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Sky Blue FC battles to scoreless draw with Houston

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Stanley, defense compensate for lack of SBFC attack

Wilf Thorne, ISI Photos

In its second road match of the season, Sky Blue FC (1-1-1, 4 pts) traveled to BBVA Compass Stadium to take on the Houston Dash (1-1-1, 4 pts) on Friday, April 29.

After a long, hard-fought battle by both teams, the match ended in a scoreless draw.

Both teams were coming off of tough losses the week before: Sky Blue dropped its home opener against the Washington Spirit 2-1, and Houston lost 3-1 to the Orlando Pride in Orlando’s home opener.

Probably the biggest loss for Houston, though, was the loss of midfielder Carli Lloyd, who suffered a sprained MCL in her right knee in the match against Orlando. The Dash will be without her for the next four to six weeks as she recovers from the injury.

Lloyd’s absence from the Dash lineup, as well as that of Morgan Brian (hamstring) and first-round draft pick Cari Rocarro (hip), helped to level the playing field between the two teams since Sky Blue was once again without CoCo Goodson (hamstring) and Sam Kerr (ankle), two of its regular starters.

The first half saw Sky Blue come out quickly, easily controlling the ball and getting in front of Houston’s defense.

Defender Kelley O’Hara took Sky Blue’s first shot of the night in the fifth minute of the game. Sky Blue gained possession in their defensive half but possessed the ball well, patiently moving the ball down the field despite being heavily marked by the Dash. Midfielder Taylor Lytle passed the ball in to O’Hara from the left flank, and O’Hara turned around Dash midfielder Cami Privett, moved toward goal and took a shot, sending it just wide.

In the 12th minute, Dash defender Becca Moros sent a low ball bouncing to SBFC midfielder Ashley Nick, who quickly put the ball at Raquel Rodriguez’s feet in space. Rodriguez stumbled on the ball, however, allowing Privett to streak in from behind to put pressure on the ball. Rodriguez easily outmaneuvered Privett to move the ball in front of goal. As a swarm of orange jerseys moved in on the ball, Rodriguez fired a shot off between two defenders, but Dash goalkeeper Lydia Williams easily stopped the shot, making her first save of the night.

Just moments later, captain Christie Rampone sent a ball in to Tasha Kai, who was making a run into the box. Receiving the ball about 10 yards out, Kai headed the ball, but there was too little power behind it to be a threat to Williams.

The momentum seemed to swing in Houston’s favor in the 16th minute when Dash forward Chioma Ubogagu dribbled the ball towards goal, showing determination and skill as she took on five Sky Blue players in her attempt to create an opportunity on goal. The SBFC defense easily caused a turnover, but that drive seemed to make all the difference for the Dash, as the life within their attack was sparked and the game’s intensity cranked up from there on out.

In the 18th minute, Taylor Lytle made a cruicial save for Sky Blue for the second week in a row. Last week against Washington, Lytle headed a ball right at the goal line to prevent a third Spirit goal. This weekend Lytle blocked a shot on goal with her body, managing to both settle and then clear the ball out of danger despite Ubogagu fighting for possession the entire time.

For the rest of the first half, the two teams engaged in a back-and-forth, but neither team could make much happen on the ball. Part of this was the physicality of the game, as the Dash committed three fouls and Sky Blue seven, including a yellow card for Raquel Rodriguez in the 32nd minute.

Houston had the majority of scoring opportunities in the first half, taking six shots compared to Sky Blue’s three, but they never could quite get the ball on frame.

The Dash’s best opportunity on goal in the first half came in the 37th minute when Ubogagu served a ball in from the left flank, bouncing it right in front of goal. Rachel Daly came charging in on the goal, getting her right foot on it to try to scissor-kick it into the back of the net, but the ball was just inches wide of the goal.

Daly, the Dash’s first-round draft pick in the 2016 NWSL college draft, had already proven she is a force to be reckoned with in Houston’s season opener against the Chicago Red Stars, and she had a number of solid opportunities in the match. If her finishing had been better, the Dash would have no doubt walked away with three points.

The second half saw Dash Head Coach Randy Waldrum make the first lineup change of the night, as Irish international Denise O’Sullivan made her NWSL debut, subbing in for Caity Heap at the half.

