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Sky Blue FC opens 2016 with 2-1 upset of Seattle Reign

SBFC opens season with surprising win over Seattle

Sky Blue FC

Sky Blue FC silenced critics and proved the "any given Sunday" rule in its season opener against the Seattle Reign FC.

The New Jersey-based club team traveled to Seattle to take on the two-time NWSL Shield-winning Seattle Reign at Memorial Stadium on Sunday, April 17.

After a highly-physical 90 minutes of play, Sky Blue walked away with a 2-1 win, courtesy of goals by forwards Tasha Kai and Kelly Conheeney. The win marked the first time Seattle Reign lost at Memorial Stadium in their two years at the venue.

Going into the game, all signs pointed to the Reign having the upper hand. They had nine of last year’s 11 starters return this season, as well as Head Coach Laura Harvey, two-time winner of the NWSL Coach of the Year award. The Reign also won a preseason tournament in Portland after winning all three of their tournament matches, including wins over the Houston Dash and host team Portland Thorns FC.

And while many fans and critics fully expected a blow out by Seattle, Sky Blue Head Coach Christy Holly was not so quick to count his team out.

"We know that we have a big challenge ahead of us in Seattle. We certainly respect them, but we don’t fear them," Holly said in a statement prior to the match.

Sky Blue started the night out with a lineup that seemed questionable at best. Of the 11 starters, six were stepping onto the pitch for the first time in their NWSL careers.

One of these six was Caroline Casey, the first-team All-American goalkeeper from William and Mary and SBFC’s third-round draft pick, who Holly tapped to start between the posts over former Reign keeper Caroline Stanley. Stanley had pro game experience with her former club team and logged more minutes in the preseason, but Casey got the start nonetheless.

Two of the starters, Erin Simon and Conheeney, were players who made the regular season roster after impressing the coaching staff during open tryouts. Both were starting in place of veteran starters, CoCo Goodson and Sam Kerr respectively, who were unavailable for Sunday night’s match because of injury.

Not surprisingly, first-round draft pick Raquel Rodriguez and returning forward Tasha Kai also got the start, as well as veteran players Christie Rampone and Kelley O’Hara.

However, with Goodson out to injury and two newcomers starting on the Sky Blue back line, O’Hara was pushed back to left back, a position she won an Olympic gold medal playing in 2012.

Despite the inexperienced lineup, Sky Blue came out surprisingly strong against the veteran Reign.

Kim Little took the first shot on goal for the Reign, testing Casey early in just the fourth minute as Casey easily saved the shot.

Casey’s one flub of the night came in about the eighth minute when midfielder Sarah Killion passed the ball back to the keeper, who attempted to clear the ball. The kick ricocheted off of Reign forward Manon Melis’s head, sending the ball right back to Casey. Caught off guard by the ball’s quick return, Casey misjudged her dive and missed the ball as it took a bounce on the turf right outside the mouth of the goal. Luckily for Casey and Sky Blue, the spin put on the ball by Melis’s head was enough to keep it from going in the goal and, with no Reign players in the immediate area, Casey was able to jump on the loose ball and keep the Reign off the scoreboard.

Not surprisingly, it was Tasha Kai who put Sky Blue on the board first. In the 15’, Kai started a drive on goal, moving the ball into the center of the field from the right flank. As Seattle put pressure on her, she passed back to Shawna Gordon, who passed back to Sarah Killion. Killion one-touched the ball over to Kelley O’Hara, who was streaking along the left flank. Seeing Kai making a run along the right side of the penalty area, O’Hara crossed the ball to the right corner of the box. Kai perfectly timed her run to receive the ball, heading the ball into the center of the goal as Reign goalkeeper Hope Solo dove to the right.

Sky Blue had its second chance to score on the night when, in the 35th minute, Merritt Mathias took O’Hara down in the penalty area, resulting in a penalty kick for Sky Blue. As Sarah Killion lined up the shot, the shot was delayed as Solo engaged the referee in a conversation which resulted in her being booked for dissent. After Solo’s yellow card, Killion took the shot, but the awkward shot was easily saved by Solo.

