Jenni Branam (Howard C. Smith, ISI Photos)
Sky Blue goalkeeper Jenni Branam was honored before the match as the team announced that Branam would be retiring at the end of the 2011 season. Sky Blue FC also announced that they would retire Branam’s number 23 jersey. Branam, one of just three Sky Blue players to play all three WPS seasons with the team - Heather O’Reilly and Karen Bardsley are the other two – was instrumental in Sky Blue’s run to the 2009 championship, playing all three matches injured after a big collision with Abby Wambach in the first round. Branam missed most of last season as she broke her kneecap in preseason and returned to the team late in the season only to suffer another injury that would end her season. Things hardly went right for the 30 year-old Branam on Saturday though as she faced the league’s best offense. McCall Zerboni, Marta, Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan all scored for the Flash. Adriana netted the lone goal for Sky Blue.
Facing a Sky Blue side playing its third match in a week, the Flash got its first opportunity less than a minute into the match as Sinclair rang a shot off the post. The visitors continued to control things and Sky Blue defender Carrie Dew had to clear another Flash shot off the line in the 22nd minute. Dew’s heroics provided a spark for Sky Blue though, as the home side scored just seconds later. Against the run of play, Sky Blue headed back up field, where Therese Shoran played a square ball to Adriana in front of goal. The Spanish striker redirected Sjögran’s pass past Flash keeper Ashlyn Harris to give Sky Blue the 1-0 lead. Adriana’s goal was the 21st for Sky Blue this season, breaking the record of 20 the team set in 2010’s 24 game season. Sky Blue managed just 19 goals in 2009.
Unfortunately for Sky Blue, the spark was only temporary as the Flash continued press for the equalizer. In the 29th minute McCall Zerboni was allowed to dribble through the box before taking what looked like a harmless shot right at Branam. But Zerboni’s shot snuck between Branam and the near post, to bring things level at one. The Flash then doubled the lead six minutes later. In the 35th minute Marta received the ball from ex-Sky Blue midfielder Yael Averbuch and cut around her defender before firing a shot that sailed past an outstretched Branam to give the Flash the 2-1 lead. "Sky Blue have come off their third game in seven days so we knew that coming into it," said Flash Head Coach Aaran Lines. "Coming off a confident two wins, so it was our intention to take it to them early knowing that it was their third in seven."
Western NY looked to add to that lead as a shot rang off the crossbar in the 36th minute. Two minutes after that, as the crowd at Yurcak was giving injured Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand – who was in attendance - a standing ovation, the Flash struck again. A free kick from Candace Chapman sailed into the box where Sinclair was able to head it past Branam to put Western NY up 3-1. Sinclair’s 38th minute goal was her league-leading ninth of the season. The Canadian striker has played just 11 matches this season due to the World Cup.
After halftime the pace slowed considerably, with both sides making a flurry of substitutions. Jim Gabarra brought Tobin Heath on for Sjögran to start the second frame and replaced Carolyn Blank with Casey Nogueira in the 57th minute as Sky Blue looked to cut the deficit. Lines brought on midfielder Caroline Seeger in place of Averbuch in the 56th minute, the first action for Seger since a calf injury she sustained playing for Sweden at the World Cup. In the 67th Lines took out Sinclair in favor of U.S. striker Alex Morgan, who received cheers from the crowd as she entered the match. The biggest cheer however, went to Sky Blue captain Heather O’Reilly, who exited to applause in the 70th minute as Laura Kalmari came on. Sky Blue’s attempts to add more offense were for naught however – and cost the team as Anita Asante went down with an injury late in the match.
With Sky Blue FC missing a defender, Western NY had plenty of room for Beverly Goebel, who came on for Marta in the 80th minute, to play a ball to Morgan for the Flash’s fourth goal. In second half stoppage, Morgan received Goebel’s pass and sent a long chip floating over the head of Branam and into the net. Referee Kari Seitz, also just back from World Cup duty as an official, blew the final whistle moments later, the Flash taking the 4-1 win.
"It’s a team game, everybody makes mistakes and unfortunately for the goalkeeper when they make them people want to look and point at those, but there’s got to be better pressure on the ball to deny the serve," Gabarra said after the game. "On Sinclair’s goal someone’s got to challenge her, you can’t just stay on the ground. Zerboni’s goal, that happened at midfield. We had her double teamed and just let them out way too easy and maybe that’s fatigue or lack of focus but it’s a shame. There’s not much left in your gas tank as a team."
The match was Gabarra’s 15th at the helm, making him the longest-tenured coach in Sky Blue FC history. In 2009 Ian Sawyers made it just six matches before being replaced by Kelly Lindsey. Lindsey unexpectedly quit 11 games later and Christie Rampone took over as player-coach for the final three. Pauliina Miettinen made it the previous high 14 games in 2010 before getting the axe and Rick Stainton took over for the final ten.
Sky Blue will continue the lots of games in very little time trend, as the team will now head back to Florida for the second match with magicJack in as many weeks. After taking on magicJack on Wednesday, Sky Blue FC will finish out the regular season with stops in Philadelphia and Boston. Even with the loss, Sky Blue FC remains in third place, but magicJack won Saturday night’s other game 4-0 over Boston on a Christen Press hat trick, leaving the two now even on points. MagicJack has a game in hand, but Sky Blue holds the tiebreaker with a 1-0-1 record over the Florida club. The top four teams in WPS make the playoffs, with the regular season winner getting a bye into the championship.