by Elan-Paolo DeCarlo
What a difference a year makes. Last season, the Washington Spirit and Seattle Reign found themselves at the bottom of the table. In fact, their combined point total, 32, would not have been enough to qualify for the playoffs this year. Now, these teams are ready to battle for a spot against FC Kansas City in the final.
The teams will meet Sunday evening in Seattle at the Moda Pitch Memorial Stadium, where the Reign are undefeated this season. Seattle have been gangbusters since opening day. They started by winning their first seven matches, and continued that into a run of 16-straight games in which they were unbeaten. Seattle finished the regular season with a record of 16-2-6 and set a host of records. The two losses are the lowest single-season total in the history of the league. The Reign set records for: most points (54), most wins (16), most goals in season (50), most goals per game (2.08) and fewest goals allowed per game (0.83).
In their previous matches against the Reign this season, the Spirit are 0-2-1. The last time the two teams met the Spirit looked on their way to clinching a playoff spot and handing the Reign their first home loss of the season. That was until probable NWSL MVP Kim Little scored the equalizer in the 89th minute to squash the celebratory plans of the Spirit.
Little finished the regular season with 16 goals, an NWSL record. She was voted Army National Guard Player of the Month on three separate occasions. It is likely that she will be announced the Most Valuable Player in the NWSL next week.
In order to advance to the NWSL Championship game, the Spirit will have to do what no team has done all season; win in Seattle. The Spirit managed a 5-5-2 road record and were one of only four clubs to record a point while visiting the Reign.
The Spirit have been a resilient club all season. They play their best with their backs against the wall and have been prone to stepping up in pressure. They sported a 9-3-5 record in games decided by one goal or less, which is quite impressive considering they finished the season with a negative goal differential.
The Spirit will have their regular starting eleven back for the playoffs though. The big addition will be the return of goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris. Harris had missed the final two matches of the regular season due to concussion symptoms. The return of Harris is massive for the Spirit, as they have not won a match without her in net.
In the attack, the Spirit will need to capitalize on whatever chances they get. Facing Hope Solo, who finished the year with five shutouts and ranks second in goals against average, the Spirit may only get a precious few. It is up to Jodie Taylor (11 goals) and Diana Matheson (8 goals), along with the rest of the front line to find the back of the net.
When the season began, many would have been surprised to see the Washington Spirit qualify for the playoffs. Yet, on Sunday evening, that will become a reality. Just one year removed from a last place finish, the Spirit will take the first step in completing their worst to first transformation. The Washington Spirit head up to Seattle to face the top seeded Reign on Sunday, 11 pm ET. The match, taking place at the Moda Pitch Memorial Stadium, will also be broadcasted on ESPN 2.