Jenni Branam (ISI Photos)
With the opportunity to clinch a playoff spot on the line, Sky Blue FC closed out the season series with the Philadelphia Independence Sunday night in Chester, PA. Because the Boston Breakers lost on Saturday, the New Jersey side needed just a draw to secure the final postseason spot and eliminate Boston from playoff contention. But Sky Blue FC is a team that doesn't like to do things the easy way - or the safe way - and knowing the postseason is a sure thing with a game still remaining? What fun would that be? And so, after playing almost the entire second half down a player and still managing to hold on to a 1-1 score line, Sky Blue gave up the equalizer in stoppage time.
Former Sky Blue FC striker Tasha Kai gave the Independence an early lead before the visitors equalized seven minutes later on a goal from Eniola Aluko. Sky Blue defender Carrie Dew was sent off early in the second frame for her second yellow card of the night, but the ten-woman Sky Blue managed to hold on. Almost. Jenni Branam put in a classic performance in net for Sky Blue, making several point-blank saves, but ultimately the Independence attack was too much. Lianne Sanderson netted the game-winner for Philadelphia in stoppage time, giving the home side the 2-1 win and keeping them at the top of the table. The loss keeps Sky Blue FC winless, and point-less, in two seasons when playing away at Philadelphia.
In the second minute Carrie Dew was called for a foul and booked after Tasha Kai went down as the two battled just above the 18. Jenni Branam made the first of several stellar saves on the ensuing free kick, tipping Danesha Adam's shot over the bar. Philadelphia controlled the play through the first quarter hour, as Sky Blue continued to show signs of just how much the team missed the injured Anita Asante in the center of the defense.
In the 17th minute Kai gave the Independence the lead, putting her ninth of the season past Branam. After a Sky Blue turnover, Leigh Ann Robinson played a long ball from the back for Kai to run onto. The ball took an awkward hop on the turf, sending it seemingly out of Kai's reach, but the Hawaiian striker stayed with it and fired a rocket off the bounce and past a diving Branam. Four of Kai's nine goals this season have come against her former team.
Philadelphia's lead didn't last long though, as Eniola Aluko equalized just seven minutes later. In the 24th minute Tobin Heath dribbled through the midfield before slipping a ball through a seam in the Independence defense for Aluko who was able to put it past Nicole Barnhart. It was the first-ever WPS point for Heath, who spent an injury and illness plagued rookie campaign with Atlanta last season and has seen limited time this year due to World Cup duty with the U.S. For Aluko, it's her third goal in two games and fourth of the season. The two teams headed into the break tied at one.
The second frame started in very much the same way as the first. In the 49th minute Referee Ted Unkel again whistled Dew for a foul, and again pulled out a yellow card. Dew had gone in for a challenge on Danesha Adams and made contact with Adams' foot, sending both players to the ground. Already missing Asante and without a lot of other defensive options, Dew's questionable sending-off left a huge hole in the Sky Blue FC back line. The red card was teh first in Sky Blue FC history. Heath moved back to try to fill in for Dew, and Gabarra eventually brought in midfielder Carolyn Blank in the 55th minute in place of striker Adriana to create more of a defensive presence, but Philadelphia started exposing the gaps as the game wore on.
The Independence started pressing forward, sending several balls whistling across the Sky Blue goal. Fortunately for Sky Blue, no one from the home side was able to get on the end of most of them. Amy Rodriguez had one of Philadelphia's best chances in the 67th minute, sending a shot rifling off the inside of the post. Branam had gone down trying to make the save, but the rebound somehow landed directly in the hands of the Sky Blue keeper who was still on the ground. Sky Blue too tried to push forward, but Aluko and Casey Nogueira were quickly shut down each time and left with few options with the team down a player.
Philadelphia's attack got more aggressive as the match wore on, with Sky Blue FC trying to hold on for the draw. Sky Blue FC recently announced that Branam would retire at the end of this season, but the thirty-year-old keeper hardly looked like a player in the twilight of her career. Two of Branam's 11 saves came in the last five minutes, stopping Laura del Rio point-blank in the 85th and 90th minutes.
In stoppage time, Philadelphia was finally able to break through. Sky Blue was unable to clear and despite Branam seemingly getting a hand on a deflection the ball came loose for Sanderson to send into the net. With the Independence up 2-1, Unkel would blow the final whistle a short time later.
With the loss, next Sunday's regular season finale at Boston becomes the deciding factor in who finishes fourth and secures the final playoff berth and whose season ends right then. Sky Blue and Boston have a history of the final day of the season deciding things. In 2009 Sky Blue FC lost its final regular season match against the Washington Freedom, leaving the result of the next day's Boston Breakers-LA Sol match to decide the fourth spot. A Boston loss and Sky Blue was in, a Boston win and the Breakers would head to the postseason. The Breakers lost after a questionable PK called by who else - Ted Unkel, and Sky Blue FC got a second life. Sky Blue of course went on to win three road games in eight days to secure the inaugural Championship. In 2010 Boston and Sky Blue faced each other on the final day of the regular season in New Jersey, again with the playoffs on the line. The Breakers had already secured a spot in the postseason, but Sky Blue needed a win - and a Washington Freedom loss in its match happening simultaneously - to have a chance to repeat the heroics of 2009. The Freedom ultimately won, making the result of the Sky Blue Boston match irrelevant, but Sky Blue never gave itself a chance anyway, not mustering a single goal in a dull 0-0 draw.
This time around, the now winless in three Sky Blue FC will face a winless in five Boston Breakers. Both teams have struggled defensively, and Sky Blue will now have to take on the Breakers without Dew, who receives an automatic suspension for the ejection.