Two undefeated teams came to New Jersey this weekend as Sky Blue FC and the Houston Dash met, and both left the same as they played to a 1-1 tie. An early goal in the first half by Katy Freels gave Sky Blue the lead, Houston than equalized in the 52nd off a goal from Jess McDonald.
Last week Sky Blue came out in a more defensive 4-2-3-1. Sarah Killion was given the freedom to roam, while Lindsi Cutshall played in a more conservative holding role. Perhaps with more comfort with Cutshall in a midfield role, or looking for a more aggressive tactical set up at home Sky Blue tweaked their midfield set up. This week Sky Blue came out in a more aggressive double pivot with Killion and Cutshall sharing both offensive and defensive duties. Kelley O'Hara played exclusively at left back in the continued game of trying to predict where the versatile Stanford product will line up.
Houston played in a fluid 4-3-3. Ohai, Henderson, and McDonald played as the fluid front three. Their interplay combined with aggressive midfield runs from NJ native Carli Lloyd and UVA product Morgan Brian consistently gave Sky Blue a hard time defensively. Ashley Nick, familiar to Sky Blue fans after her year and a half with the team, sat in front of the back four in a holding role. With Nick in such a stationary defensive role, and Lloyd and Brian in a very aggressive offensive mindset, Meghan Klingenberg got the brunt of the play-making duties from a left back position.
There is no right way to play the 4-3-3. Sky Blue and the Dash both exemplified why today. While both teams lined up in a 4-3-3, both teams approached the game vastly differently. The two goals exemplified the team's two different approaches. Maya Hayes and Shawna Gordon, the two wide players for Sky Blue, were given the task of creating space behind the defense for Sky Blue's full backs. Most of the time the two wide midfielders would come short puling the fullbacks with them, opening space for either Nadim to slide in behind or creating room for the overlapping fullbacks to run into. For example on Sky Blue's goal Gordon comes short and tucks behind Nadim. She pulls her defender inside momentarily giving Kelley O'Hara just enough space to get down the side and find Katy Freels in the box.
Looking at the how the Dash approach the 4-3-3, its more about creating overloads and confusion in their opposing team's defensive third. Ohai, Henderson, and McDonald switched continuously. Looking at the Dash goal there are six Dash players in the offensive third. Brian, a midfielder, and Ohai are side by side on the Sky Blue back four. Christie Rampone and Sarah Killion are occupied anticipating the run of Carli Lloyd (probably because its Carli Lloyd). With all this confusion, no one watches McDonald who gets open and taps the ball in the open goal. This isn't an isolated incident as the Dash constantly worked to get the create chaos and confusion trying to get one of their front five free.
The Double Pivot
Just like England throughout most of the 2000's Sky Blue tried to play a double pivot in their midfield. What this means is that neither midfielder is purely offensive or purely defensive. Both midfielders are given freedom to go forward, with the idea being that as one goes forward the other stays back. The idea is that you get something that looks like two pistons; the more common appearance is what you got last night. Which was two players not looking entirely comfortable and a lot of room between the midfield and defense in zone 14. Last week Cutshall did what Nick did this week. Sit deep and provide an outlet for the offense to reset and ensure that there was no room in the middle for the opposing team.
Without her there the wing players for Houston had a field day cutting across the face of the back four. Even though the back four did a good job not biting and forcing Houston to shoot from afar, this is starting to look like either a dangerous plan or a worrying trend. While Sky Blue only gave up four shots on goal, they were once again out shot (19-8) after being out shot last week as well (15-5). Playing like that away to the defending champs is one thing, but playing like that at home is something Gabarra probably isn't happy about.
-Britt Cameron and Erin McLeod were both very active and aggressive. McLeod had no fear playing the ball with her feet outside and box and Cameron had to qualms attacking the ball
-Nadia Nadim left the first half with a groin injury. While it was said to not be serious, Sky Blue would really miss her. A preview of the Nadim-less Sky Blue in the second half featured a team that struggled to find the same amount of space it did with her in the first half
-This week featured all four NWSL games at the same time. Which is fun for fans with multiple computers, iPads, or monitors but tough on the casual fan. While this is the only time that all four games will be played at the same time, there will be multiple days when two or even three will be over lapping.