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NWSL playoffs signal the start of a busy - and challenging time - for women's soccer

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In the space of about a week, a group of players from the U.S. team wrapped up the regular season with their National Women's Soccer League teams, got together for an international friendly against Switzerland, and now face off in the NWSL playoffs.

The country's top players are maintaining a delicate balance between supporting the NWSL at home while gearing up for a busy two years that include the women's World Cup in Canada next summer and the 2016 Rio Olympics. And it's just the beginning of a schedule that's guaranteed to become more challenging.

The Portland Thorns play an NWSL semifinal match at FC Kansas City on Saturday, and the Seattle Reign host the Washington Spirit on Sunday. After the league championship on Aug. 31, the women on the U.S. team — as well as those from Mexico — will head off to train for World Cup qualifying.

NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Bailey praised the professionalism and dedication of the national team players, who she said "love to play the game and want to be pushed to help raise the level of play with their club teams."

Among the 10 players on the recent whirlwind are Thorns forward Alex Morgan and teammate Allie Long, Seattle goalkeeper Hope Solo and teammates Megan Rapinoe, and Sydney Leroux, Kansas City defender Becky Sauerbrunn and teammates Amy Rodriguez and Lauren Holiday and Spirit defenders Crystal Dunn and Ali Krieger.

Morgan missed the first part of the NWSL season because of an ankle injury, but her return sparked the defending champion Thorns, who advanced to the post-season with a 1-0 victory in the regular-season finale last Sunday against the Reign. Morgan scored the game-winner for Portland (10-8-6) in the 68th minute.

The match against the Blues (12-7-5) is a rematch of last season's semifinal, which the Thorns won 3-2 in extra time en route to the inaugural NWSL title.

Kansas City had a longer break than the rest of the playoff teams, wrapping up its regular season on Aug. 9, but the Blues played five matches in two weeks to end the season. Coach Vlatko Andonovski didn't expect fatigue to be a factor.

"Portland is going to be in the same situation, too. All these players are used to playing Wednesday then Saturday games, or Wednesday-Sunday games," Andonovski said in a conference call with reporters. "I don't think anything is going to stop them from playing their best games."

The Reign, who had the league's best regular-season record at 16-2-6, play the Spirit (10-9-5), the league's most-improved team after a last-place finish with just three total victories last season.

The U.S. national team was widely criticized for scheduling the friendly against Switzerland the same week as the NWSL semifinals. There are 26 players from the national team on NWSL rosters, and U.S. Soccer pays the salaries for those women. The Canadian and Mexican federations pay their players' salaries, also.

The awkward schedule this week exemplified the challenges that will be faced by the NWSL going into its third and fourth seasons.

"The balance is really going to come from the national teams where they will be trying to train a pool of players ahead of a World Cup as it intersects with the NWSL regular season," Bailey said.

The NWSL expects to have some news regarding the 2015 season soon, Bailey told The Associated Press in an email.

There have been two other recent attempts at a women's pro league in the United States, but both failed after just two seasons: The Women's United Soccer Association was founded in 2000, hoping to capitalize on the U.S. national team's victory in the 1999 World Cup, but the league folded in 2003. Another league, Women's Professional Soccer, played from 2010-12 but had internal organization and financial issues.

The U.S. team will play two more friendlies, both against Mexico — Sept. 13 in Sandy, Utah, and Sept. 18 in Rochester, New York — before hosting the eight-team CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament in October.

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