Sky Blue FC will once again travel to Florida to take on magicJack on Wednesday night, the New Jersey team’s second trip south in as many weeks. Sky Blue topped magicJack 2-0 last Wednesday on an own goal from Abby Wambach and a goal from Allie Long. This match will close out the season series between the two teams and is crucial for both as the season winds down. Sky Blue and magicJack are currently tied on points, but Sky Blue has played one more game. With the two teams so close on the table playoff position may come down to tiebreakers, the first two of which are head-to-head results and head-to-head goal differential, so a positive result is important for both sides. Currently Sky Blue leads the series with a 1-0-1 record and plus-two goal difference.
A big 4-0 win over Boston on Saturday broke a six-game winless run for magicJack. Rookie striker Christen Press netted a hat trick and Abby Wambach had the other goal for magicJack as the team broke out of a two-game scoring drought. Jillian Loyden earned the clean sheet. The biggest news to come out of Florida this week was that magicJack signed Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc. LeBlanc played for Philadelphia last season and Los Angeles in 2009. Traded to Chicago after the 2010 season, LeBlanc was left teamless when the Red Stars suspended operations before this season, and decided to focus on training with Canada ahead of the World Cup. With Hope Solo absent as she continues to recover from World Cup-related injuries, Loyden, who went to the World Cup as the number three keeper on the US National Team, has become magicJack’s number one. LeBlanc could immediately challenge Loyden for the starting spot, although disrupting a defense that only recently found its footing could be a risky move for magicJack this late in the season.
Coming off a disappointing 4-1 loss to Western New York on Saturday, Sky Blue will have to pick up the pieces quickly as they now have to contend with magicJack’s recently reinvigorated front line. Center back Anita Asante is listed as questionable after picking up a knock at the end of Saturday’s game. With Sheree Gray injured and none of Danielle Johnson, Petra Hogewoning or the rest of Sky Blue’s utility defenders on the traveling roster, Jim Gabarra will be left to either play a three back or go with a possibly injured Asante. Not exactly the best prospect for facing a team that includes Lisa De Vanna and Ella Masar in addition to Wambach and Press. Sky Blue keeper Jenni Branam will also have to put her lackluster performance on the weekend behind her. Playing on the narrow field at Florida Atlantic University and facing an offense that relies heavily on an over-the-top game, Branam will have to be careful with how far she comes out – Western NY’s fourth goal came when Alex Morgan chipped Branam from long-range after the Sky Blue keeper adventured well off her line.
In the midfield and forward lines, Gabarra has done as good a job as possible to rest players with so many games in such a short amount of time. Wednesday’s match will be the fourth in two weeks for both teams and Gabarra has utilized just about every available midfielder over that time. Gabarra rested Therese Sjögran in the second half on Saturday and also subbed out Heather O’Reilly and Carolyn Blank, so Sky Blue’s engine should have slightly fresher legs for Wednesday.
The big question for Sky Blue FC is in the attack. Casey Nogueira has been used to provide a second half spark as of late, despite the fact that she leads the team in goals. With Eniola Aluko continuing her run of ineffectiveness, why Nogueira is still relegated to the bench remains something of a mystery. Aluko has scored just once this season, and was largely invisible on Saturday. Nogueira caused problems for magicJack the last time the two teams met, while Aluko hasn’t been causing trouble for anyone in quite a while. Still, Aluko’s speed makes her the likely choice for Wednesday, as Sky Blue faces a magicJack side notorious for playing a three back.
After Wednesday, Sky Blue FC has just two matches left, in Philadelphia this Sunday and at Boston next weekend. Currently, the New Jersey side sits in third on the table, which would put them back in the playoffs after missing out on the postseason in 2010. Gabarra does have a little bit of unfortunate history working against him – none of Sky Blue’s five previous coaches has ever won more than five games, which happens to be exactly how many wins the team has so far this season. But Gabarra has already lasted a record 15 games and is on pace to become the team’s first coach to complete the previously impossible task of making it a whole season, so perhaps the elusive sixth win isn’t entirely out of the question.