Equalizer Soccer http://womens.soccerly.com The No. 1 Source for Women's Professional Soccer News Mon, 01 Sep 2014 22:34:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 NWSL final notebook: Putting a bow on Season 2 http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/09/01/nwsl-championship-behind-scenes-fc-kansas-city/ http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/09/01/nwsl-championship-behind-scenes-fc-kansas-city/#comments Mon, 01 Sep 2014 22:32:48 +0000 http://womens.soccerly.com/?p=16376 Starfire Stadium was cozy but vibrant for Sunday's NWSL Championship. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Starfire Sports Stadium was cozy but vibrant for Sunday’s NWSL Championship between Seattle Reign FC and FC Kansas City. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

TUKWILA, Wash. – In the words of Laura Harvey, Sunday felt like a proper cup final.

The two best teams of the season, both similar in tactical brilliance, played an end-to-end chess match that featured special, highlight moments that burn into one’s memory for the foreseeable future.

Seattle Reign FC’s coach was on the losing side of a 2-1 result to FC Kansas City in the NWSL Championship. She was gracious as always but shorter than usual on words postgame, at least somewhat surprised to be on the wrong end of a result despite executing a gameplan that on most days would worked – and did all season.

But FC Kansas City defended to near perfection for the full 90 minutes, had its key players step up in the big moments, and got the couple of breaks any team needs to win a title.

And it all unfolded in front of a crowd modest in number but as engaged as any in NWSL, outside of Portland. In the end, the match was a showpiece event for the fledgling league, and will hopefully be looked back on as one of the moments that helped the NWSL make it, as opposed to another footnote in the murky history of women’s professional soccer trying to gain traction in the United States.

[MORE: Complete coverage of the 2014 NWSL Playoffs from The Equalizer]

Here are how things looked from a ground-level view in Seattle in the days that built up to the final and the main event on Sunday:

–  It’s already been said and written many ways, but Lauren Holiday was close to her all-time best on Sunday with two brilliant assists. Her second goal, which involved weaving through defenders with the ball stuck to her feet, gets better every time you watch it. This is the Lauren Holiday that won the 2013 league MVP award and broke out at the 2011 World Cup. After several great years, Sunday’s championship match MVP performance looked like a guerrilla marketing-style reminder that she’s in her prime ahead of Canada 2015; she stole the show Sunday.

–  Holiday’s play shouldn’t overshadow Amy Rodriguez, who scored the two goals and was brilliant throughout the playoffs – scoring three goals in two matches – and all year, having netted 13 goals in the regular season. A-Rod was the last player off the field on Sunday when time ran out for warmups, as she worked in a few more shots on net which paid off in the hours to follow. And she was the last player off the field after the match and interviews, which she conducted with the biggest of smiles after having fallen short in two straight finals in WPS in 2010 and 2011 with the Philadelphia Independence.

–  Greeting Rodriguez postgame was U.S. coach Jill Ellis, who at this point has to give Rodriguez more minutes in upcoming friendlies against Mexico and in World Cup qualifiers. In a statement that would have been unthinkable six months ago, Amy Rodriguez is the best, most in-form U.S. striker right now. And it should be earning her more minutes with the United States.

Seattle midfielder Megan Rapinoe, a U.S teammate, postgame Sunday: “I think Cheney (Holiday) has been pretty consistent for a while now. I think A-Rod kind of went through a hard time. She was playing out of position for a long time, really. In my opinion, Pia (Sundhage, ex-U.S. coach) had her as more of a winger and she’s really a true ‘nine.’ So to see her back in that position is just brilliant. It’s so good to see her like that, especially going into the World Cup. We’re going to need people to put the ball in the net.”

Nicole Barnhart quietly had a very good match Sunday in the NWSL Championship. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Nicole Barnhart quietly had a very good match Sunday in the NWSL Championship. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

–  Defense being overlooked is nothing new, and the savvy play of Holiday and Rodriguez on Sunday only perpetuated that notion. But Becky Sauerbrunn was her usual stellar self, Kassey Kallman helped in wrapping up Sydney Leroux and Nahomi Kawasumi, Leigh Ann Robinson got forward well, and Nikki Phillips was quietly everywhere. Not to mention goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, who was solid throughout and whose kick save a minute after Kansas City’s first goal has been undersold.

–  Kim Little was hardly ineffective in the final (Harvey was happy with Little’s play), but she was contained enough for a Kansas City victory. With Little, she’s never going to be completely shut down from a game. She had moments – the 24th minute shot that forced the Barnhart kick-save, and the 30th minute cross to Kawasumi among them – but Jen Buczkowski in particular kept the Scotswoman bottled up enough to prevent Little from taking over the match. On the whole, Little has surpassed even the highest of expectations this season.

–  Speaking of that Kawasumi header, the miss looks worse on replay. It was a wide-open chance from six yards out. She’s been brilliant all year, but that’s a moment that would have changed the match. Here’s our feature on Kawasumi communicating with Reign teammates on the language of soccer.

–  And FC Kansas City’s Buczkowski and rookie Jenna Richmond, continuously overlooked this year, were spectacular in shadowing Little and Fishlock through the midfield.

– The immediate shift in momentum from Seattle’s opening barrage to Kansas City’s turnaround was palpable, and it started on a dime in the 19th minute when Leigh Ann Robinson switched the ball to rookie left back Kassey Kallman to start a 2-v-1 opportunity.

–  It was a quiet season for the Leroux in Seattle, though she’s shown well internationally with the U.S. this year. Harvey acknowledged last week that Leroux has been challenged to keep the ball more in Seattle’s system, as opposed to the counterattacking play Leroux had in Boston last year. Leroux scored five of the Reign’s 50 regular-season goals (she had 11 in 19 games for Boston in 2013). On Sunday, with Seattle trailing 2-0 and in need of a goal, Harvey took Leroux off the field to bring in Beverly Goebel.

Harvey discussing Leroux last week: “It was always going to be a different year for Syd. I think last year with Boston, the team played a way that suited Syd, on the counterattack all the time, and her pace in behind. We said from day one that teams don’t really play like that against us, so we were going to have to develop her game in a different way to make sure that she stayed in the game. I think that this year she’s become a better footballer all around. I understand and she understands that often she’s judged on goals, but I think her all-around game throughout the season has improved. She’s worked hard on the things that she said herself she didn’t think she was great at… There comes a point where people work out that that’s the way to stop Sydney Leroux, and our job is to help her develop a different way of playing.”

