Amy Rodriguez Delivers NWSL Championship To FC Kansas City
TUKWILA, Wash. -- For a team that spent the past 12 months coming together in an attempt to complete what went unfinished a season ago, Sunday afternoon provided a conclusion. The medals around their necks, not to mention the smiles on their faces, confirmed it even after the scoreboard went dark and fans filed out of Starfire Stadium in this Seattle suburb.
A team that watched a lead and a season slip away in a semifinal one year ago, FC Kansas City is the last team standing. The Blues are champions.
Cue sunset. Roll credits. The end. ...
Except that for the player who scored both of the goals that settled a season in Kansas City's 2-1 win against Seattle Reign FC in the National Women's Soccer League championship game, it might also have been the beginning.
"When the final whistle blew," Kansas City forward Amy Rodriguez said, "I just kept saying, 'What a season. What a season.' Because truly it is. I think I surprised a lot of people by coming back.
"And I think Kansas City surprised a lot of people by coming back this year."
The 2014 NWSL season is complete. One year removed from giving birth to her first child, son Ryan, Rodriguez is just getting started on the 2015 Women's World Cup.
Although it appeared to merely pad a lead Kansas City claimed midway through the first half when Lauren Holiday picked out a Rodriguez run in time for the striker to calmly finish past Hope Solo, the moment that ultimately sealed the league's second championship game came in the 56th minute.
And it came like a lightning bolt.
Back to goal when she received a pass 35 yards from goal, Holiday took off with the ball at her feet and entered a crowd of defenders inside the Seattle 18-yard box like a skier sliding in to the steeps of a double black diamond trail. As on the slopes, to stop or even slow down once committed would have guaranteed calamity. The only chance for success was to keep moving and keep moving quickly, slaloming back and forth between Lauren Barnes and Keelin Winters.
Finally, and surprisingly still upright, she was through the thicket of legs and torsos that seemed certain to halt her.
The only problem was, she no longer had much of an angle from which to shoot.
"I was actually trying to score myself, but they obviously closed me down," Holiday said. "I just tried to get free, and once I got free I saw A-Rod at the top of the penalty spot and I found her."
Not the tallest of strikers, Rodriguez reached at full stretch to complete the connection and sent the ball past Solo and into the back of the net for her second goal of the game and her third in two playoff games. In all three cases, Holiday provided the assist.
For two players who are best friends off the field, the bond proved unbreakable on the field in the postseason.
"They live together, they're good friends, and I think that helps on the field," Kansas City captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. "They played together so much with the national team and youth national teams and things like that, so it's just a chemistry built through the years."
Sunday's win was a complete team effort for Kansas City. It had to be on the road against the No. 1 seed, a team that left the rest of the league in the dust in the regular season and didn't lose in three previous games against Kansas City. The Reign were the favorites for good reason: They lost just twice all season against anyone and looked the part in controlling possession in the first half Sunday.
Even after the game, whether out of graciousness or honesty, Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski said he thought Seattle played the better game on the day.
Playing through injuries, Kansas City goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart upstaged even Solo, whose dominance has long relegated the former to understudy role with the national team. There was little Barnhart could do about the goal Seattle scored with four minutes remaining, Megan Rapinoe's finish coming with the keeper stretched after a flurry of action in front of goal, but she was sure-handed all game.
As was the case in the semifinal win against Portland and its superstar midfielder Vero Boquete, defensive midfielder Jen Buczkowski turned in a full day's work trying to limit NWSL MVP Kim Little's opportunities. And Sauerbrunn, about whom Andonovski said he trusts as essentially player-coach, led a back line that for the second game in a row had to absorb a lot of early pressure and be sure of foot and head throughout with any number of clearances and tackles.
But as much as goals and assists don't always tell the whole story, Holiday and Rodriguez provided the plot Sunday.
The best player on the field for any team during the playoffs, Holiday was already a big name and a national team regular when allocated to Kansas City at the league's inception, but as much as anyone, she has used the opportunity of the professional league to become something more.
"I had a chance to talk to her several times and one thing that I told her, I said that we're going to build this team around her -- as long as she believes in that," Andonovski said. "If she doesn't believe in that, then we've got to find a different player that we can build it around. I asked her: Is she mentally ready to take the load? Is she mentally ready to carry this team? She was up for the challenge. She thought that she could do it."
Even if the ball needs to move all of two feet, Andonovski said, he would like it to go through Holiday.
And when the team had to make a final decision during the offseason on whether to trade for Rodriguez, whose rights were held by Seattle and who sat out the league's first season while pregnant with her first child, Andonovski again wanted to go through Holiday. He called her as she boarded the bus after a national team practice and told her he needed her opinion on a question of great importance. She told him to wait while she got off the bus so she could give it her full attention.
She told him Rodriguez would score "tons of goals." He asked her if she was speaking as a friend or as a team captain. It was as both, but she assured him again that Rodriguez would get the job done.
Little, in fact, scored more goals than Rodriguez in the regular season. No one scored more than Rodriguez in the playoffs. Holiday had it right all along. And Kansas City had the pure goal scorer it didn't have a season ago.
"It's almost like she wanted to prove something," Andonovski said. "She wanted to prove that she deserves a spot on the national team. She wanted to prove that she could come back and be that next Christie Rampone, coming back from pregnancy and playing with the national team."
With more than 100 career appearances for the national team, most during the time when Pia Sundhage was coach, Rodriguez is no stranger to representing her country. The challenge is a crowd at forward that includes the likes of Sydney Leroux, who struggled to make an impact for Seattle on Sunday, Alex Morgan, Christen Press and Abby Wambach.
"At the end of the day, you just want USA to be successful," Rodriguez said. "I hope that [national team coach Jill Ellis] considers me as one of the players that she sees to help the team do that. We have a huge World Cup qualifier coming up in these next couple of months, and I hope that I'm considered for the team.
"At the end of the day, I want to win a World Cup, so that's going to be my goal next summer."
Her game delivered a stronger message.
And Ellis, who was in attendance and took her turn holding Ryan as the postgame celebrations continued, likely heard it. It won't make the coach's job any easier, but she may not mind.
Rodriguez said she knew people had low expectations for her coming back from the pregnancy. She could hardly blame them because she also said she was among them. Her moment at the top of the sport, whether for club or country, seemed to have come and gone. Much as it may have seemed that the moment came and went for Kansas City when it squandered a two-goal lead at home in a semifinal a season ago and ultimately lost to Portland Thorns FC in overtime.
But there are always second acts.
"Seeing her with a kid is so cool -- it's so much cooler than seeing her on the soccer field," Holiday said of her friend and fellow champion. "She's a phenomenal mom; she's caring and understanding. And I think her perspective has changed. Soccer used to be such a huge part of her life, and now she knows she gets to come home to her son.
"No matter what the result is, that trumps everything."
Although sometimes the result is pretty special, too.