KANSAS CITY, Mo. — FC Kansas City has another chance to secure a playoff spot Saturday night against Seattle Reign FC, in what many people are expecting to be a preview of the 2014 NWSL Championship Game. This match will feature the top two teams in the league, with Seattle having clinched first and Kansas City distancing itself from the pack.
The Seattle Reign have taken the NWSL by storm this season, breaking records along the way and clinching the regular season title with a win on Wednesday night. The team that set those records in 2013, FC Kansas City, has been close behind for most of the season. While Seattle won their first seven games and suffered their only loss on July 12, Kansas City has gone undefeated at home and put together their own nine-game unbeaten streak.
As Seattle is enjoying their run through the NWSL regular season, Kansas City’s head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, has been here before and knows the dangers of looking too far ahead.
In 2013 FC Kansas City sat alone in first place with three games remaining. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the team would be able to pick up the points it needed to secure a playoff spot and the first NWSL Shield.
A win against Portland on August 4, 2013, put the team on cruise control. Needing just one point to accomplish their regular season goals, they lost both of their remaining regular season games, allowing a 65th minute goal against Boston and a 92nd minute goal against Chicago. Follow that up with an overtime loss to Portland in the semifinals and the league’s most decorated team for much of the first season found themselves watching the final at home on their couches.
This season is much different in Kansas City. The team has been all business as they head down the stretch, and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart sees the changes.
“I think one of the things that hurt us in the playoffs was fatigue and tiredness,” she said. “We’re still playing the same style of soccer as we did last year, that’s not going to change. This year, with some of the different personnel we have now, it allows us to have slightly different looks and formations.”
In the past five matches, Kansas City has trotted out four different lineups, and never the same one in consecutive matches. Only five players have started all five matches in July (Barnhart, Becky Sauerbrunn, Jen Buczkowski, Leigh Ann Robinson and Sarah Hagen).
Andonovski has used the past month to tinker with his lineup and give some of his players a chance to rest. Newcomer Katrina Gorry has lined up as a holding midfielder, attacking midfielder and forward. Amy LePeilbet has seen time on the back line as well as in the midfield. Even the league’s second leading goal-scorer, Amy Rodriguez, earned a rest and came off the bench on Wednesday.
With one notable exception, the lineup shuffling has not hurt his team’s on-field productivity. They earned points in three of the matches and maintained their perfect home record.
The success, despite the changes, can be credited to the defense, according to Barnhart. FC Kansas City has the third best goals-against average in the league and a better goal differential than every team except Seattle.
“Our back line has been the most consistent on the field. Sure, there have been a few changes here or there, but overall it’s pretty solid.”
As they prepare for the Reign in Kansas City on Saturday, Barnhart likes their chances against the league-leaders.
“We are ready to get the three points and seal it up,” the 2013 NWSL Goalkeeper of the year said of home-field advantage and the No. 2 seed. “We don’t want it to stretch on more than it has to.”
Most importantly, the team wants to keep playing at home, where they have yet to lose in 2014. The match Saturday is expected to be sold out and the hope from team officials is that will parlay into strong crowds for a home semifinal.
The likelihood of FC Kansas City hosting their second NWSL semifinal match in 2014 is high. A win against Seattle or a tie, coupled with a Portland loss, would essentially guarantee that.
However, don’t expect the Blues’ players to let up at all. The veterans of last year’s team have something to prove, and the new players have bought in completely. They expect to win, but now know they have to earn it. And Seattle is coming in hot after beating Portland 5-0 last week and topping Houston 4-1 in the midweek.
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