–  Kansas City’s diagonal runs were the perfect complements to Holiday. Merritt Mathias and Erika Tymrak often ran across the Seattle defense, from sideline to centrally, and that’s how Rodriguez scored her first goal.

– Reign defender Kate Deines will play the 2014-15 Frauen-Bundesliga season with 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam. Read more about Deines here.

– Elli Reed looked healthy on Friday, Saturday and Sunday after missing the semifinal with a left LCL sprain. She wasn’t overly impactful, but it was collectively an off day for the statistically the league’s best defense.

–  I don’t regularly watch practices for either FC Kansas City or Seattle Reign FC, but both teams were remarkably relaxed in the buildup to Sunday’s final. Watching the Blues train on Saturday, I actually thought they were a bit too casual, walk-through or not, and had some concerns. They came out a bit flat Sunday before settling in and proving that maybe that was a quiet confidence all along.

A few dozen FC Kansas City fans traveled to see their team beat Seattle. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

A few dozen FC Kansas City fans traveled to see their team beat Seattle. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

–  Kansas City is now the current home of the reigning MLS Cup champions (Sporting KC), MISL champions (Missouri Comets, now in MASL indoor league) and NWSL champions. Move over, Pacific Northwest.

–  The crowd of 4,252 fans may not sounds like a large one, but it was a loud, engaged audience that filled every seat and most of the standing room at Starfire Sports Stadium. Frankly, it was a better crowd than those of more than double that at the last two professional women’s finals in Rochester, N.Y. I’m confident that 4,252 number would have doubled at Memorial Stadium, but the Bumbershoot music festival that took over downtown had been booked, and these are the realities of the young league. But I would hardly look at Sunday as disappointing off the field.

–  A behind-the-scenes note of concern from the view of attending practices and being in town early for the match: If you weren’t already a Reign fan, there wasn’t much buzz in the area to push you toward the match, whether in the stands or on TV. As we made our way through parts of Seattle and Tukwila, Dan Lauletta and I asked locals if they’d be watching the match, and most didn’t know what we were talking about. There was a serious lack of online local media coverage pre-match, with no local reporters at Friday’s or Saturday’s practices. A pair of Seattle Times reporters (here and here) said they had trouble with access to the Reign, which is disappointing for a growing league but also half of a two-sided story. Certainly there could have been more efforts from both parties. Media turnout for the match itself was good, at least.

–  Next year’s final being in late September with two weeks’ notice, instead of a one-week turnaround on Labor Day, should help with interest. I’m very confident there would have been more out-0f-town members of the media there Sunday had the turnaround and timing not produced such extreme costs.

–  There’s been a lot of ‘best in the world’ talk around the NWSL this week – coach, defender, crosser, organization, No. 10, etc. I think that may sell short some other great talent around the world, but I know this: Sunday was one heck of a game.

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Reign know NWSL final loss is opportunity missed http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/31/reign-know-nwsl-final-loss-is-opportunity-missed/ http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/31/reign-know-nwsl-final-loss-is-opportunity-missed/#comments Mon, 01 Sep 2014 03:54:53 +0000 http://womens.soccerly.com/?p=16353 Laura Harvey walks off the field following Seattle Reign FC's NWSL Championship match loss to FC Kansas City. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Laura Harvey walks off the field following Seattle Reign FC’s NWSL Championship match loss to FC Kansas City. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

TUKWILA, Wash. – As the final whistle blew on Sunday at Starfire Sports Stadium, a particularly boisterous home crowd fell silent, seeing something they hadn’t seen all season: a Seattle Reign FC loss.

With Sunday’s 2-1 NWSL Championship loss to FC Kansas City went not only the Reign’s postseason title hopes, but the chance to cap off one of the best years in the eight-season, three-league history of professional women’s soccer in the United States.

“No one will have a season like we did. It won’t happen again,” Harvey said matter-of-factly postgame.

The looming World Cup and Olympics over the next two years will pull national team players away from the league, and Reign coach Laura Harvey is convinced that Sunday’s loss could be felt for years to come.

Harvey knows how special her 2014 squad was. Seattle lost twice in 24 regular season games, both on the road. The Reign opened the season on a 16-game unbeaten run – two-thirds of the way through, and looked like they could run the table. They won the NWSL Shield as regular season champions, with no others – even second-place Kansas City – posing much of a challenge.

“I think the hard thing for us now is, ‘How do we make this team better?’ To be honest, I’m not sure how you do that. That’s the thing we’ve got to try to overcome. I think next year will be a very tough year with the schedule with the World Cup, so I don’t think it will look anything like this year.”

[MORE: Andonovski knew FC Kansas City needed to be better team for a day]

On Sunday, the Reign fell for the first time at home, although the championship match was played at the team’s 2013 home due to their 2014 home, Memorial Stadium, being unavailable due to an already booked music festival. Amy Rodriguez scored twice and the Blues won the championship, finishing the job – as their supporters’ sign says at their stadium back home, and in the suburban Seattle stands on Sunday from a few dozen traveling fans.

FC Kansas City weathered the early storm Seattle presented, buckling down defensively and sitting its midfielders deep to provide cover. Twenty minutes in, the Blues settled down, established more of the possession game that they are known for, and quickly found the back of the net.

For the whole of the game I actually thought we were in control,” Seattle midfielder Jess Fishlock said. “For the first 45, we pinned them in. I don’t think they got a rhythm at all. They got out of it once because our gaps between our units were too big. We knew that if we let our gaps between our units get too big, Holiday would find the gaps, because she’s that good. She did it once in the first half and they got a goal. You know, I actually thought that was the best game we’ve ever played against Kansas (City), actually. I thought that we were on top and in control for the majority of the match, but they sit really deep and they have a great block. Then in (Holiday), they have a great transition player. I felt that we contained her just as well as we have in any other game, to be honest.”

So the Reign are left wondering what actually went wrong on Sunday, and they’re faced with the simple fact that they may just have been a bit unlucky. They played their game, they did what they came to do. Opportunities came, especially late with a flurry of chances for an equalizer in the final minutes, but they were too late.

Jess Fishlock thought Seattle played well in the final, but had two momentary lapses. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Jess Fishlock thought Seattle played well in the final, but had two momentary lapses. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

And two moments of brilliance from Holiday and Rodriguez sunk what often this season looked like world-beaters. Holiday proved to be the difference-maker, eclipsing, for the day at least, her 2013 league MVP form.

