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Portland and Kansas City face off in NWSL championship

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Kansas City Current finished in last place last year in the National Women's Soccer League, and on Saturday, they play for this year's title. They face Portland Thorns FC, who can now call 22-year-old forward Sophia Smith this year's MVP. And amid a lot of turmoil in U.S. women's soccer this year, notably for Portland, they go in as favorites. Meg Linehan is a reporter at The Athletic and joins us from media day. Hi, Meg.

MEG LINEHAN: Hey. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So start off by telling us about Portland. What is key for them in this matchup?

LINEHAN: Portland has been so, so good at scoring goals all year long. And to your point, Sophia Smith, the league's newest MVP - she's really key to that. And yesterday she talked about just being stoked - right? - and being allowed to try things. And I think that's going to be really, really important for Portland - is if they can unlock Sophia Smith, then Portland has a pretty good shot at lifting their third NWSL championship trophy.

SUMMERS: And what about Kansas City? How can they possibly get past a team like Portland?

LINEHAN: I mean, Kansas City is so interesting because even when they don't have the ball, they can really disrupt teams. So we've seen them have these really strong starts. If they can get on the board early, if they can overcome maybe some of the nerves, then I think this is such an even matchup. I think we're just going to be in the action from minute one of this game tomorrow.

SUMMERS: It has also been a complicated year for the league off the field. An independent investigation into the scandals from last year - like one you reported on of harassment and sexual coercion against Paul Riley, who was coaching the Thorns at the time - found systemic problems across the sport. There was also the recent equal pay agreement. What has the last year meant for the league and for these two teams?

LINEHAN: Complicated is really the right word. I think we're all trying to hold both all of the work that everybody knows has to be done to make the league better and to make the league prioritize player health and safety first and foremost while also knowing that sponsorship is up, viewership is up, that attendance is up. We've had four consecutive records set in the playoffs for attendance, and then we're going to have what is likely a sellout crowd here on a field in Washington, D.C. So there is a lot of good and bad. But I think really at the heart of this is that there is a moment here of change which is going to be painful for the NWSL but that ultimately the league that emerges from the year that we've had is going to be a better one that prioritizes players at the very center of everything that it's trying to do.

SUMMERS: Hearing you describe that, the potential for a sellout crowd tomorrow, all of the people who are watching this game - that sounds like a pretty healthy forecast for the women's game in the U.S. moving forward.

LINEHAN: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, the next big challenge point is to not just have it be a championship game - right? - where we're getting a sellout crowd - is to make it consistent week in, week out across all of the markets of the league. But it feels like this is what the game could be all of the time.

SUMMERS: Before I let you go, Meg, I have to ask. Who do you like for the win tomorrow night?

LINEHAN: You know, it's - I don't know if I want to put my opinion on the record because I know players on both teams. But, you know, I think Kansas City really has gone through it, right? Coming from last place last year, I think that there is this sense of joy that permeates the club in a way that is so new and amazing to see. So I do think that they have maybe that intangible edge for tomorrow.

SUMMERS: Meg Linehan, reporter at The Athletic. Thank you.

LINEHAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.