Casey Nogueira (Howard C. Smith, ISI Photos)
Sky Blue FC will take on the Boston Breakers on Sunday afternoon at Harvard Stadium in Boston in the final regular season game for both teams. Sky Blue and Boston are currently fourth and fifth on the table respectively, but just three points separate the two, making Sunday’s match the decider for who gets the final playoff spot. The winner will go on to the postseason, facing third place magicJack in Florida on Wednesday night while the season will be over for the loser. A draw would put Sky Blue FC through.
Boston has somehow managed to become a worse team since the return of its World Cup players, going winless since Rachel Buehler, Amy LePeilbet, Stephanie Cox, Lauren Cheney, Kelley O’Hara, Alex Scott, Kelly Smith and Aya Sameshima rejoined the team. The Breakers head into Sunday without a win in their last five – the last four in that run all losses. Sky Blue FC though hasn’t fared much better recently - the New Jersey side has now dropped three straight. Despite the dip in form Sky Blue still had the chance to secure the final playoff spot and eliminate Boston last weekend against Philadelphia, but a stoppage time goal from the Independence’s Lianne Sanderson destroyed that dream.
The loss in Philadelphia cost Sky Blue FC more than just a sure trip to the postseason. The team also lost defender Carrie Dew, who was ejected after picking up questionable yellow cards at the beginning of each half and will now miss the Boston match serving a one game suspension. Dew’s absence Sunday will add more trouble to an already troubled back line. Sheree Gray, who filled in while Anita Asante was away with England at the World Cup, is unavailable due to an injury. And Asante has missed the last two matches after suffering an injury of her own late in Sky Blue’s game against Western NY on July 30th. Asante is listed only as probable for Sunday, but with Dew out of the picture Jim Gabarra doesn’t have many other options. One of the few choices Gabarra does have is Dutch defender Petra Hogewoning, who joined the team at the beginning of July but has yet to make an appearance. Danielle Johnson will likely fill in for Dew, but if Asante also can’t play Hogewoning’s debut could very well come on Sunday.
The big question is: will Boston be able to take advantage of the cobbled together back line? The Breakers have been shut out in five of their last eight matches and have managed just one goal in the last four. Smith is still listed as questionable as she continues to recover from her World Cup-related injuries and Cheney and O’Hara are only probable for Sunday. Boston will also have to solve Sky Blue goalkeeper Jenni Branam, who hardly looked like a player set to retire at season’s end last weekend in Philadelphia.
Offensively, Sky Blue is slightly better off than Boston, having already scored a franchise record 24 goals this season. English striker Eniola Aluko, who scored just once pre-World Cup and continued to struggle upon returning from Germany, finally found her scoring boots – to the tune of three goals in the past two games. Aluko’s return to form makes her a good running mate for Adriana, and with finally a full week between games Gabarra has a full roster of midfielders to compliment that forward duo. So full that Laura Kalmari and Angie Kerr aren’t even on the traveling roster and Gabarra still has Casey Nogueira, Heather O’Reilly, Tobin Heath, Allie Long, Carolyn Blank and Therese Sjogran to choose from. Sky Blue’s rotating/shifting midfielders and forwards and close quarters passing could be trouble for a Boston defense that’s been a revolving door all season and now will change yet again as Cox is listed as unavailable.
Both teams have made the playoffs once, with Boston finishing third last season and Sky Blue sneaking in in the fourth spot in 2009. The Breakers were eliminated by Philadelphia in the semi-final last season after an extra time goal from Danesha Adams. Sky Blue didn’t qualify for the playoffs in 2010, needing a win against Boston on the final day of the season to have a shot at the postseason, but neither team could manage a single goal in a 0-0 draw. In 2009 Sky Blue only made the playoffs because the Breakers lost on the final day of the regular season to the LA Sol. Sky Blue went on to beat Washington, St. Louis and LA to claim the inaugural title. Gabarra has never missed the playoffs, bringing Washington to the postseason in both 2009 and 2010. A win Sunday would be Gabarra’s sixth, making him the winningest coach in team history.