“She’s an exceptional talent and when you give her time on the ball she’ll absolutely destroy you, and that’s what she did,” Harvey said of Holiday, standing just a few feet from the MVP as she pointed to her. “We gave her time on the ball twice. I’ve said for a long time that I’ve always believe that her and Kim Little are the best No. 10s in the world, and I think they proved it today. Kim didn’t get a goal but I think she had and exceptional game, and this lady next to me just has that killer instinct.”

Kansas City’s reward was one that eluded the Blues last year after they peaked early and sputtered to a semifinal exit at the hands of eventual champions Portland. With eyes already on next year, the Reign hope to replicate Kansas City’s ability to turn disappointment into triumph the next year.

“It gives us a goal, for sure,” Harvey said. “I think you saw that with Kansas today, they were hungry. To me they were by far the best team in the league last year and they didn’t get this award. You could see how hungry they were for it and hopefully we can come back and do the same.”

Midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who scored the Reign’s only goal, is already looking toward next year.

“Of course (it’s a disappointment),” she said. “When you look around our locker room and see the squad that we have, to not win it at the end is unfortunate. To know that we won the Shield, the best team in the league during the regular season. But I think that this club also has a long-term goal as well. It’s not just about this year. We have a future that we are looking forward to and it will be a little bit interrupted over the next couple years, but hopefully after that we can keep the foundation and keep going from there.”

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Andonovski: No one was going to be better than us today http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/31/vlatko-andonovski-reaction-fc-kansas-city-nwsl-champions/ http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/31/vlatko-andonovski-reaction-fc-kansas-city-nwsl-champions/#comments Mon, 01 Sep 2014 02:19:55 +0000 http://womens.soccerly.com/?p=16351 Vlatko Andonovski got his gold medal a year after disappointment in the NWSL semifinals. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Vlatko Andonovski got his gold medal a year after disappointment in the NWSL semifinals. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

TUKWILA, Wash. — Vlatko Andonovski gathered his team in the locker room before the start of Sunday’s NWSL Championship and delivered something of an unconventional message. The FC Kansas City coach acknowledged that his 2nd-place team, that went undefeated at home and went toe-to-toe with the Seattle Reign on three different occasions, was not the better team in the final.

“One of the things we talked about was they were a better team than us,” Andonovski said proudly postgame, wearing his second championship medal of 2014 following his MISL title with the Missouri Comets. “We knew that they were the better team. We knew they had a better roster. We knew they were better than us in three games (a Reign win and two draws). We knew that they were better throughout the season.”

And then came the capper: “One thing we knew – no one was going to be better than us these 90 minutes.”

[MORE: FC Kansas City 2-1 Seattle Reign FC: Rodriguez, Holiday lift Blues to title]

No one was better than FC Kansas City on Sunday, not even the mighty Reign, who went their first 16 matches this season before losing and finished 16-2-6. On Sunday, Seattle lost 2-1 at Starfire Sports Stadium. Even when the Reign carried the lions’ share of possession through the opening quarter-hour, there was no doubt for Andonovski that his side was in control of the match.

“Throughout the whole game I still wouldn’t say that we were not the better team just because we didn’t play the brand of soccer that we usually do,” Andonovski said of the first 15 minutes. “But we came with a goal and that goal was to win the game. In order to do that we knew we were going to have to weather the storm in the first 15-20 minutes and then we can start playing our game. We went safe the first 15-20 minutes and then Cheney (Lauren Holiday) dropped a little bit closer to the back line so she could start spraying the ball.”

The slight change also brought more support to the defenders, who had been struggling to break the Reign’s high pressure.

“We kind of knew they were going to high pressure and we still wanted to play our game but we also wanted to play it safe,” FC Kansas City defender Becky Sauerbrunn said. “We didn’t exactly find that balance right away.”

The ball had barely been in Hope Solo’s penalty area when FC Kansas City broke out and took the lead through Holiday and Amy Rodriguez. Holiday moved defenders one way while Rodriguez made a superb run to the other side, a run that only works if the ball is played in at the perfect time.

Amy Rodriguez celebrates her first goal of the NWSL final with teammates. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Amy Rodriguez celebrates her first goal of the NWSL final with teammates. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

“I can’t thank my midfielders (enough) and especially Lauren Holiday, who gave me two beautiful passes right in front of the net and I was able to slip them away,” Rodriguez said.

The second one, in the 56th minute, came at the end of an electrifying run that saw Holiday take on several Reign defenders before laying it off to Rodriguez. There were anxious moments after that, right down to a pair of golden chances late in the match that could have tied it and forced extra time, but the Blues were not about to let a 2-0 lead slip away for the second season in a row.

“Through the entire season we were worried about keeping leads,” Sauerbrunn acknowledged. “I know we’re kind of a team known to not be able to keep leads, but as we progressed through the season we’ve kept a lot of important leads. Especially today. It’s hard not to have Seattle score on you. It’s if we can keep our heads and not let them get the other one.”

Part of keeping the lead was trying to control the Reign’s offensive weapons. Kim Little was often on the ball but rarely able to take it into the box or give out dangerous distribution to Nahomi Kawasumi or Megan Rapinoe.

“Almost,” Andonovski said about the execution of the game plan against Little and friends. “I have to give a lot of credit for Buz (Jen Buczkowski). For 70 minutes she was all over her. Kim Little is a good player. You can put five players around her; she’ll still manage to find the little gaps, find the little things.”

Reign coach Laura Harvey said earlier this week that she thought FC Kansas City were the best team last season despite falling short in the playoffs and she reiterated that point postgame Sunday. Many will say that about Harvey’s team this year. But a year and a week after walking off his own field as a semifinal loser, Andonovski and his team were sporting their gold medals and some wide smiles.

“Unbelievable. This is my first professional championship game and it’s my first (time) winning,” said Sauerbrunn, who has an Olympic gold medal from 2012. “I love this team and I couldn’t think of better girls to spend the day with.”

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Holiday dazzles in MVP perfomance in NWSL final http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/31/lauren-holiday-dazzles-in-mvp-perfomance-nwsl-final/ http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/31/lauren-holiday-dazzles-in-mvp-perfomance-nwsl-final/#comments Mon, 01 Sep 2014 02:17:46 +0000 http://womens.soccerly.com/?p=16366 Lauren Holiday had two brilliant assists en route to an MVP honor. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Lauren Holiday had two brilliant assists en route to an MVP honor. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

TUKWILA, Wash. — Last season Lauren Holiday was MVP of the NWSL thanks to leading the league in goals, assists, and highlight reel goals. This year she was named MVP of the NWSL Championship on the heels of two assists to Amy Rodriguez in FC Kansas City’s 2-1 victory over Seattle Reign FC. Both assists were remarkable for different reasons. She had to make the pass at precisely the right time to play Rodriguez through on the first. But it was the second that turned heads; it was the sort of play for which finals are remembered.

