After two thrillers at Yurcak Field, Sky Blue FC returned to the road to face the Seattle Reign. The teams entered the match neck and neck in the standings, so a result was the top priority. Both Sam Kerr and Megan Rapine have scorched many a net this season. Kerr recorded her first-ever NWSL hat trick last week, to take the over as the leader of all scorers with nine goals. Rapine trailed Kerr by one goal coming into the game.
Rapinoe struck first on a free kick attempt in the 27th minute. A clinical shot put the Reign up 1-0 and leveled Rapinoe and Kerr at 10 goals on the season. “I’ve put a few free kicks into the post … so it was nice to actually get this one off,” said Rapine in the postgame press conference Saturday. After that first goal, the flood opened for the Reign in the first half. Rapinoe converted on a penalty kick 20 minutes later and Beverly Yanez added a header in the 49th minute. A dangerous cross in front of net curled into Erica Skroski of Sky Blue FC for the fourth Seattle goal of the night.
If an own goal to give Seattle a 4-0 advantage would have deflated New Jersey, that would have been understandable. However, Sky Blue has made it clear no lead is safe. In 16 games this season, Sky Blue has rallied to win four times. Additionally, of the clubs 28 goals (second behind Seattle, 30), eight have come in the 80th minute or later. Therefore, the odds of the unthinkable comeback were in the favor of the visitors. New Jersy did not disappoint.
Kelley O’Hara got the scoring started in the 60th minute after Leah Galton drew a foul in the box. The Hofstra University graduate cut the lead in half by cleaning up a spill in front of net in the 64th minute. Less than ten minutes later, Sky Blue was on the attack again. Kerr found the ball at her feet but tapped the ball for Daphne Corboz. The rookie put away her first goal of the season to get Sky Blue FC within one well ahead of schedule. Two minutes later Corboz returns the favor and delivers a cross to Sam Kerr to for the equalizer. Four goals in 16 minutes propel Sky Blue to yet another comeback.
With three minutes to go in regulation, the crowd was treated to a hat trick by Megan Rapinoe. Including stoppage time, Sky Blue had nine minutes to mount another comeback and get a point on the road. However, it would not come.
Due to several injuries, Sky Blue has had a difficult time with the backline. This season, defenders Christie Pearce, Erica Skrosi, Mandy Freeman and Erin Simon have all spent time on the injured list. The latter two are currently sidelined with a right ankle sprain and a foot fracture, respectively. Rookie defender Kayla Mills has struggled at times but is healthy. Although New Jersey hoped to position O’Hara higher on the attack, injuries have forced her to drop back, theoretically. It is no secret that O’Hara drifts up for the attack, no matter her position.
It’s a double-edged sword for Sky Blue. On the one hand, O’Hara’s speed up the flank sends a skilled striker up to help – if not orchestrate – the attack. On the other hand, it leaves a hole that teams can easily expose on the counterattack. “With Kelley playing high, they play a little lopsided,” said Rapinoe, “we try to get at the flanks anyways … that’s kind of our game plan all the time.” The speed Simon and O’Hara, mixed with the and poise of players like Pearce, Skroski, and Freeman is capable of recovering – when they are healthy. That’s just the thing; Sky Blue has not been healthy.
Holly is playing to the strengths of his team offensively, but that leaves much to be desired on defense, “we have to fine tune a lot of things on the back(line), and that part is not acceptable”.
What is equally frustrating and a source of optimism is the ability for Sky Blue to hit hard and quickly on offense. “I actually think we played the better football with the ball,” said Kerr. Sky Blue fired 19 shots (31 total) in the second half alone, that is eight more than Seattle took in the game. Additionally, four different players scored for New Jersey. “I think we showed that we can be the best team in the league tonight … but like Christy [Holly] said, we can’t drop goals like that, and that quickly.”
Holes are being patched on defense. Just yesterday, midfielder Nikki Stanton started on defense and Sarah Killion has dropped for the past three weeks to get players like McKenzie Meehan and Madison Tiernan higher up. However, injuries make the aggressive attack dangerous. “There’s a risk versus reward but, the good thing that I take from this is, it’s all thing we can control,” said Holly in the postgame press conference. He added, his team is not only capable but have every intention of figuring out how to get better.
Blind optimism or unwavering confidence and belief? We will find out. With the loss, Sky Blue drops out of the top four teams, but just barely. New Jersey will look to get back on track against a struggling Washington Spirit team on August 4th at Yurcak Field. As for Kerr, she is hoping to get back on track in the Tournament of Nations with the Australian National Team. The only problem is, she might be facing her Sky Blue teammate O’Hara on the USA backline.
Double G Sports will have live coverage from the opening round of matches for the Tournament of Nations. On Thursday, Brazil takes on Japan at 1:30 pm ET, and the United States faces Australia at 4 pm.