Portland-KC makings of classic
Number One vs. Number Two. The NWSL’s largest and loudest venue. Late-season playoff positioning at stake. Two teams that combined for seven goals in their last meeting on this field.
Sunday’s matchup (live, FOX Soccer, Sunday 8:30 p.m. ET) between FC Kansas City (10-4-5, 35 pts.) and the Portland Thorns (10-4-4, 34 pts.) has all the ingredients to be the biggest in the league’s brief history.
“At this point in the season, every game matters so much for getting into the playoffs and hosting opportunities. Each team will be putting their best foot forward,”
Portland and US women's national team defender Rachel Buehler said.
Buehler says both teams put an emphasis on offense. But having 12,000-plus passionate fans at Portland’s JELD-WEN Field can also energize a game.
“The home atmosphere at JELD-WEN definitely leads to some exciting games,” Buehler said. “Playing in front of all these fans elevates the level of intensity. Everybody brings that extra little bit. The fans really are an incredible presence and you can feel that.”
And this is the Thorns’ last game at JELD-WEN -- unless they finish in the top two and win the right to host a semifinal. The top remaining team after the semifinals hosts the final. With Sky Blue at 31 points (19 games) and Western New York at 30 (18 games), nothing is settled. Kansas City drew and won its two meetings with Portland at home, so the season series is tied 1-1-1 -- and head-to-head competition is the first tiebreaker.
Portland has plenty of international stars (Buehler, Alex Morgan, Christine Sinclair, Tobin Heath, Karina LeBlanc) and one of the league’s hottest players in Meleana Shim, who has scored in each of the four games in the Thorns’ current unbeaten streak.
The only player in Shim’s league in July was Kansas City’s Erika Tymrak, who was named NWSL Player of the Month after scoring three goals in the month to bring her total for the season to six. The rookie is combining well with US veteran Lauren Holiday (10 goals, seven assists in 15 games) to help FCKC to a nine-game unbeaten streak.
Holiday is better known as Lauren Cheney but changed her name after marrying NBA player Jrue Holiday last month. Buehler is also a relative newlywed but hasn’t changed the name on her jersey to Van Hollebeke. “I'm debating about that,” Buehler said. “It's hard to lose ‘Buehler’ -- it's part of my identity now. But it's not one you can hyphenate.”
While most players struggle with the transition from college soccer to the pros, Tymrak has been a quick study. She didn’t have the advantage of national team play, but she had an indirect connection to elite international play.
Tymrak spent a lot of her down time at high school playing pickup soccer and futsal with guys. But not just any guys -- she went to Bradenton’s IMG Academy, and the guys in her pickup games were U.S. Under-17 players and future pros like Kofi Sarkodie (Houston Dynamo), Zarek Valentin (Montreal Impact, on loan to Norway’s Bodø/Glint) and Zac MacMath (Philadelphia Union).
“It was a boarding school, and we didn't have too much to do, so we played a lot of pickup.” Tymrak said.
Still, Tymrak had low expectations heading into the draft.
“I had backup plans overseas in case I didn't get drafted,” Tymrak said. “I kept my hopes up that I would get drafted because I really did want to play here. When I got drafted in the second round, I was extremely happy.”
Early in the season, Tymrak was a substitute on a strong Kansas City squad. Her first start was in Kansas City’s first visit to Portland on June 6, when she scored a goal and Holiday scored twice in a wild 4-3 loss to the Thorns. She has been a fixture in the lineup ever since, with a style that complements Holiday’s.
“We see the game in a very creative fashion, and we try to create for players as well as ourselves,” Holiday said. “The difference is the way we are on the ball. I've never seen someone so smooth on the ball. She dribbles at people and takes people on in a much different way than I would."
“I look to combine around people. Erika can just go straight at people.”
Though Kansas City has had a stable lineup for much of the season, Holiday thinks the team has evolved since that first meeting in Portland.
“In the Portland game, maybe we were a little nervous,” Holiday said. “We didn't come out as strong as we should have. I think obviously our confidence is at a different place right now.”
Tymrak and Holiday are still figuring each other out off the field.
Holiday says her favorite movie is Remember the Titans. Tymrak guessed Holiday would say The Notebook.
Tyrmak says her favorite TV show is Scandal. Holiday thought Tymrak would choose New Girl.
Holiday did correctly name Tymrak’s favorite Kansas City barbecue place (Oklahoma Joe’s), and Tymrak knew Holiday’s favorite TV show (Scandal).
Tymrak didn’t hesitate when asked what type of animal she would be -- “I would be a bunny.” Holiday incorrectly guessed “dolphin” but perfectly understood the correct answer.
“Actually, she probably would be a bunny.”
When it comes to soccer, they’re nearly on the same wavelength. Tymrak guessed that Holiday’s favorite soccer player was Andres Iniesta. Holiday actually listed teammate Becky Sauerbrunn, but she guessed that Tymrak would say Iniesta.
So their guesses matched, even if Tymrak’s favorite player is Lionel Messi.
“Messi?” Holiday said. “But she wears an Iniesta jersey! She’s faking me out.”