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Sky Blue drop 1-0 result to Royals in second Challenge Cup match

Rodriguez goal sinks still-winless SBFC

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-Utah Royals vs Sky Blue FC Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Sky Blue FC fell 1-0 to the Utah Royals Saturday night in their second match of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.

Amy Rodriguez was the star for the Royals, who put the home side ahead for good in the 41’ by running onto an inch-perfect through ball by Vero Boquete. Rodriguez picked up Woman of the Match honors for her efforts, keeping the Sky Blue backline under constant pressure all game.

In contrast to Sky Blue’s opener, which featured some uncertain probing by both OL Reign and SBFC, this was a match fully dominated by the Royals. From the start Sky Blue struggled to find a foothold in possession, with the midfield looking disorganized and out of sync. In turn, the central-forward pairing of Evelyn Viens and Ifeoma Onumonu hardly ever received the ball in the center of the pitch, resorting to abandoning shape by either falling way back, picking passes up on the flanks and looking forward from there or chasing long (and ultimately fruitless) balls down the wings.

The disjointed display yielded the results one would expect. In addition to Utah controlling the possession, Sky Blue didn’t place a single shot on target all game. The team looked to be attempting to lay the foundation for a possession based game in the future, but the fact that it’s a start from scratch on this front is clear. Players like attacker Paige Monaghan, who last season was at their most dangerous using speed to stretch defenses and get in behind, looked uncomfortable as the team seeked to develop slower, less direct, and more deliberate attacks.

The problem in play seemed to start at the backline. Gina Lewandowski played a fine game, but it was noticeable that her main strength is not distribution, a near requisite for the style of play head coach Freya Coombe is seeking to implement. Experimental fullback Midge Purce has the passing range and ability to put in a shift no matter where she is on the field, she’s naturally a forward whose instincts and abilities always find her at her best when she was dribbling past Royals to start attacks, not sitting back and playing line breaking passes. And, while Purce certainly has the mentality and the IQ to perhaps develop her skills in a new defensive position down the line, she was out of her depth whenever Utah forced her into one-on-one defending scenarios last night.

One of the lone bright spots was Sabrina Flores, who has been a bastion of consistency for the Sky Blue defense in her first 2 starts for the club in 2020. The Mexican international has displayed a well-rounded skill set, possessing a strong sense of positioning and a deep passing range. She’s been quick on the ball and unwavering in stopping opposing wingers, and it’s easy to imagine the 24-year-old as a potential cornerstone as Coombe looks to revamp the team and establish a new identity.

Though a forgettable match overall, it’s still important to remember the context of these games. Sky Blue isn’t in this tournament with the goal of taking home the title, but rather finding the players that will perhaps bring more tangible success in the future. Tinkering with the lineup and dragging through the slow learning of new styles of play will result in boring and even outright bad games, but it will also prove invaluable in allowing players and coaches alike to discover what works and what doesn’t, providing much-needed experience to a club rebuilding itself on and off the field.