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.
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.
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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