PORTLAND, Ore — For the second consecutive year, FC Kansas City defeated the Seattle Reign in the National Women’s Soccer League Championship Game, twice stealing the crown from the team that posted the best regular-season record.
By downing Seattle 1-0 on neutral ground here at Providence Park, Kansas City accomplished what the team wholeheartedly wanted: To send midfielder Lauren Holiday off into retirement with her second championship of the year. In July, Holiday and her U.S. national teammates won the first Women’s World Cup in 16 years. On Thursday night, FCKC delivered icing in the cake for the 28-year-old former UCLA Bruin star.
Kansas City secured the victory in 78th minute in the most fitting fashion. Amy Rodriguez — who is not only Holiday’s U.S. women’s national teammate but one of Holiday’s closest friends — headed home a service from Heather O’Reilly. Rodriguez’s goal was the perfect finish on the perfect pass from O’Reilly, as the ball bounced clean into the net past Seattle goalkeeper Hope Solo.
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Rodriguez, eager to deliver the win for Holiday, calls the U.S. midfielder one of the best to ever — a selfless star who makes everyone else around her better. The win was a slightly lesser repeat of FCKC’s victory over Seattle in the 2014 title match, when Rodriguez scored two goals off two assists from Holiday to lead FCKC to the 2014 NWSL Championship.
"It doesn’t get any better than this. Heather O’Reilly had a great cross and Amy had such an incredible finish. I am so blessed to be able to play with them,” Holiday said, adding "I couldn’t have written a better script. To win for club and country, I couldn’t have it any better than this.”
The loss was euphoric for Kansas City, the only team to play in all three NWSL playoffs. But for Seattle, winners of the regular season with the best record in the league (13-3-4) the loss was another blow. Seattle midfielder Jess Fishlock, from Wales and new to the post-season element of soccer, said that the playoff system eluded her in 2014, but has promised this time it would be different.
"I don’t get why, we’ve won the league, we’ve done this, I don’t get it. I’d never been in that situation before. I didn’t realize until after the game that, ah, now I get it. So that was my mentality this time. We won the season and now we want(ed) to win the game.”
Portland provided the proper atmosphere for the title match, attracting 13,264 fans to the smart, new soccer stadium in downtown. NWSL officials decided in August to place the game at Providence Park, home of the Portland Thorns, to take advantage of the league’s best attendance record-holding franchise. The Thorns averaged 15,639 fans for the 10 home matches this season for a total of 156,386 fans.
Seattle had its chances, and controlled much of the first half, but could not register a goal against Kansas City, whose goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart now gets another chance to boast the NWSL crown over her former U.S. national team fellow keeper, Solo.
Nicole Barnhart has never had the opportunities or exposure as Solo. With 53 international appearances, the perennial backup to Briana Scurry and Hope Solo, Barnhart has never competed in a single match in an Olympic or a FIFA World Cup tournament. Her teammates say the Stanford alum is a silent warrior, and would never seek a grudging win over Solo.
"She comes in and gets her work done but we do get fired up for her. We want her to stand up for herself,” FCKC defender Leigh Ann Brown said about Barnhart.
In the 63rd minute, Seattle star Megan Rapinoe looked like she was finally going to rip open the scoring. The wily midfielder volleyed a series of passes with teammates Kim Little and Merritt Mathias in front of the Kansas City box before Mathias sent the ball smartly back out to Rapinoe, who unleashed a long, bending blast that kissed the far goal post for a groaning near miss. Even the Portland fans — rabidly anti-Seattle by nature — couldn’t conceal their surprise in Rapinoe’s post-banger.
Solo, who eagerly wanted to add the NWSL crown to her long list of career accomplishments, was tested a few other times, but stood up. Solo’s U.S. women’s national teammates O’Reilly and Rodriguez got off a pair of shots in the 51st minute, but the No. 1 goalkeeper for the Reign collected both saves to stymie the FCKC early second-half flurry.
Seattle may have led the league in scoring this season, but it was not the main focus of the Reign’s game. Led by the league’s coach of the year, Laura Harvey had a distinct game plan for defending the Kansas City’s attack. It was called prevention is better than a cure, and early on, the Reign executed their manager’s orders. The key to Seattle’s early success was defender Lauren Barnes, who worked efficiently to block passes and clear balls.
Keeping the ball away from Holiday was critical, since the KC distributor was then limited to feeding the ball into Rodriguez or outside to O’Reilly. Holiday got a few touches and was able to set up two shots by Rodriguez in the opening minutes, but soon, the Reign switched Jess Fishlock from marking Holiday, pushing Fishlock up field a bit as captain Keelin Winters took over defensive duties alongside Barnes.
FCKC earned its first free kick after Keelin Winters was whistled for a foul in the 38th minute. Holiday’s shot did not quite clear the Seattle wall, bouncing off Megan Rapinoe and then high over the net. KC’s ensuing corner also did not amount to much as the pace of the game settled into a more deliberate one.
One minute later, Seattle midfielder Fishlock was tagged by a hard, studs-up foul by Jen Buczkowski, hobbling the Wales native for the final few minutes of the half.
But the night belonged to FCKC and to Holiday. At age 28, she is walking away from soccer to start a new chapter in life, which she said includes more family time, exploring opportunities and "maybe a vacation.”
"I don’t think that I’m done with soccer, like that I don’t love the game anymore, that I’m not passionate. It’s more so that there’s other things I want to do,” Holiday said.
"Soccer consumes me," she added. "I’m not a player that can turn it off. I’m not a player that can say, ‘I’m going to focus on something else this month.’ … There are other passions that I have that I want to explore."