The Reign saw itself finally get on the board when, in the 52’, Kim Little centered a ball to Jess Fishlock, who settled the ball before lobbing it across the goal to the far post. Merritt Mathias outjumped the Sky Blue defender and got her head on the ball, knocking it into the net to tie the game 1-1.

Sky Blue answered with the game-winner in the 67th minute off of Kelly Conheeney goal. The play started when O’Hara took a shot on goal, which was easily saved by Solo. Solo had a bad clearance, and it was easily recovered by Sky Blue. O’Hara received the ball and sent a cross to Taylor Lytle, who just managed to keep the ball in bounds. Lytle chipped the ball over four Reign players including Solo, who just managed to get a finger on the ball on its way across to Conheeney. Conheeney took advantage of the wide open goal in front of her, back-heel volleying the ball into the net to ultimately win the game for Sky Blue.

The Reign pressed hard during the final third of the game, even switching to a three-back formation to add attacking players to try to equalize the score, but it was not enough.

"I think Sky Blue got what they deserved. I don’t think we deserved to get anything out of the game today," Seattle Reign Head Coach Laura Harvey said in a post-match interview. "I can’t remember any game like that. Maybe the [2015 NWSL final] was the only time I was that disappointed with the performance."

It was obvious during the match that the Reign was frustrated, both with what they seemed to think was questionable refereeing and with their inability to capitalize on opportunities. Seattle out shot Sky Blue 13-11, eight of those on goal. However, Caroline Casey came up big for Sky Blue, tallying seven saves in her professional debut.

Also impressive for Sky Blue was Kelly Conheeney. Conheeney was invited to Sky Blue’s preseason camp after impressing the coaches at open tryouts. The all-time leading scorer in Virginia Tech’s program history, Conheeney had to take a three-year absence from the sport as she battled concussion-related symptoms. Conheeney was by far one of the stand-out players of the night, impressing fans as she put several shots on goal for Sky Blue.

"All credit must go to our players. The bought in and followed the plan, and we are extremely proud of them," Holly said.

Captain Christie Rampone also looked to have fully recovered for arthroscopic knee surgery she underwent back in December. The defender played for the duration of the match, and her play was just as consistent as ever. She also has not slowed down any, beating players almost half her age on a number of occasions. If anyone had any doubt about Rampone’s recovery, they do not after Sunday night’s game.

Overall, Sky Blue looked better than expected. The defense was strong, able to shut down the Reign attack for most of the game. The entire team was tough, physical and not afraid to put pressure on the Reign. This caused Seattle to make mistakes on the ball, which Sky Blue was quick to capitalize on.

"Obviously we are very happy with this result," Holly said. "We came in with a game plan, and we executed parts of it. However, we know we can be better. The main thing we want to walk away from this game with is knowing that this is just the first step in a very long journey."

Sky Blue returns home for its home opener against the Washington Spirit on Sunday, April 24. The match will be played at Yurcak Field in Piscataway, New Jersey, at 6 p.m. EST.

Scoring Summary:

Team 1st Half 2nd Half Total
Seattle 0 1 1
Sky Blue 1 1 2

SBFC - Tasha Kai (Kelley O'Hara) 15th minute

SEA - Merritt Mathias (Jess Fishlock) 52nd minute

SBFC - Kelly Conheeney (Taylor Lytle) 67th minute

Lineups:

Sky Blue FC: Caroline Casey; Kelley O’Hara, Christie Rampone (C ), Erica Skroski, Erin Simon; Shawna Gordon, Raquel Rodriguez (Ashley Nick, 74’), Sarah Killion, Taylor Lytle (Maya Hayes, 85’); Kelly Conheeney, Tasha Kai (Kim DeCesare, 59’)

Subs not used: Caroline Stanley, Nikki Stanton, Kristin Grubka

Head Coach: Christy Holly

Seattle Reign FC: Hope Solo, Lauren Barnes, Elli Reed (Havana Solaun, 86’), Kim Little, Merritt Mathias (Kiersten Dallstream, 70’), Jess Fishlock, Keelin Winters (C ), Kendall Fletcher, Carson Pickett, Manon Melis (Rachel Corsie, 75’), Beverly Yanez

Subs not used: Haley Kopmeyer, Lindsay Elston, Michelle Cruz

Head Coach: Laura Harvey