the door. After a physical 30 minutes or so (which may or may have not depleted Thorns’ strength for the final third of the match), the Blues found a first through Amy Rodriguez, stayed on the right foot, and buried a second from Lauren Holiday right at the death to ensure there would be no Thorns comeback this year.
Vlatko Andonovski and Co. managed the match perfectly, from spacing the field to containing the Thorns’ two midfield threats, Vero Boquete and Allie Long. A lot of that was due to the spectacular play of FCKC’s back line of two-time NWSL Defender of the Year Becky Sauerbrunn, Nikki Phillips, Leigh Ann Robinson, and the emergence of young Kassey Kallman, who showed brightly throughout her rookie campaign and made the most of her opportunity to showcase her skills.
While the Seattle Reign came out on top against the Washington Spirit, Laura Harvey and the Reign had to cope with a spirited DC team that gave them all they could handle. The Spirit’s Ashlyn Harris (who thrived in the 2011 Women’s Professional Championship final) was on her game and with the score deadlocked at zero, substitute Veronica Perez opened up her account with a ringing goal from close distance. The upset was in the making.
However, a converted penalty (plus a penalty kick by Hope Solo) and a moment of top-notch finishing from Megan Rapinoe proved to be the difference for the Reign. The Spirit gave it all they could but the Reign proved, as they have throughout the season, their roster depth, patience, and style of play is second to none in the NWSL.
With the Seattle Reign and FC Kansas City advancing to the final, there are several matchups to keep an eye on, but I’ll focus on two.
Amy Rodriguez vs. Seattle’s Back Four
The play of Seattle Reign’s center back pairing of Kate Deines and Kendall Fletcher has been suspect at times, especially against teams with dynamic forwards who make runs in behind. During the Reign’s semifinal against the Washington Spirit, the center pair had to deal with Jodie Taylor, and although they handled Taylor decently, two things stick out. One, they allowed a lot of space for runs in behind, which Kerstin Garefrekas often exploited but didn’t finish. When Deines and Fletcher did tighten up the space on the trailing runner, it opened up the lane again for Taylor to make her darting runs in behind. The Reign’s center backs and holding midfielder Keelin Winters will have to be on the same page when trying to organize against FCKC’s Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Holiday, and Erika Tymrak.
Controlling the Flow
For FC Kansas City, it will be vital for Lauren Holiday to track back and help Jen Buczkowski and the rest of the team to stay compact and minimize the Seattle Reign’s play through the midfield. Allowing Seattle’s Kim Little to control the flow in the middle and springing the likes of Megan Rapinoe or Nahomi Kawasumi out wide or Sydney Leroux up top could make for a long afternoon for FC Kansas City.
My final transmission of the season coincides with the unveiling of the 2015 season format. To be honest, finally receiving this information came as a comfort and a surprise. Given the league’s previous track record of tardiness with releasing information, it was a nice change of pace to know how next year will play out in regards to the schedule, how many games will be played, and how many games the national team players will miss in the lead-up to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Of course, there are a few talking points to next year’s format, most notably, the season’s extension into September. You’re always going to compete for TV time in the fall with collegiate and professional football, as well as the run-up to the Major League Baseball playoffs. But as we have seen with Major League Soccer, starting matches before April often brings with it weather challenges.
The format is fine with me and getting the commitment from all of the national federations that their players will play and won’t miss half of the season helps the cause. Plus, eliminating the majority of midweek games gives more fans a chance to make more home matches without worrying about school or work.
Of course, there are several more talking points from this announcement and there will be many to come, but at the end of the day, I give Cheryl Bailey and her crew a solid thumbs-up for getting the information out early and giving players and fans a full offseason to digest it. With that said, I hope you enjoy the NWSL final this Sunday and please keep a look out for my season-concluding thoughts, which will also examine the pros and cons of the format, in the Fall 2014 issue of Our Game Magazine.