On Sunday, April 17, Sky Blue FC travels to Seattle to play the Seattle Reign FC for its opening match of the 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season. Sky Blue takes on the back-to-back defending Shield winners at Memorial Stadium in the first of two match ups for the teams.
Last season Sky Blue went 0-1-2 against the Seattle Reign, although SBFC’s only loss to the team came in Seattle on June 6 when starters Christie Rampone, Kelley O’Hara, Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord were away with the U.S. and Australian Women’s National Teams respectively for the World Cup.
The last time the two teams squared off on August 29, Sky Blue took an early lead off of a Nadia Nadim goal in the sixth minute. Despite the rain and a strong offensive effort by Seattle, Sky Blue held the Reign scoreless and almost handed them their first ever loss at Memorial Stadium. However, Jess Fishlock scored the equalizer goal in stoppage time, preserving the Reign’s streak and winning them the Shield.
Seattle is already being projected to once again win the Shield this season, since they are bringing back almost the exact same roster as last year. The most noticeable difference for the Reign is the absence of defender Stephanie Cox, who left to retirement at the end of last season. The Reign will also be without Megan Rapinoe for much of the season as the midfielder is still recovering from an ACL injury.
Two newcomers to the Reign could see significant time against Sky Blue on Sunday. Dutch international forward Manon Melis, has already played an integral role in Seattle’s attack during the preseason, scoring two goals in the 4-1 preseason win over the University of Washington.
Carson Pickett, the Reign’s first-round draft pick in the 2016 NWSL college draft, has some big shoes to fill as she seems to be the player tapped by Head Coach Laura Harvey to replace Cox at left back. Pickett saw substantial playing time for the Reign during a couple of preseason matches, looking pretty solid on an already formidable Seattle back line.
Midfielders Kim Little and Jess Fishlock, one of the most unstoppable duos in the league, and forward Beverly Yanez will no doubt be players to watch for Sunday night, as all three feature prominently in Seattle’s offense.
Sky Blue starts off the 2016 season with a roster that looks very little like last season’s. The New Jersey-based club team experienced a lot of player turnover, losing five starters and nine players total.
Sky Blue newcomer Caroline Stanley will most likely get the start in goal Sunday night. If so, Stanley’s first start with her new club team will be against her former club, as she signed with the Reign in July 2015. The young goalkeeper only had one start in one appearance for the Reign, a 2-1 win over the Boston Breakers, before being waived at season’s end. However, her experience training with the Reign may give Sky Blue a bit of an advantage since she has first-hand knowledge of Seattle’s tactics, especially those of the back line, that other players do not.
Sky Blue’s back line will most likely be anchored by captain Christie Rampone, who has recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery in time for the start of the season. Whether Head Coach Christy Holly will play her at outside back or center back remains to be seen, but the stability of a battle-tested defender like Rampone will be invaluable for a team as fresh as Sky Blue.
Starting alongside Rampone on the SBFC back line may be some of those fresh faces in the wake of Caitlin Foord’s and Lindsi Cutshall’s departures from the roster, especially since regular starter CoCo Goodson is reported to be out for Sunday's match with an injury. Foord opted not to return to Sky Blue FC after playing with Perth Glory FC in the W-League in her home of Australia during the NWSL off season, and Cutshall was advised by specialists to sit out this season for medical reasons.
Erica Skroski, Sky Blue’s third round pick in the 2016 NWSL college draft, will most likely get the start at center back in Cutshall’s absence. The defender played in both of Sky Blue’s preseason matches, playing a full 90 minutes in the 2-0 shutout of the University of North Carolina. Skroski has looked solid on defense for Sky Blue throughout the preseason, and her international experience playing on the U.S. Under-23 Women’s National Team definitely gives her the potential to fill one of the holes in the Sky Blue back line.
The other hole in the back line presents a more difficult challenge to fill, especially against a team like the possession-heavy, attack-minded Reign. There is the possibility that Kelley O’Hara, listed as a defender for both the U.S. WNT and Sky Blue, may actually get pushed back to play defense on Sunday. Although a more prominent feature in Sky Blue’s front third, O’Hara has been playing at outside back pretty consistently with the U.S. WNT since the World Cup, making her a more solid choice to go up against the likes of Kim Little and Jess Fishlock.
If O’Hara is moved back to defense, Sky Blue will have to get creative with the attack since forward Sam Kerr is also said to be listed unavailable for Sunday’s match. The Australian international suffered a foot injury while playing for Perth Glory FC back in November and has not been cleared to play for club or country since. Sky Blue will most likely lean heavily on first-round draft pick Raquel Rodriguez and former U.S. WNT forward Tasha Kai for their goal-scoring.
Rodriguez has experience in both the midfield and up top, but the strength she would bring to the midfield would be crucial against a team like Seattle. Rodriguez reported to camp with Sky Blue late in the preseason, making it hard to evaluate her performance with the team, but the MAC Hermann Trophy winner’s experience at the international level with the Costa Rican Women’s National Team will most likely prevent her from having problem jelling with the Sky Blue offense.
Kai will no doubt start up top, as her speed, boldness and creativity on the ball will be needed to break through Seattle’s back line, one of the best in the league. Kai will also be crucial to the Sky Blue offense, as she will not be intimidated by Reign goalkeeper Hope Solo. The two played together for four years on the U.S. WNT, winning Olympic gold medals together in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and that history, combined with Kai’s fearlessness, will hopefully work in Sky Blue’s favor.
Sky Blue FC is the definite underdog in Sunday’s match against the Reign and will be lucky to walk away with a tie. However, Holly and SBFC will be looking to silence their critics by serving Seattle its first ever loss at Memorial.
"We know that we have a big challenge ahead of us in Seattle," Head Coach Christy Holly said in a statement. "We certainly respect them, but we don't fear them."
Sky Blue FC faces the Seattle Reign on Sunday, April 17 at 7 p.m. EST. The game will be live streamed on the official NWSL YouTube channel.
Sky Blue FC Roster by position:
Goalkeepers: (2) Caroline Casey; Caroline Stanley
Defenders: (6) Kristin Grubka, Maya Hayes, Kelley O'Hara, Christie Rampone (C), Erin Simon, Erica Skroski
Midfielders: (7) Kelly Conheeney, Shawna Gordon, Sarah Killion, Taylor Lytle, Ashley Nick, Raquel Rodriguez, Nikki Stanton
Forwards: (2) Kim DeCesare, Tasha Kai
Head Coach: Christy Holly
Note: It has been reported that CoCo Goodson, Sam Kerr and Danielle Schulmann will all be unavailable for Sunday night's match due to injury
Sky Blue FC v Seattle Reign FC
When: 7:00 p.m. EST; April 17, 2016
Where: Memorial Stadium, Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
Online: NWSL Channel on YouTube