Sky Blue FC (1-7-2, 5 points) returns home to Yurcak Field Friday night to take on the Laura Harvey-led Utah Royals FC (5-3-2, 17 points) for the second time this season. Utah was victorious in the two teams’ first meeting this season thanks to an early strike by Amy Rodriguez, but Sky Blue’s defense was able to hold the Royals to the lone goal. Rodriguez’s goal is the only one scored for the Royals in their last four matches, while Sky Blue scored two goals against the Chicago Red Stars last weekend to earn them their first win of the season.
To preview Sky Blue FC v. Utah Royals FC, we teamed up with Lucas Muller of RSL Soapbox, SBNation’s Utah Royals site, to exchange three questions ahead of Friday night’s match.
We’ll let RSL Soapbox go first.
RSL Soapbox: Sky Blue fired Denise Reddy a few weeks back — do you feel that was the right move for the team and who’s taking the reins until a replacement is found? Are there any leading candidates out there for the new head coach?
Once A Metro: Firing Denise Reddy was absolutely the right call. I know I’m not the only person surprised that she was given a second chance after going 1-17-6 in her first season with the team, but her departure seemed inevitable once she failed to coach the team to any wins to start off the 2019 season. With the talent that Sky Blue has on paper, she should have been able to produce more results than what she did. Personally, I would like to see more women coaching in the NWSL, but Reddy just seemed to be in over her head, and from the murmurs coming out from those close to the team, she did not create a positive team environment or culture, which did not help. So, as much as you hate to see a coach go midway through the season, especially with no replacement immediately available, it was the right call.
As for who will be taking over for Reddy, it seems that the rest of the coaching staff are jointly leading the team until a new coach is hired, much the same way they did following Christy Holly’s early departure in 2017. The club is being extremely tight-lipped about the coaching search and any prospects for the team, so right now there’s no information about any possible leads available.
RSL: In their last game, Sky Blue won 2-1 away to Chicago. It’s their first win of the season and seems like a massive result given how good Chicago have been. What did the team do to find success and shutdown a player like Sam Kerr?
OAM: Sky Blue defeated Chicago for two reasons. The first, was the defense is much stronger with Kailen Sheridan in goal. She’s with the club for her third season now, and she knows her teammates. She has a very commanding presence in goal, both in directing her back line and in making saves. Sam Kerr put three of four shots on goal during the match, and the rest of the Red Stars put nine of 23 shots on target, but Sheridan had an insane game, making seven stops to help Sky Blue to the win.
The second reason is that the team looked to finally be able to play like themselves and to have fun on the pitch, which I think has been lacking for the last season and a half. Sources close to Sky Blue have told me that players felt stifled and unconfident playing under Reddy, and on Saturday they were free to play like their games. They’re all extremely talented players--they wouldn’t be playing in the NWSL if they weren’t--and none of them ever give up despite the scoreline or their season record. So I think that, combined with the amount of heart the players have, led to a tenacious, hard-fought win. They weren’t the best team on the field for much of that match, but they played their game and were able to finally find that success that’s eluded them all season long.
RSL: What players have stood out for the team this season? Will Carli Lloyd returning to the team be a difference maker in the attack?
OAM: Raquel Rodriguez has been absolutely dynamic in the attack for Sky Blue, especially in Carli Lloyd’s absence. I expected Imani Dorsey and Savannah McCaskill (before her trade to Chicago) to start racking up goals and to kind of take over for Lloyd, but Rocky is the player who stepped up. She now leads the team in scoring (3 goals, 1 assist), and the most recent of which was the first goal for Sky Blue in their win last weekend. Rodriguez also leads the team in shots on goal, so while she doesn’t create the most opportunities on goal, she makes the most of them.
If Lloyd returns to Sky Blue with the same intensity that she played with during the World Cup, she will be a difference maker in their attack. There’s no way she won’t be. She led the team in goals before leaving for international duty, and her veteran leadership is unparalleled on the team. However, she’s notoriously performed better for country than club and has earned a bit of a bad reputation with previous clubs because of seemingly checking out after returning from major tournaments. Hopefully 2019 will be different and her presence will benefit Sky Blue’s attack, but that remains to be seen.
And now it’s our turn to ask the questions.
OAM: The Royals started out the season with three consecutive wins to claim an early spot at the top of the NWSL table. Lately, though, Utah has scored only one goal in their last four matches. What are the reasons for their offensive struggles, and what do they need to do to strengthen up their attack against Sky Blue?
RSL: Utah Royals haven’t been known for their attack. The team has been very good in defense in their first two seasons, but goal scoring has always been an issue.
The injury to Vero Boquete, who is the team’s creative playmaker, left a hole on the field that no one else was able to fill. Amy Rodriguez always look dangerous, but she’s not getting the service she needs to score goals, especially without Vero. Her on-field connection with Vero is still developing, but we saw some great stuff between the two this season.
With Christen Press out with the USWNT, there was high expectations for Katie Stengel to knock in goals like we saw last season. Stengel was the team’s leading goal scorer in 2018, but has yet to register a goal or assist in 2019. The World Cup period has been a difficult time to see a dip in her form.
Now that players like Desiree Scott, Rachel Corsie, and Katie Bowen are back, we should see an improvement on both sides of the ball. I’ve been told that Vero is healthy for this game, and with Scott in her defensive midfield role, that allows Gunny Jonsdottir to play in her preferred box-to-box role, where she’s much more effective. Like most NWSL teams, the Royals won’t be at their best without their US players, but Friday should see them field their strongest team since the US trio were called into camp.
OAM: Laura Harvey is one of the most well-liked and respected coaches in the NWSL despite never having won a title. What does she bring to this team that’s unique in helping them be successful on the field?
RSL: Laura Harvey is absolutely loved by her team, and that goes incredibly far in getting a team to play well. Hope Solo recently said that Harvey was the best coach she’s ever had. Samantha Johnson retired after the team’s last game. Johnson had actually wanted to call it quits in preseason but didn’t want to leave the team short-handed through the World Cup stretch, so she stayed on. It seems that Laura played a big role in her staying for half the season and that speaks to her quality at managing player relationships. She has a clear plan for the player and understands each person’s strengths. I believe that understanding is why players are willing to play in different positions, even if it’s not their preferred spot and they follow the coach’s plan.
OAM: Which of the Royals’ three USWNT players--Kelley O’Hara, Christen Press, and Becky Sauerbrunn--do you think has been the biggest loss for the Royals during the World Cup? What will this player bring back to the team that has been missing in her absence?
RSL: Going into the World Cup, I would have said Sauerbrunn. However, the struggles in goal-scoring make me thing that the absence of Press has been felt the most. Sauerbrunn is far and away the leader of the team. She commands the backline so well, but conceding goals has been less of an issue than scoring them.
Kelley O’Hara is a player who’s been sidelined with an injury for much of the last two years. She’s one of the best players in the world at her position, but Utah has had to learn how to get by without her. Becca Moros has done an incredible job as her replacement, and we’ve gotten to see a rookie like Michelle Maemone get minutes as an outside back during this stretch.
Christen Press is the best attacker on the team, even with league and country legend Amy Rodriguez third in the NWSL on goals this season. Press offers so much going forward with her speed and creativity that everyone is looking forward to the alleged return of the USWNT players on July 19th.
Sky Blue FC takes on the Utah Royals Friday, July 12 at Yurcak Field at Rutgers University. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET. Domestic fans can stream the game live here.