On Saturday night, Sky Blue FC, currently sitting third in league standings, will play host to the No. 2 team in the league, the Chicago Red Stars.
The two teams previously met this season on June 25, a 2-1 loss for the New Jersey side despite Madison Tiernan scoring her first professional goal to put Sky Blue in the lead just three minutes into the contest. However, a pair of second-half Red Stars goals by Vanessa DiBernardo and Sofia Huerta was more than enough to prevent Sky Blue from riding off into the sunset with three points in hand.
While the numbers may seem to be in the Red Stars’ favor, there is such a thing as home field advantage, and Sky Blue will have it at Yurcak Field. Not only that, but they’re still riding the high of last weekend’s last-minute dramatics (that Sam Kerr hat trick though), and that will likely see them enter this weekend’s match with extra energy. They’ll also have Tasha Kai available for the first time all season after she was removed from the 45-day disabled list (offseason ankle surgeries), and she always brings a spark of energy wherever she goes.
In comparison, Chicago comes to New Jersey off a disappointing scoreless draw in Boston last weekend. That could have one of two effects, either knock the wind out of their sails, or give them extra motivation to go out and get results. The former would definitely be advantageous for Sky Blue, who could overtake the Red Stars in second on the table with a win.
To help preview this weekend’s rematch, I traded three questions with James Bridget Gordon of Hot Time in Old Town about the two teams and what just might be in store for fans come Saturday night.
OaM: Chicago has been one of the top teams all season, even knocking off top-ranked North Carolina Courage in consecutive games. What is it about the Red Stars that has made them easily one of the best, most competitive teams in the league?
HTiOT: Easy: our defense. Chicago have only conceded 11 goals so far this season, giving them the lowest GA rating in the NWSL. (North Carolina and Portland are close behind with 12 goals conceded apiece.) This has allowed the Red Stars to get results even when their goalscorers can't quite get it done. They've got scrappy 1-0 wins down to a T, and have turned surviving late 2nd half sieges into an artform. The central defense partnership of Sam Johnson and Katie Naughton-- one that struggled a bit at times last season-- has really gelled, while our outside backs Casey Short and either Taylor Comeau or Arin Gilliland have been revelations. Chicago's backline isn't impenetrable, but they definitely make the opposition work harder and suffer longer for every inch.
OaM: Chicago has an extremely talented roster and a lot of depth this season. Which player is most important to the Red Stars, especially against a team like Sky Blue, and what does she bring to the table that others don't?
HTiOT: It's tempting to say Christen Press, and there's no doubt that she lends a sharpness and menace to Chicago's attack that no one else in the squad can replicate.
But I'm actually going to tip Julie Ertz here. She's transitioned from central defense to a holding midfield role, and it made an already-tough Chicago defense downright frightening. The Red Stars' backline has their stuff locked down tight, but they also get a lot of help from Ertz, who helps Chicago own the center of the park and shields the defensive bank from attacks before they get a chance to spool up. She solves problems before they become problems. So even if you have a plan to deal with Chicago's defenders, you have to get through Julie first, and not many in the league have figured out how to do that yet.
OaM: Speaking of talented players, Sam Kerr has been nearly unstoppable since opening her scoring account this season. How will Chicago try to stop her from furthering her lead as the all-time NWSL goal scorer?
HTiOT: Woof. I mean, Sam Kerr has been a revelation this season, and if anyone in the league has a chance at breaking down Chicago's wall, it's her. I think the game could very well come down to a battle between Kerr and Ertz. Irresistible Force, meet Immovable Object. I couldn't tell you right now who would come out on top, but that would be a sight to see.
* REVERSE *
HTiOT: SBFC are currently in the Top Four, and can potentially leapfrog over Chicago with a win on Saturday. They've been able to stay in playoff contention despite a relative lack of star power compared to other NWSL teams. What would you say has been their edge so far this season?
OaM: A lot of people would probably say Sam Kerr, who has obviously been a huge part of the team's success this season, but it's a trait that Kerr possesses that the rest of the team does as well, and that's unrelenting determination. Sky Blue lead the league in second-half goals (15) and seven of those occurred in the last 10 minutes of games, including five game winners. All of those were scored by starters, not players who entered the game late and had fresh legs. That's because the team is unwilling to give up, even when a win seems all but impossible. They might be sitting near the top of the table, but they still have an underdog mentality that keeps them fighting until the very last second. Just look at last weekend: Sky Blue was trailing 2-0 until Kerr scored in the 78th, 81st and 90th minutes. She was given most (if not all) of the credit for that win, but it was a total group effort: a different teammate assisted on each of her goals. Their heart and determination sees them through games that other teams might drop points in.
HTiOT: Madison Tiernan is in her rookie year but has already made a huge impact with Sky Blue. Can you tell me more about her?
OaM: Madison Tiernan, to me, is the quintessential Jersey girl. She’s played in Jersey all her life, from youth rec leagues to now professionally, so there's a lot of pride and heart in what she brings to Sky Blue. She'll be the first to tell you she's not the most talented player on the field, but she compensates for that by being one of, if not the, hardest workers out there. She really embodies that underdog, scrappy mentality that the team possesses. She's also a physical player and can be a little rough around the edges at times, which has earned her some criticism here and there, but we can also say the same things about players who have years of experience under their belts. I think if I had to describe her in only one word, it'd be feisty, and that's definitely not a bad thing.
HTiOT: What do you think SBFC's gameplan will be heading into Saturday? How will they try to break down Chicago's defense? Can they contain Christen Press?
OaM: Sky Blue has already played Chicago once on the road this season and lost, but now they'll be taking the Red Stars on at home in front of their fans, so they'll really want to just play their own game, and I think that'll be the game plan going into Saturday. Sam Kerr's been on fire lately, so I think she'll definitely be the star of the Sky Blue attack once again. She's got great chemistry with Maya Hayes and Kelley O'Hara right now, so they'll likely be instrumental in getting her the ball while also trying to get in scoring position themselves. As for containing Press, they proved in their last meeting that they have the ability. They may have a little bit of a harder time doing so with two defenders, Mandy Freeman and Erin Simon, out with injuries, but a backline of Mills-Skroski-Pearce-O'Hara is nothing to scoff at, especially with Kailen Sheridan in net behind them. All in all, I think this is the game I'm most excited about this weekend, and it could very well be another night of late-game dramatics at Yurcak Field.