Fifty-six minutes into the match, Holiday received what looked to be an innocent ball from Leigh Ann Robinson. She turned to evade Keelin Winters, who stuck with her into the right side of the box. As Holiday continued to keep Winters at bay, Lauren Barnes arrived to help. Holiday kept Winters behind her and used her leg to shield Barnes as she took a touch between them. Kendall Fletcher also tried to help but got caught wrong-footed as Holiday gently moved the ball to Rodriguez for the finish.

“I was actually trying to score myself but they obviously closed me down,” Holiday said rather modestly. “I just tried to get free and once I got free I saw ARod at the top of the penalty spot. I found her and she had a great finish.”

[MORE: Andonovski's gameplan pays off, KC rules the day  |  Harvey: Opportunity lost for Reign]

The goal was soccer beauty at its finest. But it was also part of coach Vlatko Andonovski’s vision when the club was allocated Holiday before last season. “I openly say in the meetings that our game is we got to get the ball must go to (Holiday). Even if it’s a small touch, if the ball moves two feet, we’ve got to get the ball to (Holiday.) And then she is going to move it those two feet.”

Easier said than done of course. The first thing Andonovski had to do was sell Holiday on his vision for how the team would play.

“When I got (Holiday) and we started the team,” the coach said, “I had a chance to talk to her several times. One thing that I told her was we’re going to build the team around her as long as she believes in that. If she doesn’t believe in that we had to find another player to build around. I asked her, is she mentally ready to take the load (and) to carry this team. She was up for the challenge. She thought she could do it.”

The next thing was to make sure the rest of the team was ready to play off her. “Everyone bought into it,” Andonovski said. “Everyone likes having (her) on the ball because they know when she has the ball she’s going to find everyone else. Today she didn’t score a goal. But the assists that she have – a magician.”

WATCH each of FC Kansas City’s brilliant goals, each set up by Holiday:

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Rodriguez, Holiday combine to lift FC Kansas City past Seattle Reign, to 2014 NWSL Championship http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/31/fc-kansas-city-beats-seattle-reign-fc-wins-2014-nwsl-championship/ http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/31/fc-kansas-city-beats-seattle-reign-fc-wins-2014-nwsl-championship/#comments Sun, 31 Aug 2014 21:59:34 +0000 http://womens.soccerly.com/?p=16345 FC Kansas City celebrates its 2014 NWSL Championship. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

FC Kansas City celebrates its 2014 NWSL Championship. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

TUKWILA, Wash. – Amy Rodriguez scored twice on assists from Lauren Holiday as FC Kansas City defeated Seattle Reign FC, 2-1 on Sunday at Starfire Stadium to win the 2014 NWSL Championship.

Rodriguez scored the opening goal of the match in the 23rd minute, against the run of play, and added a second goal 11 minutes after halftime.

Seattle midfielder Megan Rapinoe scored with three minutes to play after Nahomi Kawasumi’s corner bounced around in the box, but the Reign couldn’t find an equalizer, losing for just the third time in 26 matches this season.

Rodriguez’s opener looked much like Kansas City’s first goal against Portland in last week’s semifinal, with Holiday orchestrating a counterattack and slipping in well-timed through ball to Rodriguez, who was making a slashing run across the field, from right to left. On Sunday’s opening goal, Rodriguez collected Holiday’s ball, hesitated, and softly placed the ball over an oncoming Hope Solo for the early lead.

Rodriguez’s second goal was a thing of beauty from Holiday, who carved up four Seattle defenders on the right side of the penalty box before getting endline and slotting a ball back to Rodriguez near the penalty spot for the left-footed finish.

Amy Rodriguez scored twice Sunday to lift FC Kansas City to the NWSL Championship. (Photo Copyright Patti Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Amy Rodriguez scored twice Sunday to lift FC Kansas City to the NWSL Championship. (Photo Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

“I feel like today’s game wasn’t necessarily our best, but luckily I was able to get two chances and finish them,” Rodriguez said. “I can’t thank my midfielders, especially Lauren Holiday (enough). She has made me look so good this season and set up so many amazing passes.”

Feeding off of the cozy but vibrant home atmosphere, Seattle started the match on the front foot, swarming FC Kansas City at every opportunity. The high pressure caused a series of early cough-ups by the Blues, but a usually potent Seattle attack couldn’t convert the chances into goals.

Reign forward Nahomi Kawasumi started the early onslaught, sending a searching cross into the box in the 3rd minute that failed to find the head of a teammate. And Jess Fishlock nearly created a counterattack a few minutes later, but Kansas City’s defense weathered the storm.

[MORE: Andonovski's gameplan pays off, KC rules the day  |  Harvey: Opportunity lost for Reign]

Seattle goalkeeper Hope Solo didn’t touch the ball until 15 minutes into the match, but soon after the visitors swung the momentum, gaining confidence through lateral play that settled down the match. Right back Leigh Ann Robinson found rookie left back Kassey Kallman on a big switch in the 19th minute, creating a 2-v-1 that pitted Kallman and Erika Tymrak against Reign right back Elli Reed.

From there, the mood at Starfire Stadium shifted, and in an instant Kansas City settled into the game. Rookie Jenna Richmond ripped a half-volley from 18 yards out that ticked off the side of the post, and a minute later, Rodriguez found net for the opener.

Seattle nearly answered a minute later, when 2014 league MVP Kim Little forced Nicole Barnhart into a kick-save at the near post.

Barnhart came up big again to start the second half before Rodriguez scored her second, helping lift FC Kansas City to the title after the Blues fell in the semifinals last season.

And while a flurry of chances at the end of the match for Seattle nearly produced an equalizer, one goal late was all the Reign could create. Rapinoe’s goal game seconds after substitute Mariah Nogueira hit the crossbar on a header, and Rapinoe and Fishlock both sent chances wide in second-half stoppage time.

“There comes a point when you’ve got to go for it and we went for it at about 80 minutes by going three at the back and pushing bodies forward,” Reign FC coach Laura Harvey said. “It paid off, it just probably didn’t pay off early enough for us.”

