Little’s Scotland national team fell to Netherlands in a playoff for Europe’s final berth, and Jess Fishlock’s Wales didn’t make it that far.
The rest of the world’s loss is Seattle’s gain.
This summer, when women’s soccer turns its attention north toward Canada for the 2015 World Cup, two of the finer attacking talents in the National Women’s Soccer League — in the game, to hear their coach tell it — will be left behind in the Northwest.
Kim Little’s Scotland national team fell to Netherlands in a playoff for Europe’s final berth, and Jess Fishlock’s Wales team didn’t even make it that far.
Season opener, Western New York @ Reign, Memorial Stadium, 4 p.m.
As such, the league’s defending top goal scorer as well as its assist leader will hold down the fort for the Reign as U.S. women’s national-team members Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo leave for international duty from May through at least June.
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The new season begins Sunday as the Reign play host to Western New York Flash at Memorial Stadium.
“Yes, our goal as a team is to get to the Euros and the World Cups, but we’re not a high-ranked nation,” Little said this preseason. “Of course it’s extremely disappointing, but my focus is fully on (the Reign) now.”
On one hand, the fact that Little’s and Fishlock’s names likely would draw blank stares from most casual soccer fans is a commentary on how central the World Cup is to the sport’s popularity.
Fishlock led the NWSL with eight assists in 2014 and has played for clubs from the Netherlands to Australia.
Little scored 16 goals last season, winning the league’s golden boot with three to spare. She also tied for second in the league with seven assists. Still just 24, Little netted 88 goals in 48 games for the Hibernian Ladies in Scotland between 2006 and 2008 and added 81 in 98 for the Arsenal Ladies before coming to the NWSL.
“She’s a player that absolutely thrives off of competition and being hard to beat,” said Reign coach Laura Harvey, who also coached Little at Arsenal. “She wants to be somebody who is the best in the world, and she won’t stop until she is.
“In my opinion, she’s already there.”
At least Little has gotten a taste of the global stage. Taking advantage of the special circumstance of the 2012 London Olympics, Little joined Team Great Britain as it played in front of 70,000-plus in Wembley Stadium en route to a quarterfinal berth.
Fishlock did not — “there were a lot of politics,” she said — instead focusing on her Welsh captaincy. And being four years older than Little on a national team that has never even qualified for the European Championship, Fishlock is running out of time.
On the other hand, that Little and Fishlock still have a highly visible platform upon which to perform is both an opportunity that hasn’t always existed in the past and a sign of the health of the club game in this country.
The NWSL is entering its third year, the hurdle upon which its two predecessors, the WUSA and WPS, stumbled. But with national federations picking up part of the tab, the business model appears to be more sustainable this time around.
The league is growing in prestige, providing players such as Fishlock and Little a chance to measure themselves against some of soccer’s top talent even if not at its top event.
“Obviously, we want to be in a World Cup,” Fishlock said. “Everybody wants to be in a World Cup. At the same time, we don’t feel like being here is a downgrade or that it’s anything less than a World Cup for us.
“It is our World Cup, and we’ll do everything in our power to make sure Seattle is in a good place when Hope and ‘Pinoe come back.”