It was a calm, temperate evening at Providence Park in Portland. Meeting yet again in the NWSL playoffs: two of the best teams in the league, Vlatko Andonovski's Kansas City FC and Laura Harvey's Seattle Reign.
Neither team lacking in offensive power, the Reign perhaps more effective in midfield, Kansas City more staunch on defense. The Reign smarting from last year's championship loss to FCKC, FCKC wanting desperately to send off retiring Lauren Holiday with one last trophy. Harvey and Andonovski, both NWSL coaches of the year at one point or another.
Both teams took a few minutes to settle into their games. The Reign perhaps got there first, with more early pressure, probing up the flanks and sending in a few searching balls that Nicole Barnhart read easily and intercepted. FCKC gradually warmed up though, starting to press forward through Lauren Holiday. Amy Rodriguez started to creep towards dangerous positions in front of the net.
Possession grew more back-and-forth as they settled into the game but chances also grew more obvious. Kim Little had a chance to run at Barnhart one-on-one but chose to shoot long range. Amy LePeilbet rushed in on a ball into the box after a free kick and sent her diving header just wide of the post. Corner kicks were exchanged as the ball moved end to end. Keelin Winters fouled Erika Tymrak in a dangerous position in front of the box and enabled a Lauren Holiday free kick that looked good until it was deflected by the Reign wall. Jen Buczkowski went into Jess Fishlock in a tough challenge that left Fishlock in agony on the pitch, though the ref's cards remained in her pocket. The first half ended in a tight 0-0.
The second half started off just as tightly contested and just as end-to-end, though the Reign knocked early. Kendall Fletcher sent in that most deceptive of balls, a shot-cross that just ended up in the top netting over Barnhart. Just a few minutes later Megan Rapinoe nailed the post on a long-range shot. FCKC tried to stretch the game as wide as possible with Tymrak and Heather O'Reilly waiting in the wings. Kendall Fletcher went down in obvious pain after a tussle with Tymrak just inside the 18.
But the first yellow card of the night came for Becky Sauerbrunn in the 77' as she and Kim Little tangled trying to win the race to a long ball.
The first goal came not a minute later in the 78', not a powerful shot but a simple header from Amy Rodriguez placed where Hope Solo couldn't get to it, leaning one way while A-Rod looked the other. Heather O'Reilly's service from wide finally paid off and it was 1-0.
The Reign started pressing hard. A low hard cross found Rapinoe alone in the box, but her one-time shot was directly to Barnhart. The Reign continued pressing, sending in a corner that flew across the face of goal and finally got deflected out wide. Then a 90' free kick, with Hope Solo running up into the box. The ball was sent wide of the far post. Five minutes of stoppage went up on the board.
FCKC ate up some stoppage with a sub, Yael Averbuch in for Mandy Laddish. Then another sub, Sarah Hagen in for Amy Rodriguez. The Reign probed up the right with Elli Reed trying to create some service from the flank, but instead generating turnovers. Hope Solo sent a desperate, searching long ball up the middle. It was their last play of the night. The ref blew; 1-0 to FC Kansas City.
White and blue uniforms converged in the middle of the field in a happy, victorious scrum. Amy Rodriguez hugged Lauren Holiday for a long time, a farewell to her friend and partner. The Reign stood with their hands on their hips, shaking hands here and there. But that was it for a second season in a row, losing by a one-goal margin once again to FC Kansas City.
It wasn't the smoothest game, instead characterized by back-and-forth end-to-end play, but it was exciting and tense, with fans sensing that the outcome would turn on the smallest thing. No blowout or goalfest here, but a fencing match between two experts. It was exactly the kind of game you'd want people to see if you wanted to turn them on to the league, and you can't really ask for more than that.