Anita Asante (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
Sky Blue FC will face the Western NY Flash at Yurcak Field in Piscataway, NJ on Saturday night. The match is Sky Blue’s final regular season home game – the team will finish out the campaign on a three game road trip. The two teams have met three previous times, a draw and two wins for Western New York. The Flash are the only team to beat Sky Blue FC at Yurcak – a game two weeks ago that saw Western NY take the lead on a Sky Blue own goal before Beverly Goebel doubled it late. Both teams were without major components of their lineups for that one – but Marta, Alex Morgan and Caroline Seger are back in service for the Flash and Heather O’Reilly, Tobin Heath and Therese Sjögran have returned for the home side.
Sky Blue FC is coming off two consecutive 2-0 wins, knocking off both Philadelphia and magicJack by that score. The match with Western NY will be Sky Blue’s third in eight days as the team looks to hold onto third place and the right to host a playoff game. Currently, Sky Blue FC is just three points ahead of fourth place Boston Breakers and fifth place magicJack. Western NY is currently in second, just three points behind league-leaders Philadelphia.
Western NY will bring a full compliment of really good strikers to New Jersey this time, with Marta and Christine Sinclair the likely starters up top. Marta hasn’t looked like herself for much of the season, and the back and forth caused by the World Cup didn’t help, but the five-time FIFA World Player of the Year is still plenty dangerous. Sinclair on the other hand, has put herself right in the middle of the MVP conversation - the Canadian international currently leads the league in goals (8) and assists (6) despite playing in just ten games. Alex Morgan is also an attacking option for Western NY, and Flash Head Coach Aaran Lines has been using the rookie striker much the way Pia Sundhage uses her for the U.S., as a second half sub whose speed and goal scoring prowess can cause all kinds of trouble for the tired legs of opposing defenses. The Flash could also be with the services of midfielder and captain Caroline Seger for the first time since the World Cup. The Swedish international sustained a calf injury during the tournament and her absence from the Flash midfield has been obvious. Seger is very much the Flash’s engine and although the team has continued to win without her, it’s been through a much more disjointed style than when she’s around. If Seger can play, her presence will bring some flow back to the Flash.
Sky Blue’s attack has come into its own lately, too. The return of O’Reilly, Sjögran and Heath added another dimension to an already strong midfield. Jim Gabarra has remained steadfast in using Eniola Aluko as a strike partner for Adriana, despite Aluko’s inability to score. Instead, the English international has become something of a decoy, with speed and smart runs that could create something. Casey Nogueira doesn’t seem to be quite out of the doghouse for some lazy performances a few weeks ago, but sub-duty has done wonders for her. Nogueira came off the bench and scored twice last weekend, and was a problem for magicJack as sub on Wednesday. With so many games in so few days, Nogueira could once again come off the bench against the Flash. Her ability to score from just about anywhere could prove to be the difference-maker. Now with two games back together, the entire forward/midfield unit should be firing on all cylinders against the Flash. Gabarra will likely employ an O’Reilly-Allie Long-Sjögran-Carolyn Blank midfield again, with the four plus Adriana rotating through the middle of the park. Adriana and O’Reilly in particular showed signs of not playing together much last weekend, but the little communication problems should be worked out by now, bringing the same close-quarters passing that was a problem for Philadelphia, but without all the nearly running into each other. Laura Kalmari is another attacking option for Sky Blue and after limited minutes the past few games, Gabarra could turn to her if Aluko continues her ineffective streak.
The midfield may not have quite as much freedom as the past two games though, as both of Western NY’s outside backs are extremely active. Ali Riley in particular loves to get forward, which could keep O’Reilly occupied. Long and Blank will have to deal with Seger – or Beverly Goebel/Yael Averbuch in the middle. Philadelphia’s Sinead Farrelly kept Long plenty busy last weekend, to the point where Long was largely unable to work as an attacking option.
Much like the Philadelphia game, this one will be mostly a midfield battle, but the Sky Blue defense can’t fall asleep either. The Independence relied heavily on an over-the-top game to try to break though the clog in the middle, but Sky Blue’s back four did well to clean up pretty much everything. Western NY has the option of a similar game, so the Sky Blue backs need to be careful to not get caught too far up. Jenni Branam loves to come way off her line, leaving the defense free to play pretty high and the Flash will exploit that if given the opportunity, with the pace of Marta (and Morgan) and Sinclair’s vision. New signing Petra Hogewoning is available as another defensive option, but against Western NY may not be the best time for her debut, as cohesiveness will be crucial.