After a hard-fought season of overcoming the odds, Sky Blue FC was officially eliminated from the 2016 NWSL playoff race after drawing the Orlando Pride, 1-1.
The one point earned from the draw, combined with the one point the Western New York Flash picked up against the Boston Breakers, made it mathematically impossible for Sky Blue to move back into one of the top four table spots this season.
Sky Blue had moved into the NWSL table's fourth spot a week before the month-long Rio window built into the league's schedule, but a disappointing loss to the Washington Spirit on July 31 knocked them back down. The team was never able to reclaim the spot.
Sky Blue hoped to earn three points against the NWSL's newest team, the Orlando Pride, who had already been eliminated from playoff contention the weekend before. However, hoping to earn three points was not enough tonight as their first half was lukewarm at best. Christy Holly, Sky Blue FC's head coach said the team could not get out of first gear.
"We cannot ask for anything more of the players who stepped onto the field tonight. They showed complete application from the first whistle to the final whistle. We were a little slow-starting, but we truly found another gear in the second half to cause a lot of problems for them and nearly step away with three points," Holly said.
One reason for Sky Blue's struggles could have been the lineup. USWNT star Kelley O'Hara was once again unavailable for the match due to a sprained right ankle. Raquel Rodriguez also started on the bench for the first time this season, leaving Sarah Killion as the lone defensive midfielder in for Sky Blue. Sam Kerr was also pushed back from her typical forward position to play on the wing opposite of Leah Galton. Caroline Casey got the start in goal, a surprising move considering Caroline Stanley has started in goal every game she was healthy since replacing Casey as the starter in week 3.
Orlando, on the other hand, had no problems getting started. In just the sixth minute of play, Maddy Evans brought a good chance in for the Pride, but the shot was caught by Caroline Casey. Soon after, Alex Morgan made a direct attempt that was blocked by Kristin Grubka and cleaned up by Casey.
In the 14th minute, Sam Kerr took control of the ball from Orlando and took a shot, but it was wide left of the goal. Morgan took a free kick by the left of the box in the 20th minute, and after a dangerous melee in the box, Casey managed to clear the shot.
Minutes later, Alex Morgan struck first for Orlando, receiving service from Evans and blasting it past Casey and into the back of the net, making the total 1-0 for Orlando Pride.
Just after the ball was returned the play, Leah Galton took the ball down pitch and crossed to Kerr, who fired high over the right corner of the net. In the 28th minute, Christie Rampone took possession of the ball and passed to Maya Hayes, making her first start since recovering from an MCL sprain suffered near the start of the season, but Hayes' shot was easily collected by USWNT and Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris.
Both Orlando Pride and Sky Blue FC made some excellent chances in the second half, but none could finish until the 80th minute when Sky Blue FC finally got on the board when Hayes put another shot on goal, only to see if deflected by Harris. However, Kerr was able to knock the deflection into the wide open goal, tying the score up at 1-1.
In a potential NWSL Save of the Week nominee, Caroline Casey and Kristin Grubka combined in stoppage time to deny Jasmyne Spencer a gamewinner. Casey came off her line and blocked Spencer's shot, but the ball deflected into the air and could have bounced into across the goal line. However, Grubka was there to bicycle-kick the ball clear of danger, preventing Orlando from scoring a second goal and winning the game.
The teams both battled to bring home three points, but neither could score another goal, and so both left with one point. Although the draw snapped both teams' losing streaks, it was also enough to deny Sky Blue a chance at its second playoff run.
On Saturday, September 10, Sky Blue FC travels to Orlando to once again face the Pride in the final game of the teams' home-and-home series.
|Sky Blue FC||0||1||1|
ORL - Alex Morgan (Maddy Evans), 23'
NJ - Sam Kerr, 80'
Sky Blue FC Lineup: Caroline Casey; Erin Simon, Christie Rampone (C), Kristin Grubka, Erica Skroski; Leah Galton, Taylor Lytle (Nikki Stanton, 54'), Sarah Killion (Raquel Rodriguez, 76'), Sam Kerr; Tasha Kai, Maya Hayes
Subs not Used: Caroline Stanley, CoCo Goodson, Kim DeCesare, Shawna Gordon, Kelly Conheeney
Head Coach: Christy Holly
Orlando Pride Lineup: Ashlyn Harris; Cami Levin, Monica, Kaylyn Kyle, Josee Belanger; Maddy Evans (Sarah Hagen, 75'), Dani Weatherholt; Samantha Witteman (Jasmyne Spencer, 61'), Alex Morgan (C), Jamia Fields (Lisa De Vanna, 88')
Subs not Used: Kaitlyn Savage, McKenzie Berryhill, Toni Pressley, Christina Burkenroad
Head Coach: Tom Sermanni
NJ - Nikki Stanton (caution), 90'