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NWSL 2014 Semifinal preview

The four best teams in the NWSL square off this weekend on ESPN2.
The four best teams in the NWSL square off this weekend on ESPN2.Graphic by Patricia LaBella/Examiner.com

The second season of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) is just about finished as the last four teams standing enter the 2014 NWSL semifinals this weekend.

The 2013 NWSL defending champion Portland Thorns FC take on FC Kansas City on Saturday and last year's two bottom-dwellers, Seattle Reign FC and Washington Spirit face each other for the fourth time this season. Both matches will broadcast live on ESPN2.

Seattle finished the regular NWSL season atop the league standings and locked down the NWSL Shield after defeating the Houston Dash 4-1 on Wednesday, July 30. The squad not only set a new league record for total wins, but also set a new record for most points scored in a single season, passing last season’s record by 16 points. Seattle also outscored opponents 30-11 when at home, and 20-9 when on the road during the regular season.

Here's how both matches stack up:

Portland Thorns FC (10-8-6, 36 pts) at FC Kansas City (12-7-5, 41 pts), Saturday, August 23, 1 p.m. ET at Durwood Stadium, Mo.

FC Kansas City will be trying to avenge their 2013 semifinal loss to Portland. But if Portland is to take down FCKC this year, the Thorns will need to do something no team has been able to all season – beat the Blues at home. FCKC comes into the contest boasting an undefeated 8-0-4 record at Durwood in 2014 – tied with Seattle Reign FC for the best home record.

Portland concluded the regular season last Sunday, August 17, with a 1-0 victory against Seattle Reign FC at Providence Park in Portland. Thorns FC forward Alex Morgan scored the lone goal of the match in the 68th minute off a corner kick into the box from midfielder Allie Long. Despite some late pressure around Portland’s goal, Seattle was unable to find an equalizer.

Behind her backline of Becky Sauerbrunn, Leigh Ann Robinson, Nikki Phillips and Merritt Mathias, goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart recorded a league-best eight shutouts – including in six consecutive starts, which included a scoreless streak of 587 minutes. It was a defensive performance that served as the backbone of a seven-game winning streak from May 25 to July 6 that tied the NWSL record previously set earlier in the season by Seattle.

In addition to a strong defense, FC Kansas City’s attacking contingent of U.S. internationals has also been vital to the club’s success this season. Holiday, the 2013 NWSL MVP, recorded eight goals and seven assists this season and forward Amy Rodriguez ranked second in the league with 13 goals, while forward Sarah Hagen (4 goals in 9 games) and Tymrak (4 goals, 4 assists) were also key contributors.

Sunday’s match will see the return of Portland's Alex Morgan and Allie Long and FCKC's Becky Sauerbrunn and Lauren Holiday who left their clubs earlier this week to compete with the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) in a friendly against Switzerland at WakeMed Soccer Field in Cary, North Carolina, on Wednesday, August 20.

"Anytime you take the national team members from any squad, it definitely has an impact," said FCKC defender Robinson speaking to the USWNT mid-week friendly. "But luckily, especially with our team having some veterans there, we keep that level of play and we keep that fierceness at practice all the way through. While they're gone we definitely wish they (the USWNT players) were here but I don't think it affected training in anyway as far as the level of play."

"We've been there once before and it's a difficult place to play" said Thorns FC head coach Paul Riley speaking on going to Kansas City. "It's not a great facility to play in but you got to take all those things out of the equation and just get on with it. We have a lot of great professionals and they've played in bad fields, good fields and different fields and in different weather. All those things you can't take care of, you got to get that out of your head and concentrate on the job at hand."

The Thorns and FC Kansas City are the only two teams that made the playoffs in 2013 to return to the postseason in 2014.

Washington Spirit (10-9-5, 35 pts) at Seattle Reign FC (16-2-6, 54 pts), Sunday, August 24, 11 p.m. ET at Memorial Stadium, Washington

Seattle and Washington met three times during the regular season, with Reign FC clinching the series with two wins and a draw.

The third matchup between the two sides took place earlier this month, on Saturday, August 9, at the Moda Pitch at Memorial Stadium where Reign FC gave up the early goal and trailed 1-0 for the majority of the game. Seattle would remain one goal down until the 89th minute, when forward Megan Rapinoe connected with Scottish international Kim Little on a pass into the box. Little then broke past a line of four Washington defenders, dribbling past goalkeeper Chantel Jones for the equalizer on the near post.

In that match, Washington was without regular goalkeeper, Ashlyn Harris who was out with a concussion. Washington head coach Mark Parsons stated during the week that Harris was training with the team and expects her to be in goal on Sunday.

Seattle's Little burst onto the scene in her first season stateside, winning the NWSL’s Golden Boot Award with 16 goals in 23 matches, and taking home NWSL Player of the Month honors three times. Jess Fishlock finished the season as the league leader in assists with eight (one ahead of Little), while Kawasumi finished in the top 10 in both goals and assists, with nine and five, respectively.

Sunday’s match will see the return of Seattle's Megan Rapinoe, Sydney Leroux and Hope Solo and Washington's Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn who left their clubs earlier this week to compete with the USWNT in the friendly against Switzerland.

Fishlock will also be returning from international duty ahead of Sunday’s game. The Welsh midfielder missed Seattle’s final match of the regular season due to national team commitments – played all 90 minutes in the Wales Women’s National Team’s 4-0 loss to England on Thursday, August 21 at Cardiff Stadium in Cardiff, Wales.

“I said from the first time we played them, I thought they would get into the playoffs,” said Seattle head coach and general manager Laura Harvey on Washington. "They did it when they were here a couple of weeks ago and we just need to learn from that and go out and put on a performance worthy of a playoff semi. If we do that, we’ve got a good chance of winning the game.”

"It's been a transition year for us," said Washington head coach Mark Parsons. "And the key was to build around core-players like Diana Matheson and many others. I feel that we did a good job at that."

Parsons also announced that Australian international striker Lisa DeVanna would not be traveling with the team to Seattle or if they move on.

"She's a fiery player - everyone in the game knows that," said Parsons. "She wants the ball every second of the game, which is a great attribute but at times can be frustrating – for herself and for her teammates. She's made a huge impact since coming here and we're grateful for that. But I've decided that she won't be traveling with us this weekend. Unfortunately we made a decision which won't include her. Just for us making the best decision for this team, this game and the rest of the playoffs."

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