Sunday night's match between the Boston Breakers and Sky Blue FC wasn't technically a playoff match, but it might as well have been. With the final postseason spot at stake Sky Blue traveled to Boston to take on the Breakers in the final match of the regular season. Three points ahead of the Breakers coming into the match, Sky Blue needed just a draw to secure the final postseason berth. For Boston, the match was a must-win - any other result would send the Breakers into the offseason.
Both teams came into the match at Harvard Stadium struggling, with Sky Blue winless in four and the Breakers winless in five, but Boston wasted little time breaking out of their slump. Lauren Cheney scored just 14 seconds into the match and added another in the 18th minute, putting the visitors into a 2-0 hole before the half-hour mark. Sky Blue FC picked up the pressure, but couldn't find the back of the net, leaving Cheney's pair of goals to send the Breakers into the postseason. It is the second consecutive playoff appearance for Boston and the second consecutive playoff-less season for Sky Blue FC.
From the kickoff, Keelin Winters received the ball and sent a cross to Cheney who volleyed a shot past Jenni Branam to give Boston a 1-0 less than a minute in. Cheney's goal came just 14 seconds into the match, the fastest goal in league history. A stunned Sky Blue FC tried to respond, but it was Boston that maintained the better of the pressure. The Breakers doubled their lead, again through Cheney, in the 18th minute. It was again a rookie with the assist, this time Meghan Klingenberg, who found Cheney in the box. The U.S. National Team striker received the ball and took a touch past Branam before putting the ball into the net for her second of the night and third of the season. For Branam, it was her final professional appearance. The 30 year-old three-year Sky Blue FC keeper and one-time U.S. International announced her retirement last month.
Head Coach Jim Gabarra tried to spark the Sky Blue FC offense, bringing in Casey Nogueira in place of defender Petra Hogewoning in the 34th minute, but the visitors remained unable to muster an attack. Hogewoning signed with Sky Blue in early July, but the Dutch defender hadn't made an appearance with the team before Sunday night. With both of Sky Blue's central defenders unavailable - Anita Asante due to an injury and Carrie Dew because of a one-game suspension for a pair of yellow cards last weekend - Gabarra had little choice but to use the inexperienced Hogewoning. "We knew we needed to play a defender in the back and we brought Petra in, an experienced international defender, but she hadn't played in the league and at this pace and intensity," said Gabarra after the match, explaining his team's defensive troubles. "Plus we had Brittany Taylor out of position - she's normally our right back. To have a player sent off for two very questionable cards and then have your other central defender out due to injury it's going to be tough against any team in this league."
Sky Blue tried to press forward but the Breakers had little trouble holding off the visitors, taking the 2-0 lead into halftime. Sky Blue again upped the pressure on the other side of the break, but the attack continued to be disjointed, with many shots never even making it to Breakers keeper Alyssa Naeher.
Boston nearly added to its lead just past the hour mark, first with Branam tipping a shot from Winters over the bar in the 61st minute and then with a desperate scramble in the box following the subsequent corner a minute later. Sky Blue FC was finally able to clear and started to get the better of the possession, but the New Jersey side still couldn't put much on frame.
Striker Adriana replaced defender Danielle Johnson in the 62nd minute and Sky Blue sent everyone forward with time running out in the must-win game. Kendall Fletcher and Brittany Taylor were left to play what was essentially a two-back, with even Branam venturing past the halfway line at points. That pressure nearly paid off in the 70th minute as Eniola Aluko was in alone on Naeher, but the England striker sent a harmless header right at the Breakers keeper.
In the 89th minute Nogueira got one final opportunity to keep things close for Sky Blue, but sent her shot wide. Referee Kari Seitz blew the final whistle minutes later, leaving the 4,289 at Harvard Stadium to cheer their side's 2-0 win, and more importantly, the Breakers officially booking a ticket to the postseason. Boston will now take on third place magicJack at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida on Wednesday night in the first round of the playoffs. The winner of that match will face the Philadelphia Independence in the semifinal on Saturday at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania.
Gabarra acknowledged that the early goals put Sky Blue in a hole, but also that he believed his side could come back. "To give up two goals early in the first half was always going to be an uphill challenge, but we felt like we could score, we just didn't score today," the coach said. "The bottom line is we were not good enough in the back to start."
"It was a real good win and it shows the pride in the team and the Breakers organization that we didn't want to go out with a loss at home. It's going to be tough to go on the road and win games but I like where we are right now," said Breakers Head Coach Tony DiCicco. "I'm real pleased with the effort."