Once again, Seattle won the NWSL Shield by a wide margin. And once again, FC Kansas City lifted the Cup.
Last year, the Reign outshot FCKC 14-5 and lost 2-1. This time around, Seattle had the better of the play in stretches but was not nearly as dominant, and the 1-0 final score was fair, cruel as it might be to the consistently excellent Reign and their outstanding coach, Laura Harvey.
Here’s what we learned from the compelling final in Portland:
1. The “old guard” still has some life. Fox Sports’ broadcast crew told us U.S. national coach Jill Ellis was there to watch Kansas City winger Heather O’Reilly.
It’d be nice if she also kept an eye on some of the other players — Erika Tymrak, who faded from the national team picture when Ellis took over, played a terrific game — but O’Reilly was her old self. Her cross to Amy Rodriguez, another U.S. veteran, broke the deadlock.
2. Megan Rapinoe can be infuriatingly inconsistent. The Seattle midfielder makes world-class plays look routine. Then she gives the ball away all too casually. Or she dawdles on the ball when her team has numbers forward.
3. NWSL refs can’t avoid controversy. Kansas City’s Jen Buczkowski slid studs-up into Seattle’s Jess Fishlock. Obvious. Blatant. Foul, but no card. Perhaps that could be some consolation for Kansas City when Tymrak got tangled up in the Seattle box with no call.
Becky Sauerbrunn was miffed to get a yellow card for a similar tangle at midfield, while Rapinoe drew a free kick on a play in which she was barely touched, if at all.
4. The neutral-site atmosphere wasn’t bad at all. Portland drew 13,264 fans for a game not involving the Thorns, and they brought the noise — maybe to the chagrin of Hope Solo, who will be hearing “DOD-GY KEE-PER” in her ears for a while. (Solo really wasn’t at fault on the goal.)
5. This game deserves a longer broadcast window. Fox Sports 1 ran canned UFC programming at 9 p.m. ET. At 9:30, we got some utterly frivolous selfie videos from each team and a lightning-quick look at the starting lineups, then kickoff. No discussion of either team’s starters or tactics. In we go.
Women’s soccer fans are more sophisticated than the media think. They weren’t buying a lot of the abundantly cheerful coverage of a struggling U.S. team in the World Cup this summer. (To Fox’s credit, they had commentators willing to be candid.)
Soccer storylines are better when they’re not “rah-rah, hard work and the good guys win.” They’re better when we see teams struggle and then put it all together. They’re better when we get a sense of why something happened — an explanation that goes beyond the “she’s such a special player and person” cliches.
Fox also cut the postgame festivities short for an awkward transition to Fox Sports Live. Again, unnecessary.
6. Finals do funny things to teams. Seattle clinically dismantled the Washington Spirit in the semifinals, outshooting a solid team 18-3. If not for Ashlyn Harris, the score would’ve been much worse than 3-0. Simply put, everything worked.
Maybe the long layoff since Sept. 13 broke the Reign’s rhythm? Maybe they’re just twice unlucky?
In any case, this just didn’t look like the same Seattle team. Fishlock, perhaps hobbled from her run-in with Buczkowski, had minimal impact. Kim Little was kept under wraps. The defense struggled to deal with O’Reilly and Tymrak on the wings.
But Kansas City is, once again, a worthy winner. The back four — 2011 WPS champion Rebecca Moros, one-time U.S. callup Leigh Ann Brown (recently changed from Robinson), former national teamer Amy LePeilbet and one of the world’s best in Sauerbrunn — left Nicole Barnhart little to do but scoop up harmless shots. Lauren Holiday, playing her final club game before retirement, is an effective midfield engineer.
And the rest of the league will continue to have a tough time catching up with these two classy teams.