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Sky Blue FC ties top-ranked Red Stars, 1-1

In the absence of USWNT players, Sky Blue forces Chicago to a draw on the road.

Daniel Bartel (ISI Photos)

Sky Blue FC (2-3-2, 8 points) walked away with a point after a 1-1 draw with the top-ranked Chicago Red Stars (4-1-2, 14 points) Sunday night.

After a first half goal by Sofia Huerta to the put the Red Stars up at the half, English-international came out strong in the second half, scoring her first professional goal in just her second appearance to equalize the score for the New Jersey-based club.

"Overall, I am happy with the performance. Our team bounced back from last weekend's result and showed tremendous character, resolve and desire," said SBFC Head Coach Christy Holly in a statement. "We were able to dominate for large parts of the game, and this result is the testament to every single player on our team because Chicago is a very difficult place to leave with anything."

Coming off a 5-2 road loss to the Western New York Flash, Sky Blue was in desperate need of points to keep from falling back to the bottom of the table. It was not easy for them, though, as they took on the Red Stars, tied for first in National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) standings with the Washington Spirit going into Sunday night's match.

The playing field was a little more even as both teams were without their United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) players. Chicago was missing starting goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, defender Julie Johnston and forward Christen Press, while Sky Blue was without defender Kelley O’Hara. Although Chicago was without more of their starters, Sky Blue was just as hampered as O’Hara is an end-line-to-end-line player at the heart of Sky Blue's play.

Sky Blue has also been plagued by injuries, putting them even more at a disadvantage. Tasha Kai did not start for the first time all season because of a left hamstring strain, and leading scorer Maya Hayes was once again out with an MCL sprain. However, Sky Blue did see the return of Raquel Rodriguez to the starting XI after being without her last weekend against the Flash.

Although Sky Blue called up amateur player Theresa Diederich in Kelley O’Hara’s absence, she remained on the bench as Kristin Grubka saw her first start of the season at center back while Erica Skroski was slotted out to fill in for O’Hara at right back.

The first half of the match started off slowly, with both teams trying to find a rhythm with new lineups and formations as the ball was passed around in the midfield. Neither team maintained possession of the ball for long once inside of their final thirds, and the first third of the game saw a lot of turnovers in possession.

Chicago found their groove first, however, and turned up the pressure on the Sky Blue defense in about the 30th minute.

In the 32nd minute, Sofia Huerta flicked the ball in to Alyssa Mautz, who fired off a shot from distance. Sky Blue goalkeeper Caroline Stanley made a diving save, though, denying the Red Stars from getting on the board.

Chicago struck just minutes later though when, in the 34th minute, Danielle Colaprico put a ball through to Sofia Huerta, who made a run from distance onto it. As Stanley came off her line and almost out of the box to try to stop Huerta’s efforts, Huerta one touched the ball around Stanley, beating her to get an open shot on goal. As Stanley made one more attempt to stop the shot, Huerta pulled back and sent the ball just out of Stanley’s reach, over a Sky Blue defender’s head and into the corner of the goal for her first goal of the season.

Huerta almost scored again in the 38th minute when she ripped off a shot from the corner of the box, but this time Stanley jumped and punched the ball over the woodwork, keeping Chicago to a one-goal lead.

Although Sky Blue FC had a couple of opportunities in the first half, but there always seemed to be some miscommunication between the players, and each attempt fell flat.

Raquel Rodriguez got the best opportunity on goal for Sky Blue in the first half in the 44th minute when Erin Simon centered the ball to Shawna Gordon, who turned away from goal and passed to Rodriguez. Rodriguez saw space and took the shot from distance, but Chicago’s Michele Dalton easily scooped it up for the save, and Sky Blue went into halftime down a goal.

The Red Stars came out in the second half with much the same energy and intensity that they closed out the first half with, but Sky Blue came out with more life than they had in the first 45 minutes.

In the 48th minute, Skroski, who did an excellent job filling in for O’Hara, moved the ball down the right flank and eventually earned Sky Blue a corner kick. Sarah Killion took the kick, placing it perfectly in front of goal, but Dalton pushed through the crowd of blue and navy jerseys to come down with the ball and prevent Sky Blue from capitalizing.

Moments later, Sky Blue had its first solid look on goal for the night when Dalton sent passed the ball out to Amanda DaCosta, who missed the pass, allowing it to go right to Shawna Gordon’s feet. With a wide open goal in front of her, Gordon took the shot, but it flew just wide right of the goal.

The next ten minutes or so saw a number of opportunities for the Red Stars, but Chicago failed to capitalize as Stanley and Sky Blue’s defense came through to prevent the Red Stars from upping the score.

With the substitutions of Leah Galton in for Shawna Gordon in and Tasha Kai in for Kim DeCesare, the momentum seemed to swing in Sky Blue’s favor.

Just moments after Kai come into the game, Rodriguez passed the ball to Lytle, who centered the ball up in front of goal to Tasha Kai, who got her head on the ball but sent the shot wide right of the goal for a Sky Blue corner kick. Killion took her second corner kick of the night, once again putting the ball in front of goal, but Sky Blue once again headed the ball wide right of the goal.

Sky Blue came up big in the 69th minute when Lytle collected the ball on the right flank and crossed it in front of goal, where it was deflected right to the feet of Leah Galton. Galton, making just her second appearance for Sky Blue, shot the ball and easily put it in the back of the net to score the equalizer and the first goal of her professional career.

Chicago definitely dominated possession in the second half despite the goal from Galton. They had a couple of minutes of dangerous possession and opportunities on goal around the 80th minute, but Stanley and the SBFC defense once again came up big to deny Chicago a solid look on goal, preventing the Red Stars from scoring a goal winner.

Although the game eventually ended in a 1-1 draw, Sky Blue did not come out unscathed. In the 89th minute, Nikki Stanton was subbed in for Tasha Kai, who was injured on a play minutes earlier. Kai, who was listed as probably for Sunday night’s match after suffering a left hamstring strain, was limping and unable to walk prior to being subbed.

Overall, Sky Blue played exceptionally well, staying pretty much even with Chicago throughout the night. The Red Stars had seven shots, three shots on goal and four corner kicks, while Sky Blue had eight shots, three shots on goal and three corner kicks.

Next week is free of NWSL games in observance of a FIFA window set aside for international play. Sky Blue FC returns to Yurcak Field on Saturday, June 11 to take on FC Kansas City.

Sky Blue FC Lineup: Caroline Stanley; Erin Simon, Christie Rampone (C), Kristin Grubka, Erica Skroski; Taylor Lytle, Kelly Conheeney, Raquel Rodriguez, Sarah Killion, Shawna Gordon (Leah Galton, 54’); Kim DeCesare (Tasha Kai, 64’; Nikki Stanton, 89’)

Subs Not Used: Caroline Casey, CoCo Goodson, Theresa Diederich

Head Coach: Christy Holly

Chicago Red Stars Lineup: Michele Dalton; Arin Gilliland, Katie Naughton, Samantha Johnson, Casey Short; Danielle Colaprico (Courtney Raetzman, 88’), Vanessa DiBernardo (C), Alyssa Mautz (Cara Walls, 71’), Amanda DaCosta (Taylor Comeau, 60’); Jen Hoy, Sofia Huerta

Subs Not Used: Sarah Gorden, Mary Luba,  Jannelle Flaws, Brianna Smallidge

Head Coach: Rory Dames