Sky Blue FC became the third club to punch their ticket to the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup semi-finals yesterday, upsetting Washington Spirit 4-3 on penalties.
Despite ending scoreless, yesterday’s regulation period was far from boring. The game’s first 90 minutes were as nervy and tight as the 0-0 scoreline indicates, though the play was far from contained, consistently stretching from one end of the pitch to another. The Spirit held most of the possession, and had more looks at goal, but Sky Blue had some major chances themselves. But by the time that the final regulation whistle blew, neither squad had been able to find the back of the net, despite a frantic final few minutes of desperate last attempts at goal from both sides.
When penalties rolled around, goalie Kailen Sheridan cemented herself as the woman of the match. In addition to the multitude of diving acrobatic saves she had previously made to blank the Spirit in regulation, Sheridan outdid herself by making a huge stop on the Spirit’s fifth and final attempt, clinching victory for Sky Blue. Sheridan was immense on the day, to the point where it’s possible that if she had been off her game the Spirit could have scored four or five. But the Canadian international was as reliably sharp as ever, lunging around the Sky Blue box to clear or stop whatever ball came her way.
Equally important to the Sky Blue’s third clean sheet in five games would be the defense in front of Sheridan. Estelle Johnson and Gina Lewandowski continued their rock solid partnership in central defense, playing an all but mistake free game even with the ever-dangerous Rose Lavelle constantly looking to capitalize. On either side of the veteran pairing, Imani Dorsey had a productive afternoon, contributing on both offense and defense, while the platoon of Midge Purce and Sabrina Flores kept the right flank on lock.
It will certainly be interesting to see how head coach Freya Coombe deals with the right fullback spot for the upcoming semi-final showdown with the Chicago Red Stars: the ex-Sevilla defender Flores has continued to be a surprise standout for the Sky Blue defense, but converted winger Midge Purce seems to remain Coombe’s preferred starter in the position. Many fans will hope that Flores has finally done enough to convince Coombe to trust her on the right and play the natural attacker Purce as one of the front three.
Should Coombe push her forward, the addition of Purce would be a welcome one for a Sky Blue attack that has struggled with putting away chances throughout the tournament. In only one game out of five to this point have Sky Blue scored, with both of the club’s only goals so far coming against the Houston Dash in the group stage. It’s clear the attack is made up of quality players - Ifeoma Onumonu has proven to be one of the best in the league at holding the ball up and Paige Monaghan has been getting behind defenses all tournament - but it seems that Sky Blue is still missing someone who can finish attacks and find the back of the net. Could Purce be that missing piece?
Wednesday’s semi-final against the Red Stars will be a major test in a variety of ways for Sky Blue. It will test Coombe, who’ll need to replicate the success she orchestrated versus the Spirit against a well-rounded Chicago team that seems to be coming closer to top gear with each game. It will test the excellent midfield trio of Jennifer Cudjoe, Sarah Woldmoe, and McCall Zerboni, who will tangle with a Chicago midfield anchored by Julie Ertz, a dynamic force who has a mix of strength and technicality unlike any other player in the USWNT pool.
But most importantly it will test the mindset of the entire team. Some may still believe that the confident showing against the second seeded Spirit was a fluke. To beat the Red Stars, Sky Blue will once again have to come out and assert themselves against another highly favored contender. On Wednesday night, Sky Blue will look to make clear that they’re more than upstart underdogs, rather they’re a group that can go toe-to-toe with the league’s best on any given day.