Both teams came out looking to put some points on the board in the second half, but the Dash struck first in the 48th minute when Andressa sent in a nice through ball to Daly, who took a shot on goal. Stanley made a big save, but Ohai collected the blocked shot and sank it into the back of the net. However, the line judge called Ohai offsides, and the goal did not stand.

Sky Blue’s first big play of the second half came in the 56th minute when O’Hara moved the ball down the left flank and into space, where Dash defender Ellie Brush was waiting. Just as O’Hara was in the box and in position to take a shot, Brush got her foot in front of the ball, sending it out for a Sky Blue corner kick. O’Hara took the corner kick, sending it to the back post but the Dash greatly outnumbered the Sky Blue players in the area, and the ball was knocked out of bounds for a Dash goal kick.

Sky Blue had a couple of opportunities in the next few minutes, starting when Tasha Kai gained possession, taking the ball to the center of the field. She passed the ball to Rodriguez, who dribbled forward into space before taking a shot from distance, but the shot went wide.

Sky Blue’s last shot came in stoppage time when they were awarded a free kick. In the team’s best scoring opportunity of the second half, O’Hara lined up to take the free kick, taking a shot on goal. However, the ball went just over the top corner of the goal, and the game ended without a Sky Blue goal.

The games 0-0 conclusion was just as much a result of the lack of strength on the Sky Blue offense as it was the strength on the Sky Blue defense.

Goalkeeper Caroling Stanley got the start in goal over Caroline Casey, who started in both of SBFC’s previous two matches. After a stellar performance against the Reign in which she had seven saves, Casey was unable to perform the same against the Spirit, and Head Coach Christy Holly decided to give Stanley a try in goal against the Dash instead.

Stanley’s game against Houston was reminiscent of Casey’s against the Reign, as Stanley came up big with saves time and time again as Houston threw everything they had towards goal, outshooting Sky Blue 20-6. Stanley tallied seven saves on the night and was named the Pine Belt of Lakewood Player of the Game.

Also coming up big for Sky Blue was its back line, which consisted of Erin Simon, captain Christie Rampone, Erica Skroski, and Kelley O’Hara. Despite having two rookies on the back line, the Sky Blue defense was by far the strongest third of the Sky Blue lineup.

While Skroski looked the strongest she has yet for Sky Blue, it was Simon who perhaps made the biggest impact defensively for the team, shutting down opportunities and denying goals throughout the entire 90 minutes plus on the field. Although she occasionally got beat and did make a few mistakes, the outside back quickly recovered, got back into position and continued to prevent the Dash from capitalizing on any opportunities. If Simon continues to play the way she did against the Dash, she could end up being one of the most valuable players on the Sky Blue roster.

Ironically it was defender Kelley O'Hara who was most pivotal in the Sky Blue attack. Pushing up from her defensive position, O'Hara possessed the ball well, moved the ball down the field and attempted to create opportunities for her teammates and herself on goal. However, between the Houston defense and her teammates ability to get into position to make something happen offensively, O'Hara was left gassed at the end of the night with nothing to show for it.

Overall, while neither team played bad, neither team really played well either. Sky Blue’s attack was almost completely lacking, and Houston’s finishing was off.

Sky Blue will next take on the Western New York Flash at home on May 7. Kickoff is at 7:00 p.m. EST.

Sky Blue FC Lineup: Stanley; Simon, Rampone (C), Skroski, O’Hara; Nick (Conheeney, 58’), Lytle, Rodriguez (Stanton, 76’), Killion; Hayes (Schulmann, 75’), Kai

Subs not used: Caroline Casey, Kristin Grubka, Kim DeCesare

Head Coach: Christy Holly

Houston Dash Lineup: Lydia Williams; Allysha Chapman, Becca Moros, Ellie Brush, Poliana; Cami Privett, Andressa, Caity Heap (O’Sullivan, 46’); Rachel Daly, Kealia Ohai (C) (Beckie, 64’), Chioma Ubogagu (Ochs, 80’)

Subs not used: Morgan Brian, Bianca Henninger, Cari Roccaro

Head Coach: Randy Waldrum