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The Equalizer’s 2014 NWSL final predictions http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/31/nwsl-final-predictions-seattle-reign-fc-kansas-city/ http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/31/nwsl-final-predictions-seattle-reign-fc-kansas-city/#comments Sun, 31 Aug 2014 06:42:34 +0000 http://womens.soccerly.com/?p=16336 Amy Rodriguez could be key for FC Kansas City.  (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Amy Rodriguez could be key for FC Kansas City. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

TUKWILA, Wash. — Seattle Reign FC and FC Kansas City are set for Sunday’s NWSL final (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at Starfire Stadium. The Equalizer has been covering all of the buildup here throughout the week.

The Basics

Dan Lauletta: This is a rare final between the two best teams who also happen to be the two most attractive teams to watch.  FC Kansas City likes to play the ball through each third with a roster stocked with players who are comfortable on the ball.  The Reign like to run counters through Jess Fishlock and Keelin Winters, played through MVP Kim Little, who has options open with Megan Rapinoe and Nahomi Kawasumi playing wide rolls up top as well as outside backs Elli Reed and Stephanie Cox more than willing to jump into the attack as well.  The 1-1 draw in Kansas City on May 21 was a glimpse into just how much fun this one could be.  Both teams were extraordinarily loose during Saturday training sessions.  If they both play to that mentality, this has all the makings of a classic.

Jeff Kassouf: There’s been a lot of talk this week in Seattle about this being “the right final,” and as cliche as that is, the overall message is true. Seattle and Kansas City have been the two best teams of the season and both have been rewarded with the shot at their first franchise championships. The other word tossed around quite often this week has been “shape,” something I am always anxious to see play out in a given matchup. On Sunday, the distinct shape and style of Kansas City’s 4-2-3-1 has been masterfully groomed over the last two seasons will meet Seattle’s extremely successful 4-3-3. Whoever wins the game of shape — likely in the midfield — will win the game.

Reign key player

Dan Lauletta: Elli Reed’s presence was missed in the semifinal when she was forced to sit out with a knee sprain.  She returned to full training on Thursday and is expected to be in the XI on Sunday.  But if Reed is not at full strength it will open time and space for Erika Tymrak, and if she has to stay at home more than usual it will take pressure of Kassey Kallman in her role trying to contain Nahomi Kawasumi.

Jeff Kassouf: Kim Little is quite obviously the catalyst of Seattle Reign FC and the team’s key player. But looking beyond the obvious, Keelin Winters’ ability to own the midfield defensively could make the difference for Seattle. She’ll need to shut down Lauren Holiday and then find the feet of Little or Fishlock to start the attack.

Insight from Vlatko Andonovski: “With Portland we knew that Vero is the one that makes everyone else better. The ball had to come from Vero first and go through everyone else from there. So we knew that if we stopped the supply to Vero, we’re pretty much stopping the offense. Here, if we stop Little, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re stopping the offense. The ball goes to Rapinoe, here’s another channel, the ball goes to Kawasumi, then that’s another channel. There are channels everywhere, we just have to be quick in the decisions and tweaking our system as we go.”

Kansas City key player

Dan Lauletta: Jen Buczkowski’s sterling performance against Veronica Boquete last weekend was another reminder that she has never gotten enough appreciation for her play.  It is likely she will be asked to play a similar role against Kim Little, but with Little’s options more far and wide than Boquete’s it will be even more important for Buczkowski to make well-timed tackles and not be so aggressive as to allow Little free space behind her.

Jeff: Totally agree on Buczkowski. If she has a great game, Kansas City will have a great game. But similarly, and farther up the field, Amy Rodriguez’s ability to bury the chances she gets could be the difference between FC Kansas City getting a result or going home unhappy. She has experience in championship matches, and will be looking to make turn the table on this result.

Reign bench

Dan Lauletta: Beverly Goebel did a fine job starting in Megan Rapinoe’s absence earlier in the season and is one of two trump cards at Laura Harvey’s disposal.  The other is to bring on Kate Deines or Mariah Nogueira to tamp things down in midfield and send Little forward where she can mix it up closer to the goal.

Jeff Kassouf: Nogueira coming in and pushing Little higher up the field would suggest that Seattle would be trailing. If that’s the case, this move, along with maybe the addition of Beverly Goebel to the match.

Kansas City bench

Dan Lauletta: Going on the notion that Vlatko Andonovski goes with a 4-2-3-1 (he said it worked perfectly in the semifinal), he will have Sarah Hagen on the bench if he needs a goal, and either way he will have former WPS Defender of the Year Amy LePeilbet to bring on if he is looking to kill off the match.  Other options include Morgan Marlborough, especially to exploit her size against a smallish Reign squad; and high energy forward and former Reign Liz Bogus.

Jeff Kassouf: Hagen should be useful in either scenario for Kansas City. If the Blues are losing, Andonovski can add her to the fold to push for an equalizer. It the Blues are winning, Hagen gives KC strong hold-up play up top that potentially could help kill off a game. but it’s that piece that was missing from last year, when FCKC had nobody to come in and push for an equalizer in these scenarios.


Lauletta’s prediction:  Both teams have the ability to fluster the other, but in the end FC Kansas City’s style allows them less margin for error especially as they try to gradually work the ball out from the back against the high-pressure defending of the Reign forwards.  FC Kansas City will keep it close and interesting, but the Reign will pull away late for a 3-1 win to cap their sensational season.

Kassouf’s prediction: As much as I’d love to see a high-scoring game, I think we’re due for an entertaining chess match that could be decided with just a goal. And this is just my gut, but Sydney Leroux has been vastly overlooked on this talented Reign side, and this could be her time to stake her claim, score and deliver a 1-0 win and a championship.

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Reign run on Little, who exceeds highest expectations http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/30/kim-little-nwsl-mvp-seattle-reign-catalyst/ http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/30/kim-little-nwsl-mvp-seattle-reign-catalyst/#comments Sun, 31 Aug 2014 00:10:13 +0000 http://womens.soccerly.com/?p=16315 Kim Little scored 16 goals en route to an MVP honor. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Kim Little scored 16 goals en route to an MVP honor. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

TUKWILA, Wash. – Nine months ago, Seattle Reign FC coach Laura Harvey introduced the NWSL and U.S. soccer consumers to Kim Little, signing the Scottish international for the 2014 season.

Harvey said she had “no doubt that [Little’s] creativity and goal-scoring ability will prove an exciting proposition for the NWSL.”

