The game is the first of four matches between the two teams this season, the result of the league-created regional rivalries built into the 2016 schedules for each team. The game also marks the first time Sky Blue will face its former coach Jim Gabarra, who left the team at the end of last season to take the head coaching position with the Spirit.
Even without the forced rivalry, the game has all the makings to be one to watch this weekend. Both teams come off of wins in their season openers, and both teams have something to prove.
The Washington Spirit wants to prove that it is, once again, a playoff contender. Sky Blue wants to prove that its 2-1 win over the Seattle Reign was not just a fluke or beginner’s luck.
The Spirit is coming off of a 1-0 win over the Boston Breakers in its home opener. The lone goal was scored in the third minute when Crystal Dunn centered the ball from the right corner to Joanna Lohman, who bicycle kicked the ball into the back of the net.
Although the Spirit were unable to score another goal in the remaining 87 minutes of play, they had a number of opportunities that should have resulted in goals, but for some reason they had trouble finishing. Boston keeper Libby Stout had seven saves on the night, but the poor shooting on the Spirit’s part was just as much cause for the low score line as were her saves.
With the likes of Christine Nairn, Katie Stengel, Dunn and Lohman in the attack, the Spirit has the potential to really test Sky Blue’s back line. However, if they are as disjointed as they were against Boston and their finishing is not improved, it will be a long day for the Spirit offense, especially if Sky Blue’s defense plays the way it did against Seattle.
A bright spot for the Spirit was Ali Krieger, who moved the ball down the field well and helped break down the Boston defense. Krieger put several crosses right in front of goal for her teammates and would have walked away with multiple assists on the night had the Spirit finishing been better.
In Sunday’s match up against the Spirit, Head Coach Christy Holly will most likely use a lineup similar to that against the Reign. Despite featuring six players making their NWSL debuts last weekend, few rookie mistakes were made, only one of which was costly.
Coming up big for Sky Blue against the Reign was goalkeeper Caroline Casey, who had seven saves and only let one goal past. Seattle outshot Sky Blue, both in total shots and in shots on goal, but Casey was the better goalkeeper on the field that night and was a big reason for the win.
Although the starting goalkeeper position seemed up for grabs prior to the season opener, fans should expect to see Casey starting in goal against the Spirit this weekend. If her performance against Seattle did not win her the starting spot outright, then it should have at least earned her a second opportunity between the posts to make her case.
Sky Blue's back line will once again be anchored by captain Christie Rampone, the most stabilizing force on the SBFC defense.
Rampone proved on Sunday that she is fully recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery she underwent last December. The first time Rampone really showed her clout was in the 20th minute when Reign forward Merritt Mathias got past her. Rampone turned on the speed, caught up with Mathias and caused the turnover, effectively silencing critics of her age and health at the same time.
Kelley O’Hara will most likely start as fullback once again for Sky Blue, as the position allowed her to not only put pressure on the Reign attack, but also to move the ball down the left flank and create opportunities for SBFC’s front third.
O’Hara was arguably the best field player on the pitch for Sky Blue last weekend, moving the ball down the left flank and creating multiple opportunities on goal. The right side of Seattle’s back line was no match for O’Hara, allowing her to pretty much do as she pleased. She walked away with one assist on the night and, if secondary assists were recorded in soccer the way that they are in hockey, would have tallied one of those as well.
If O’Hara does start at left back again, she should be going head-to-head with her U.S. Women’s National Team (U.S. WNT) teammate Ali Krieger, who usually starts at right back for the Spirit. This will be fun for fans to watch since there may be a little bit a of a rivalry between the two players since Head Coach Jill Ellis seems to have them competing for the starting right back spot on the U.S. WNT going into the Rio Olympics.
One glaring omission from the lineup on Sunday will be that of Kelly Conheeney, the forward who scored the game winner against Seattle in a professional debut that came after a three-year absence from the sport. Conheeney is unavailable for the match against the Spirit because of suffering from flu-like symptoms.
With forwards Sam Kerr and Danielle Schulmann also unavailable because of injuries, Tasha Kai will once again be looked to for a major part of the Sky Blue attack. Who Holly taps to play up top with Kai will be interesting to see, as there is only one other forward listed on the Sky Blue roster, and Kai rarely plays a full 90.
Kim DeCesare may get the start alongside Kai, but that leaves Sky Blue with few options off the bench for substitutes up top, especially if Holly uses the same starters midfield as he did against Seattle.
Another possibility is that Shawna Gordon, who started in the midfield against the Reign, will get moved up top, while Ashley Nick, who subbed in for Rodriguez last Sunday, will get the start in the midfield. That would allow DeCesare to once again serve as a super sub for Kai when needed.
Sky Blue FC takes on the Washington Spirit for its home opener on Sunday, April 24 at Yurcak Field in Piscataway Township, New Jersey, at 6 p.m. EST. The game will be streamed live on the NWSL YouTube channel here.
Sky Blue FC Roster
Goalkeepers: (2) Caroline Casey, Caroline Stanley
Defenders: (6) Kristin Grubka, Maya Hayes, Kelley O’Hara, Christie Rampone (C), Erin Simon, Erica Skroski
Midfielders: (6) Shawna Gordon, Sarah Killion, Taylor Lytle, Ashley Nick, Raquel Rodriguez, Nikki Stanton
Forwards: (2) Kim DeCesare, Tasha Kai
Head Coach: Christy Holly
Note: Kelly Conheeney, CoCo Goodson, Sam Kerr and Danielle Schulmann are all unavailable due to illness or injury