A year ago, the Seattle Reign was the on the verge of something that was as close to a perfect season as -- thanks to that "parity" word that gets thrown around these parts a bunch -- is possible in the NWSL. The Reign had spent the league's inaugural season stuck near the bottom of the table, mired in a losing record so thick it seemed impossible they could ever escape. That Seattle team's first win didn't come until 12 games into the season. Before that, they'd registered just two points, and those felt more like a consolation than anything else.
By the end of the 2013 season, the Reign had racked up a 5-14-3 record, and crawled out of the basement, thanks in large part to the even more inept Washington Spirit, who finished in last that year at a dismal 3-14-5.
A season later, Seattle would finish atop the table, winning the regular season shield with just two losses in 24 games. How do you go from worst to first? You let head coach Laura Harvey have free reign. You take your USWNT allocation of Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe, add internationals like Kim Little, Jess Fishlock and Naho Kawasumi, and find ways to turn the spare parts into something you can use. And the ones you can't? Trade them for something you can, and then trade them again.
For Seattle's near perfect season though, a trip to the final was one game too many. So many times during that season, the Reign would run over teams with dominating performances from start to finish. But in others, and more and more as the season progressed, the Reign got to not losing though doing just enough, late heroics and comebacks after spending most of the game just kind of going through the motions. They'd taken the latter route in the semifinal against the Spirit, pulling off the win all in the last 18 minutes, but by the final against Kansas City, the comeback well had finally run dry. It would be FCKC, not Seattle, who claimed the 2014 championship with a 2-1 win.
Where Seattle felt like a roller coaster, that long time at the bottom, an even longer climb and the endless anticipation of when or if that big drop would come, FC Kansas City has always been more of this park's Lazy River. There are no wild swings, no flash, little flair. Just steady. Maybe there's a section of rapids, but they're like, your great-grandma's rapids.
The Blues are the only team in the NWSL to make it to the postseason in all three years of the league's existence. They've never finished outside of the top three, and this season's third place finish was the first time Vlatko Andonovski's team even finished lower than second.
In 2013, while then-perennial powerhouse Western NY and league-darlings Portland dominated the headlines at the top, and Seattle and Washington were taking care of the Benny Hill hijinks at the bottom, FC Kansas City was quietly rolling along. They were good, but they weren't going to tell you about it, and they didn't really need to. The Blues finished that season with an 11-6-5 record, setting up a semifinal meeting with the Thorns. But that's where the wheels came off, as FCKC let a 2-0 lead evaporate into a 3-2 extra time loss. Portland would go on to beat Western NY in Rochester for the league's inaugural title.
But where Seattle needed to buy a whole new car after that season, Kansas City needed only an oil change, and maybe to rotate the tires.
The Blues came back in 2014 largely unchanged, and the results stayed that way, too. A 12-7-5 record, another second-place finish, another semifinal meeting with the Thorns complete with a 2-0 FCKC lead. But where the Thorns had fought back from that deficit the season before, this time around the league's defending champions forgot to even show up, registering just a single shot on goal through the entire game. The 2-0 win put FC Kansas City through the final, setting up the meeting with Seattle. Again, Kansas City took a 2-0 lead, and while Rapinoe would bring the Reign back within one, it wasn't until the 86th minute and the game would end 2-1, with Seattle's too little, too late becoming FC Kansas City's first NWSL title.
A year later, we're back here, with Seattle and FC Kansas City again set to face off in the championship game. One with a chance to become the first team to win both a regular season tittle and the championship, the other looking to become the first two-time NWSL champions. So is Seattle the favorite? Another first-place finish, the league's best offense, some demons to exorcise. Or is it FC Kansas City? A chance to repeat, the league's best defense, a perfect farewell for Lauren Holiday in what will be her final professional game. Favorite? I guess it depends on if you like the Lazy River or the roller coaster.
How we got here
Seattle beat Washington, 3-0, in their semifinal. FC Kansas City topped Chicago by the same score in theirs.
Seattle and FC Kansas City have met twice this season. Each team won the game on their home field.
Player to watch: Lauren Holiday (FC Kansas City)
Both of theses teams are good enough, or stacked enough, that basically anyone and everyone is a player you should watch. But this will be the final professional game, win or lose, of Lauren Holiday's career (she'll still play in whatever Victory Tour stuff the USWNT has left). The 28 year-old Holiday has spent all three years that the NWSL has existed with FCKC, and won the Golden Boot and MVP awards in 2013. She played with the Boston Breakers in WPS in 2010 and 2011 after being drafted second overall out of UCLA. She's also been capped more than 100 times with the USWNT, and appeared in two World Cups and two Olympics.
Key matchup: Defense (FC Kansas City) vs. Offense (Seattle Reign FC)
FC Kansas City isn't exactly a low-scoring team, but where the Blues really shine is defense. Through the regular season they allowed only 20 goals, the fewest in the league. And while Seattle's goals-against number isn't a total disappointment - they allowed just one more goal than FCKC, the Reign's particular strong suit is offense. Seattle scored a league-high 41 goals in 2015.
Who else is here from the World Cup?
I am still terrible at predictions, but why not
2-2. Seattle wins on penalties, but then Laura Harvey trades the trophy to Boston for next season's first-round pick. The Breakers accept but then immediately lose the trophy and it's still unclear how the league plans to deal with this, but they're hoping that by just reminding everyone over and over again that there will in fact be a next season, no one will notice when they finally just make up some arbitrary rule to resolve the issue.
Match date/time: Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET, 6:30 p.m. local
Venue: Providence Park, Portland, OR
TV: Fox Sports 1
Online: Fox Sports Go