Man, did Harvey undersell that.

Fast-forward and Little is the MVP, having put together the most dominant season-long performance in the National Women’s Soccer League’s two-year history. She scored 16 goals – six from the penalty spot – and added seven assists en route to leading Seattle to Sunday’s NWSL Championship against FC Kansas City.

Little is, quite simply, the focal point of the Reign.

“Finding players that work well within the system that work well within their own positions, I think that that’s a true testament to Kim,” Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “We try to play through her. She clogs up a lot and then she can’t find space then she can pop it out to Naho (Kawasumi), who is scoring goals and creating chances for other people.”

[MORE: 2014 NWSL final coverage  |  Kawasumi, Reign bonded on language of soccer]

The 24-year-old, 5-foot-4-inch Scotswoman started her career with Hibernian in Scotland before a 2008 move to Arsenal, where she played under now Seattle Reign coach Laura Harvey.

Kim Little said she had no expectations when coming into the NWSL, where she has thrived. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Kim Little said she had no expectations when coming into the NWSL, where she has thrived. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Harvey took over the Reign from its inception, guiding the team through a rough first season in 2013. In her first offseason, Harvey called her old player, Little, to discuss the idea of playing in the NWSL. Harvey says she told Little that it would be a challenge, and the midfielder has risen to the occasion and then some.

“She’s gone to a different level then when I coached her at Arsenal,” Harvey said. “Her game’s just gone two or three steps higher up, and I always believed she had the potential to be one of the best players in the world and I think she’s proven it in this league that she is.”

Little was up for the challenge of playing in the NWSL, but humbly said Saturday that she entered the league with no expectations.

“When I played with Laura at Arsenal, I occasionally played the No. 9 position at different stages of the season,” Little said. “But my favorite role, I think when I’m at my best, is when I play at the 10. I enjoy going forward in the No. 9 position. I feel like I can find spaces where I can get a shot or a goal later in the game.”

What followed was a season of highlight reel goals and assists, as well as a vision for the field few – if any – have across the league. FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski’s side — and particularly holding midfielders Jen Buczkowski and rookie Jenna Richmond — is tasked with stopping Little , much like Portland’s Veronica Boquete in the semifinal.

“The thing is with Little, is she does everything that Vero does, but also she adds a little more offense individually, and we are going to have to bring numbers around her a lot quicker than what we did last game. Otherwise, I think she’ll destroy us. She’s good.”

Among Little’s 16 goals were critical, headline moments that kept the Reign unbeaten through the first 16 games of the season.

Little’s first seminal moment came on May 10, when she scored an 89th minute goal away against rival Portland to lift Seattle past the Thorns in the biggest match of the franchise’s short history.

She scored another crucial goal on May 25, a 92nd minute equalizer against the Western New York Flash. And Little would strike again on August 9, finding an 89th minute equalizer vs. the Washington Spirit. Whether it was clutch timing or a world-class goal from the run of play, Little came through when Seattle needed her, and Seattle ran through Little. In last weekend’s semifinal the Spirit mostly contained Little in midfield, but when it came time to level the match from the spot, Little calmly accepted and conquered the challenge — twice as it turned out after an encroachment call forced a retake.

“You kind of take for granted sometimes when you play and train and play in games with these players, and they have these incredible, special moments where it just kind of hits you and you feel really lucky to be able to play together,” Rapinoe said.

Little has produced plenty of those special moments all year. On Sunday, she’ll be looking for one more.

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Kawasumi, Reign bonded on language of soccer http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/30/nahomi-kawasumi-seattle-reign-language-soccer-nwsl-final/ http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/30/nahomi-kawasumi-seattle-reign-language-soccer-nwsl-final/#comments Sat, 30 Aug 2014 23:29:41 +0000 http://womens.soccerly.com/?p=16316 Nahomi Kawasumi made the jump from Japan to Seattle and quickly took blended her game with the Reign's. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Nahomi Kawasumi made the jump from Japan to Seattle and quickly blended her game with the Reign’s. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

TUKWILA, Wash., — Ask anyone to click off the names of the most important Seattle Reign FC players and it could be awhile before the name Nahomi Kawasumi comes up. But the player known simply as “Naho” has been vital in the club’s turnaround that now stands one win from a championship.

“Just love her,” Megan Rapinoe said of her Japanese teammate, who was named to the NWSL Best XI this week. “First and foremost she’s just a great person. She’s come right in…knowing how difficult it is to go overseas, if you know the language or not, it’s still difficult. It’s far from home and you have to adjust to so many different things. Just a huge credit to her to be able to come and really fit seamlessly right in. We accepted her right away.”

Naho was a regular player on the Japan teams that upset the United States in the 2011 World Cup final and nearly again before settling for the silver at the Olympic Games a year later. But she never considered playing club soccer anywhere besides Japan until this summer.

[MORE: Complete coverage of the 2014 NWSL final  |  Reign run on Little, 2014 NWSL MVP]

“Last year at the beginning of the season I just felt I wanted to come here,” Kawasumi said through a translator. “If something comes to my mind I just do it. And this was something I decided.”

Her decision has yielded great things for the Reign. Kawasumi plays the game with an astute, tactical awareness and can cross the ball on a dime with either foot.

“She’s unbelievable. She can pick anyone out with both feet, which is brilliant,” Rapinoe said. “It’s always nice being on the far post, I know that if I’m open she can find me. It’s been a pleasure to play with her.”

Rapinoe stopped short of calling herself and Kawasumi the two best crossers of the ball in the world—“You can’t say that about yourself”—but their coach Laura Harvey said, “For me they are.

“Naho is an exceptional crosser of the ball. And Pinoe is one of those players that’s just so unorthodox in the way that she does things, but the end product is always good. So you get quality from both sides of the field.”

Asked where she learned how to cross, Naho said it was mostly out of necessity. “I didn’t learn, but since I can’t finish the cross that comes my way so I just realized that if I put a good cross then somebody else can finish.”

Kim Little, in a separate interview, also threw left back Stephanie Cox into the discussion for best crosser of the ball on the planet. That debate aside, the Reign use their precision passing to make up for their decided lack of height all over the pitch.

“Oh my God I think so,” Rapinoe said when asked if she was the tallest Reign attacker. “This is so bizarre. I’m having to go in and be a marker on corners. I don’t really see myself as a tall player.”

