PORTLAND, Ore. - It took a cross-country trip to do so, but I finally got to a National Women's Soccer League game this past weekend.
In addition to the Timbers-Whitecaps reserve game at JELD-Wen Field on Sunday, there was a showdown between the top two teams so far this season, the Portland Thorns and FC Kansas City.
(The Timbers smartly packaged the two games as a doubleheader on one ticket. I wish the same thing had happened in Philadelphia when the Union had reserve games.)
Both teams are stacked with familiar names. Portland has the biggest in forwards Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair, as well as defender Rachel Buehler. Kansas City's roster has a distinct Philly flavor, including former Independence players Nicole Barnhart, Jen Buczkowski, Sinead Farrelly and Leigh Ann Robinson.
In addition to having played here, Barnhart is originally from Gilbertsville, Pa., and Farrelly is from Havertown.
Kansas City does have one big name. She also has ties to Philadelphia, and it so happens that she's been the best player in the NWSL this year. But you might not recognize her at first.
Lauren Holiday is leading the NWSL this year in both goals (16) and assists (9). If you haven't heard her name before, it may be because not long ago she was called Lauren Cheney. Her Twitter handle still carries her maiden name.
Last month, Cheney married now-former 76ers guard Jrue Holiday. It was a high point in a crazy summer for the couple, as Holiday was traded to New Orleans during the NBA draft. The forced move south came out of nowhere, but the couple has started settling into their new home town.
Holiday has also settled well in Kansas City. FCKC locked down first place in the NWSL with an impressive 3-2 win over the Thorns.
For two straight years, the Independence used a great team ethic to overcome its lack of a Morgan-level superstar and reach the Women's Professional Soccer title game. Kansas City is carrying that banner this year.
Holiday scored two goals in Sunday's victory. I talked to her afterward about how this season has gone for her, both on and off the field.
Have you gotten down to New Orleans yet?
I have not been to New Orleans. Jrue has, he's been down there quite a bit.
How much of a surprise was it to you when Jrue was traded?
It was a huge surprise. I was actually looking at houses in Philly that week. Jrue found out on draft day and I think he handled it a lot better than I did.
You had your wedding in the middle of the NWSL season. Obviously you didn't have much choice, since it was either have it then or have it during the NBA season. What was it like to step away from games like that?
I actually planned the wedding before the NWSL was launched. I had the wedding set during the [UEFA] Women's Euros because I knew the national team wouldn't be playing then.
Obviously it was an amazing day, but it was really hard because you go right back to work. I've only seen Jrue seven days since we've been married, and that's tough.
I think we had to have it during the NWSL season, and then I'll be able to move down to New Orleans and start our lives together. I'm so ready. I'm so excited.
Talk about coming into Portland and beating the Thorns in front of a NWSL-record crowd of 17,619 fans.
I think this crowd is amazing. I think Portland has done it right. Just with the fans, the environment, with everything. Coming in here was great. I think there are some nerves any time you play in front of this size of this many people for some of the girls. It feels good to win.
How important has Nicole Barnhart been for FCKC?
She's phenomenal. This girl can stop shots that you'd think are going in from a mile away. Today she was on fire and every day she has been on fire. She looks like she's hurting and then she goes in goal and makes huge saves. Her consistency has been our rock back there.
I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but what's it going to take to replicate this environment and build women's soccer to this level across the country?
I think MLS owners really help. They know how to do it right – this is a professional atmosphere.* They know how to market, they know how to sell tickets. I think if we continue to play the way we're playing, and maybe have a few more investors like that, it will stick.
* - Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson also owns the Thorns. The teams share a stadium, staff and website. The Thorns are the only one of the NWSL's eight teams that plays in a Major League Soccer venue.
Kansas City has grown into quite a soccer hotbed over the last few years. How much has your team gotten noticed for the great season you've been having?
I think Kansas City is doing a good job too. Obviously we're a little bit behind Portland, but Sporting has great fans and a great stadium. Hopefully we can grow and have an environment like that soon.
How big is it for you to be pushing to host the playoffs, and potentially the championship game, in Kansas City?
You want home field advantage; you don't want to travel. This is one game that we won and we have two more to go. Hopefully we will be able to host [the final] and who knows, maybe play at Sporting Park.*
* - FC Kansas City currently plays at Shawnee Mission District Stadium, a 6,150-seat high school football and track venue. It has an artificial surface and permanent gridiron lines.
Sporting has a game scheduled at the same hour as the national TV slot for the NWSL title game. While it would be great to get the NWSL game into Sporting Park, it won't happen unless one side or the other changes a kickoff time.
There's a little bit of a history going back to WPS of teams that don't have an Alex Morgan or Abby Wambach, but have good players and good chemistry and do very well in the league. It looks like Kansas City is that team this year?
It's our style of play. Our coach [Vlatko Andonovski] recruited girls and signed players who he knew could play the style of soccer he wanted.
I think we're really consistent. We look to knock it, we don't look to go long. That consistency and style of play has given us chemistry throughout the season. We're comfortable with the way we play, and when things go wrong we go back to that. I think it's a good thing.