KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Last year’s NWSL Playoffs kicked off with an exciting match that saw two aggressive offenses combine for five goals in 120 minutes of exciting action. In a stark contrast this year, FC Kansas City and the Portland Thorns both took a conservative approach in temperatures soaring over 100 degrees.
In the end, the Blues got revenge for last year’s loss with a 2-0 victory in front of nearly 3,000 fans at Verizon Wireless Field at Durwood Stadium. Team leading scorer Amy Rodriguez and 2013 MVP Lauren Holiday scored for the Blues as they earn their first berth in the NWSL Championship game.
Kansas City had spent much of the past two months seemingly in preparation for this game. In last year’s playoff, the Blues jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but wilted down the stretch as the Thorn’s offensive firepower scored three unanswered goals, with Allie Long scoring the game winner in overtime.
Blues’ head coach Vlatko Andonovski made no secret that Portland’s offense kept him up for nights this year.
“I didn’t want to say it in public, because I didn’t want it to be motivation for Portland. I’ve got to be honest. Look at their roster, it’s a scary roster. You know I don’t want to play against Morgan and Sinclair, Vero and Nadine Angerer in goal…I came to practice Monday, the whole team is like…YES we got Portland.”
Taking his team’s confidence to heart, he put together a game plan that would shut down the Thorns scoring chances and give his star players room to create chances.
From the beginning, midfielders Jen Buczkowski and Jenna Richmond were tasked with slowing down Portland’s Veronica Boquete. The two defensive midfielders traded off marking the Spanish international, holding her to only two shots. Buczkowski in particular, was critical to slowing down any attempts Portland had in their offensive third.
“I actually made this a game between her and Vero, not between Portland and Kansas City,” said Andonovski. “With this game Buzz (Buczkowski) actually showed that she is an inch away of the national team. With the needs they have right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets a call sometime soon.”
“They contained Vero well,” Thorns head coach Paul Riley said when asked about Kansas City’s strategy. “Buczkowski did a very good job on Vero, getting into her and roughing her up a little bit. I think their game plan worked very well.”
Altogether the FC Kansas City defense held Portland to only five shots, with Boquete’s being the only one on goal. While rookie Kassey Kallman and veteran Leigh Ann Robinson contained the Thorns attack to the outside, Becky Sauerbrunn and Nikki Phillips stepped to the task whenever Portland managed to bring the ball inside.
At halftime, Portland controlled a slight majority of possession, but Kansas City’s attempts for quick counter attacks kept the game even at 0-0.
As the second half began, FC Kansas City increased their offensive pressure. The midfield dynamics between Erika Tymrak, Holiday and Rodriguez were on full display as they seemed to tire out the Thorns defense.
“In the first half, I thought Vero caused some trouble behind Kallman,” said Thorns head coach, Paul Riley. “But second half, we just couldn’t get the ball really. Midfield dropped the tempo of the game and we didn’t really put any pressure on them.”
In the 65th minute, Tymrak carried the ball up the field, sending a pass directly to the foot of a running Holiday. While that was happening in the middle of the field, Rodriguez took her defender clear to the right sideline, then utilized her great speed to cut back across the Thorns’ back line where Holiday fed her in stride. Two touches later, Rodriguez was past a sprawling Nadine Angerer and easily knocked the ball into the open net.
“I love playing in front of (Holiday) because she makes me look so good,” quipped Rodriguez. “It’s a forward’s dream to have an excellent midfield and I think with Buzz, Cheney (Holiday) and Jenna there, they’re so dangerous…they play excellent. They do all the hard work and I just try to run off of them. Luckily today it panned out.”
Shortly after the score, Portland subbed out Tobin Heath for Jessica McDonald. The tall, speedy forward has been trouble for Kansas City to defend in the past. In an April match, McDonald scored in the 84th and 88th minutes to secure a 3-1 victory for the Thorns over Kansas City.
She immediately caused problems for the Blues defense as she dribbled across the top of the penalty box, fighting through three defenders before finally being fouled by Buczkowski outside the box. The resulting free kick from Boquete was the only shot of the second half though, as Sauerbrunn and company bottled up anything that crossed into KC’s defensive zone.
With temperatures on the field showing at 140 degrees plus, Sarah Hagen entered the game in the 84th minute, replacing Rodriguez. Kansas City’s coaching staff felt that Hagen’s size and ability to hold the ball would be crucial to the team’s success in the final minutes.
Three minutes later, as Hagen held up Portland’s back line, Holiday ran into the play, receiving an easy pass that put her right in front of an onrushing Angerer. Holiday wasted no time in burying her shot into the far post netting, giving Kansas City a 2-0 lead.
The NWSL’s recent ‘cooling breaks’ were much needed for both teams in today’s heat. The stoppage midway through the second half allowed each team some vital rest from the heat, but it added an additional five minutes to the end of the second half.
Merritt Mathias gave way to Amy LePeilbet late in the match as Kansas City looked to their defensive strengths to hold off the expected Portland attack. Rather than immediate clearances though, the team continued to work their possession style out of the defensive third whenever they were challenged. Several times they were able to work the ball up to Hagen at the center line where she would turn and dribble to space or hold the ball and eat up clock.
When the final whistle blew, FC Kansas City was able to shake off the ghosts of a 7-1 loss earlier this year and the crushing 3-2 overtime loss in last year’s playoff. They now wait for the winner of tomorrow’s other NWSL Semi-final between the Seattle Reign and Washington Spirit. Should Washington win, the NWSL final would be held in Kansas City, where the Blues are 9-0-4 this season. A Seattle win would send the FCKC to the Pacific Northwest to face the Reign at Starfire Soccer Stadium, a place the Blues have never lost.