Some of the key matchups going into Saturday’s NWSL Championship game between the Portland Thorns and the Kansas City Current are obvious: Sophia Smith vs. AD Franch, Kansas City’s legs vs. Portland’s bench, Bella Bixby vs. elaborate goal celebrations.
But in any game of this magnitude, with an NWSL trophy on the line, you can expect a few unsung heroes to step up. These are the underrated impact players we’ll be watching at Audi Field in primetime.
Hubly’s progression as a center back since joining the Thorns as a national team replacement player in 2017 has been meteoric. She’s been relied upon heavily in recent years as Portland’s center-back duo of Becky Sauerbrunn and Emily Menges have not been able to play consistent minutes together (last year due to Sauerbrunn’s absences, and this year due to Menges’ lingering injury.) Hubly has fully seized the opportunity, and she will need to provide enough coverage and pace on Saturday to allow Sauerbrunn to set up Portland’s distribution.
Though perhaps still frozen in time in the eyes of fans as the young talent that won Rookie of the Year in 2016, Rodriguez was actually the most seasoned player starting in Portland’s midfield in their semifinal on Sunday. The Thorns appear to want Rodriguez to operate as a one-two punch with Crystal Dunn, who is still building her minutes after giving birth to her son in May. Rodriguez is a ball-winning No. 8 who can go box-to-box and provide an outlet in distribution while getting in the way of the other team’s ball movement. Her ability to disrupt and counter will be key to the early midfield battle — as will any more goals like this one.
ROCKY RIGHT ON CUE 🤩@raque_rocky | @ThornsFC pic.twitter.com/FkWb1K1uXG— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) October 23, 2022
ROCKY RIGHT ON CUE 🤩@raque_rocky | @ThornsFC pic.twitter.com/FkWb1K1uXG
If the Best XI First and Second Teams include 22 of the best NWSL players from the 2022 regular season, Sugita has a case for being No. 23. She’s the main creative spark in Portland’s midfield, pulling defenders in to stretch space for Smith to run in behind and create chances. She can also strike herself, with a number of quality shots this season from both outside the 18-yard box and inside at tough angles. If the final turns into a shootout, Sugita is a player you want on your side.
Weaver is sometimes overlooked as the other rookie the Thorns drafted in 2020 alongside Smith, the No. 1 pick and a 2022 MVP candidate. Weaver spent the first few years of her professional career coming off the bench, but under head coach Rhian Wilkinson, she has made the left wing her own. She’s focused as much on making runs to the endline and crossing balls in as she is on cutting inside for shots of her own. Her ability to do both forces defenders to make decisions that open up space for others.
If the 2022 Rookie of the Year shortlist had extended to five names, Loera would have had a good argument for making it. The 23-year-old had a strong regular season, notching three assists in 20 matches, but she has risen to another level in the playoffs. The Kansas City midfield had to deal with absences in both knockout games — first, the suspension of Desiree Scott and then the season-ending injury to Claire Lavogez. Loera scored her first NWSL postseason goal against the Reign in the semifinals, and she’ll be called upon again to shore up the midfield defensively and break lines in the attack.
You might be thinking, Hailie Mace isn’t an unsung hero — she played for the USWNT just last month. True! But while she’s played outside back internationally, Mace as an attacking midfielder is still somehow underrated. The 25-year-old is almost difficult to place on the field because of how competent she is in various roles. But she’s at her most dangerous when she’s moving the ball forward for the Current, such as last Sunday when she posed a consistent threat to the Reign’s defense. Against Portland on Saturday, Mace will be key to Kansas City’s ability to create clear chances on the counter.
Ball has one of the most difficult jobs in Kansas City’s defensive setup as the central center back in a three-back system. While Kristen Edmonds and a rotation of Adissyn Merrick and Izzy Rodriguez defend in isolation on either side, Ball has to be savvy in her positioning and calm when the ball is in the air. Her communication with Loera and Scott will be critical to locking down dangerous areas in front of the Current’s penalty area and, of course, keeping Sophia Smith off the scoresheet.
Kate Del Fava
Del Fava got the glory with her stoppage-time winner in the Current’s quarterfinal against Houston, but it’s her ability to defend that could be a difference-maker on Saturday. Del Fava’s defensive positioning is underrated on the wings: She expertly pushes players onto their weak foot and cuts off dribbles inside to force hopeful crosses in the air. With the Thorns’ Morgan Weaver creating chaos on the outside, Del Fava will likely be tasked with keeping her from moving effectively, and that will be a premier battle to watch.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.