If Sky Blue FC is serious about making a run at one of the four playoff spots in the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) postseason, tonight's match versus the Boston Breakers is a must win. Anything less than three points realistically ends their chances of leaping over five teams in the next month.
The two teams meet at 7 p.m. tonight at Rutgers University's Yurcak Field. Sky Blue is 2-6-5 with 11 points. Boston sits at 3-7-3 with 12 points after a 2-1 loss to league-leading Chicago Wednesday night. Portland stands 3-5-4 with 13 points, just ahead of both teams. A victory tonight would move Sky Blue FC past Boston and - momentarily at least - Portland. The Thorns play Seattle tomorrow.
Sky Blue is coming off a 3-3 draw with Western New York last Sunday - a match where the y needed two late goals to pull even. Sky Blue's chances at picking a point on the road looked bleak at best just five minutes into the second half against Western New York. Newly signed Michelle Heyman of Australia scored her first NWSL goal to give Western New York a 3-1 lead but a flurry of goals in a 6-minute span after an hour of play gave Sky Blue FC a point on the road. The two United States internationals, Kelley O'Hara and Christie Rampone, sparked the win. O'Hara had a pair of assists and Ramone scored the tying goal off a corner kick.
"This should be a wide-open game," Sky Blue FC coach Jim Gabarra said in a news release. "Both teams are looking for three points. This will not be one of those situations where the road team will be satisfied with just one point. We can select from close to our full roster on Saturday, and we are coming off a game where we scored three goals. The reverse of that is we also gave up three goals, so we have been addressing both sides of the ball this week in training."
The Sky Blue FC lineup could be in flux again. Defender Maya Hayes remains out with a knee sprain and Lindsi Cutshall is still out with symptoms of a concussion suffered last Sunday. Look for Hayley Haagsma or Kristin Grubka will take her place next to Rampone on central defense with Cami Levin moving to outside defender on one side and Caitlin Foord on the other.
The Breakers, who are on a six-game winless streak, have only one U.S. international - third string goalkeeper Alysha Naeher - but recently signed Australian Kaya Simon, who scored last week against Chicago. Stephanie McCaffrey, Kristie Mewis and Morgan Marlborough are goal-scoring threats for Boston.
Freels is for real
Where would this team be without the play of this attacking midfielder. She leads the team in scoring with five goals and an assist and has been a mainstay for Sky Blue in a most frustrating, disjointed season. And even with the return of Australian and United States internationals, Sky Blue FC was stuck in neutral against the Flash until Freels got involved. When things run through the attacking midfielder, the team rolls.
O'Hara is a midfielder
Any thoughts about playing Kelley O'Hara anywhere but in the midfield should be dismissed immediately. O'Hara started the game at left back Sunday but was moved up to midfield when injuries forced coach Gabarra to reshuffle in the first half. O'Hara notched two assists and continued her high energy efforts that made her a hit in the Women's World Cup. Although she is certainly capable of playing in the back and making timely runs, Sky Blue is much better when she's permanently in the midfield. The combination of O'Hara, Freels, Samantha Kerr and Nadia Nadim will strike more fear into opponents' defense than any other combination.
A big crowd? How big?
Hopefully, the World Cup bump will have a positive effect on the home crowd at Yurcak Field. Wednesday night, Portland registered its first ever sellout crowd, with more than 21,000 watching them play Seattle in Providence Park. Boston and Houston also have had their biggest crowds of the season. Seattle is expecting to set a home record Sunday as well - eclipsing the one set last week. So how will Sky Blue fare? As in the league standings, Sky Blue FC are at the bottom in attendance. The Welcome Home Weekend match with Portland resulted in a 3,000-plus crowd, which is also almost double what they average. With all the World Cup stars on the field tonight, it'll be interesting to see what the crowd will be like in Piscataway.