Harvey said the lack of a traditional target player was not a factor in building the team over the winter. “I think we’re a team that can score from many different angles. You look at Syd (Leroux) and Bev (Goebel), they add a little bit of height to that. But yes our wide players are short. Jess (Fishlock) is surprisingly very dominant in the air for someone who’s so small. But we brought them in because of the talent that they have with their feet. It’s proven to be successful so far and hopefully it will be (in the final.)”

Rapinoe reminded everyone that, “Even Naho scored this year with her head.” (July 27 against the Thorns.)

Naho is not only good with her feet, but with her ideas.

“For someone who doesn’t speak the same language as what we do, she’s very vocal inside the locker room in terms of things that she thinks we need to be better at,” Harvey said. “At half times she gets the tactics board out and shows the players what she thinks should be happening. Nine times out of 10 they’re exactly what I was thinking myself.”

Everyone around the Reign agrees that she has helped make the club better by blending parts of her Japanese soccer heritage with the Reign’s style.

“I think there are great things about Japanese football and great things about the U.S.,” Kawasumi said. “But the players that we have in Seattle, it’s more so they fit into Japanese football. So I think it was easier (to blend in). With Japanese football it’s not about speed, it’s not about power, but it’s about possession. It’s not something that we go straight to the goal. It’s how we connect with each other and how we get to the goal.”

Rapinoe agreed about Kawasumi’s strengths.

“As a player she’s just fantastic,” Rapinoe added. “She’s not the biggest or the fastest, but she finds space wherever whether that’s wide or coming in. She can score goals, she can set up. (She brings) that style from the Japanese national team into this team.”

Kawasumi leaves after the final to return to INAC Kobe in Japan. She has been telling anyone who has asked that she would like to be back with the Reign in 2015, but adds, “I don’t promise.”

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Fletcher’s addition, improved chemistry led to Seattle’s league-best defense, run to NWSL final http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/30/seattle-reign-defense-kendall-fletcher-nwsl-championship-preview/ http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/30/seattle-reign-defense-kendall-fletcher-nwsl-championship-preview/#comments Sat, 30 Aug 2014 15:41:41 +0000 http://womens.soccerly.com/?p=16307 Kendall Fletcher has been a key addition to a league-best Seattle Reign FC defense. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Kendall Fletcher has been a key addition to a league-best Seattle Reign FC defense. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

TUKWILA, Wash. – From second-from-bottom, unremarkable team in 2013 to far and away league-leaders and most dominant team this season, Seattle Reign FC’s transformation has been nothing short of incredible.

Kim Little’s insertion into the side has drawn the headlines. The 24-year-old Scotswoman took the league by storm this season, scoring a league-high 16 goals en route to an obvious MVP selection.

Japanese international Nahomi Kawasumi more quietly chipped in nine goals and five assists. Jess Fishlock added a league-high five assists from a deeper midfield role. The team scored 50 goals in 24 regular season matches.

Seattle’s front six – which is interchangeable with about eight players – is in large part why the Reign lost only two of 24 regular season games and are hosting Sunday’s NWSL final against FC Kansas City. But somewhat lost in the glamour of the goals and the fluent buildup play from the Reign is a defense whose personnel hardly changed, but whose performance morphed into the league’s best.

[MORE: Complete coverage of the 2014 NWSL final  |  Deines, Kopmeyer make most of chances]

The addition of center back Kendall Fletcher and the inclusion of Hope Solo for the full season after an injury to start 2013 are the only big changes. Elli Reed still mans the right side, Stephanie Cox the left and Lauren Barnes in the center of the defense.

But unlike last season’s disjointed effort and revolving door at center back – Kaylyn Kyle, Emily Zurrer, Kate Dienes, Kiersten Dallstream – collectively, the back four has turned into the league’s best, giving up 20 goals in 24 matches and never conceding more than twice in a single match, in a league where scoring increased dramatically in year two.

“I think a lot of the work that they did last year has paid off this year,” says Fletcher, who spent time in Australia and Sweden since WPS folded, before coming back to the United States. “I know a couple of us have come in, but you can see the work that they did and the environment that they tried to create and the way that they tried to play. It doesn’t just come together in one season. They did a lot of the work last year and then obviously we’ve come in and been able to jump into that really well.”

Fletcher earned Best XI honors and was arguably the best center back in the league in 2014 (with her primary competitor being Becky Sauerbrunn, the two-time NWSL Defender of the Year, lining up on the other side of the field on Sunday). Barnes and Cox were voted into the second XI, and the absence of Reed from either is a curious omission.

“This is a wonderful back line to play with,” Fletcher said. “It’s hard to speak about any one of us individually, because I think as a back line, as a group we are one of the best if not best defenses in the league. That’s a credit to all of us, but collectively not individually.”

Fletcher’s deflection of praise aside, she’s been nothing short of brilliant all season for the league’s best defense.

“I think Kendall has been one of our unsung heroes,” Reign coach Laura Harvey said. “We got a lot of media attention last year and in the buildup to this season about our back line and how it hasn’t changed that much. I think if you look at our back line from last year to this year, she’s the only real addition to that. And I think she’s been a huge addition.”

Reed, who says the MCL sprain in her left knee that held her out of last weekend’s semifinal is “feeling good” and “getting better every day,” has seen the changes first hand. Fletcher has brought a comfort to Reed’s game, and Hope Solo’s 0.90 goals against average in net – plus Haley Kopmeyer’s 0.50 GAA in four games – has completed the defensive puzzle in the Emerald City.

“I think Hope is the best goalkeeper in the world, so she saves us here and there, absolutely,” Reed says with a laugh, acknowledging the help. “It’s just a confidence knowing that you have that behind you. With Kendall, I think that we’ve had a really good partnership over this season. I’ve never played with her before, so we’ve gotten to learn how each other plays throughout the season and I trust her 100 percent. I know where she’ll be and when I can play her the ball. It’s been a really good partnership for us.”

On Sunday, Seattle takes on FC Kansas City in the league final (“the right final,” as Fishlock and many others have called it). The Blues were long a lock for the No. 2 seed in the league, much like the Reign’s place atop the NWSL all season. Amy Rodriguez scored 13 goals in the regular season – second only to Little – and 2013 MVP Lauren Holiday had seven assists in her playmaking role.

The Blues could line up in their customary 4-2-3-1 formation, where Rodriguez is a focal point up top, Holiday plays creator, Erika Tymrak works her magic on the wing and Jen Buczkowski and Jenna Richmond destroy and create from deeper roles.

“I think both teams have similar styles. We both pride ourselves on having good shape,” Reed said.

Kansas City has given the Reign some trouble this season. Seattle beat the Blues in their first meeting, but tied them twice. Kansas City led in both of the latter matches, forcing Seattle to find equalizers.

“They keep the ball against us better than most teams do, which is something that we don’t like because we like to high pressure,” Fletcher said. “When we get impatient with that, when we get frustrated with that, they tend to have a bit more success. When we are able to impose what we do well and keep our shape well and make it hard for them, then I think it shifts back in our direction. But I think they do every similar things that we do to them, and so it’s just a chess match.”

Practices often can’t emulate matches, but in Seattle’s case, the best preparation for a potent FC Kansas City attack is, by the numbers, an even better offense: Seattle’s own.

“As a back line, we go against our attack every day in training,” Fletcher said. “If you want to get prepared for a game, that’s a pretty good way to do it.”

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FC Kansas City teammates laud Sauerbrunn as world’s best center back http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/29/becky-sauerbrunn-kansas-city-nwsl-final-best-centerback-world/ http://womens.soccerly.com/2014/08/29/becky-sauerbrunn-kansas-city-nwsl-final-best-centerback-world/#comments Sat, 30 Aug 2014 02:55:43 +0000 http://womens.soccerly.com/?p=16304 Becky Sauerbrunn is considered by teammates and some opponents to be the best center back in the world. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Becky Sauerbrunn is considered by teammates and some opponents to be the best center back in the world. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the short history of the National Women’s Soccer League, FC Kansas City has enjoyed the most success on the field. Offensively, Lauren Holiday, Erika Tymrak, and Amy Rodriguez light up the scoreboard, but an argument can be made that their success stems from their defense more than anything. Kansas City has accumulated a .609 winning percentage in two seasons, only allowing 54 goals and accumulating more shutout victories than any other team.

The undisputed leader of that defense, Becky Sauerbrunn, was named the 2014 NWSL Defender of the Year on Tuesday. This is the second year in a row that she earned the award, making her the only repeat-winner in NWSL history.

From the outside, a person needs to only attend one of FCKC’s training sessions to see the impact Sauerbrunn has on her team.

As players arrive on the training field and begin stretching, they all keep an eye on their captain. All conversations and activities stop the moment Sauerbrunn begins to take a light jog around the field. Suddenly, the entire team forms behind her for the unofficial start to practice.

Coming from ‘The Show Me State’, the St. Louis, Mo., native takes her state’s motto to heart as she prefers to lead with her actions on the field.

“She’s definitely a lead by example person,” says veteran defender Leigh Ann Robinson. “When we’re doing technical drills at practice, things like that, she’s always doing them to a ‘T’. You look at her and think, ‘ok that’s how I’m going to work…that’s how I’m going to do it.’ Obviously, being around great players makes you better, but she’s made our entire back line a whole other level better.”

[MORE: Complete coverage of 2014 NWSL final  |  KC looking to bring another title to city]

In two seasons with FC Kansas City, Sauerbrunn has directed the team to fewer goals allowed, more shutouts and more wins than any other team. Incredibly, in 41 games along the way she has committed only seven fouls and been given one yellow card.

“She’s so good at what she does and so smart, she doesn’t need to foul,” said rookie and fellow defender Kassey Kallman. “It’s not that she’s not aggressive, because she is. She just doesn’t need to foul to get the ball. When someone from the other team is passing the ball up the field, Becky leaves to pick off the pass before it’s even left her foot. She rarely steps and doesn’t win the ball.”

Kallman was FC Kansas City’s first round draft pick in 2014 and has been a starter on the team’s backline for much of the season. Joining a backline with Sauerbrunn, Robinson and Nikki Phillips, three players who have all represented their national teams at the highest level, she appreciates any help she can get.

“It’s pretty awesome being on the backline with her, especially my rookie year,” says Kallman. “I’ve learned so much from her. If I have questions I’ll go up to her, if she sees something she’ll point it out to me, but just watching her…her positioning, her winning the ball, and even her offensive play. I learn from all of those things.”

Sauerbrunn made a name for herself playing in WPS and is often cited as one of the reasons having a domestic professional league is so important.

After a head-turning season with the Washington Freedom, she was a last-minute addition to the 2011 Women’s World Cup qualifying roster. She ended up making the team that traveled to Germany and then filled in admirably during the semifinal match while Rachel Buehler was suspended. Since then, she has been called to nearly every USWNT camp and has solidified her position as a starting center back for FIFA’s number one ranked team.

“I think she’s the best defender in the world,” says Lauren Holiday, her teammate on both FC Kansas City and the national team. “There are lots of good players, but she is the best at what she does, hands down.”

That’s an honor others have bestowed upon Sauerbrunn, including Portland Thorns FC coach Paul Riley before last week’s semifinal.

“I feel like she makes everyone else’s job around her so easy,” adds Robinson. “Not only is she commanding our back line and keeping everyone on point, but she’s also winning balls and then distributing into our midfielders…into our forwards to where we can then create an attack off of her.”

Vlatko Andonovski (right) and Becky Sauerbrunn. (Photo Copyright: Thad Bell | http://www.tpbphoto.com/)

Vlatko Andonovski (right) and Becky Sauerbrunn. (Photo Copyright: Thad Bell | http://www.tpbphoto.com/)

What fans love about Sauerbrunn, is that she is so approachable off the field. Most often, she is the last one off the field following a game as she tries not to miss a single autograph request, photo opportunity or media interview. She is equally comfortable with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati or a member of the Blue Crew supporters group.

“I think the coolest part is how she’s the best player in the country…the world and you don’t even feel that when you’re around her,” Kallman remarks. “She’s down to earth, so normal, always looking to talk to anyone. You don’t realize how ‘big-time’ you are around her because she is so humble.”

In December 2012, after the initial NWSL allocations were announced, Sauerbrunn was the first player to visit Kansas City. Coming in for a quick publicity tour, she signed hundreds of autographs and joined the broadcast crew of a Missouri Comets game at halftime.

In that interview she mentioned many times about how excited she was to be coming to the city. She laid out many goals she had for her time here. Chief among them were to help fans embrace FC Kansas City, to help her team be successful on the field and to help bring home a championship.

Sauerbrunn has knocked down two of those goals. This Sunday she could go three-for-three as her team faces Seattle Reign FC for the NWSL championship. Win or lose, one thing is for sure: Kansas City’s defense is in good hands with her in control.

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