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Sky Blue balance World Cup boost with continuing disappointment after loss to Spirit

Sky Blue followed up its first two wins of the season with two losses.

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — For Sky Blue FC, Wednesday’s loss to the Washington Spirit brought a mixed bag of emotions as the team was once again outplayed while the growth of women’s pro soccer post-Women’s World Cup once again took center stage.

Here are three takeaways from the team’s recent 1-0 loss:

Struggling in attack

Sky Blue FC has been struggling for goals for the entirety of the 2019 season, sitting bottom in the league for both shooting accuracy and shot conversion. More often than not, the team still managed a relatively high shot count, but against the Spirit, the team had a particularly poor performance. The New Jersey based club had just six shots at the end of the match, two on target, and did little to truly test the Spirit’s defensive unit.

Sky Blue truly let the Spirit have control of the ball for a majority of the match, which ultimately led to the visitors’ success.

I thought we were very compact out of possession and when we had it we were a bit extensive and kept it,” Spirit head coach Richie Burke said post-match. “Good spells. A little bit more patient. We created some good chances. … Pretty, pretty pleasing night.”

Sky Blue goalkeeper coach Hugo Macedo commented that the team was not on the “front foot” enough during the first half, and though the second half started better for Sky Blue, the rhythms of the match barely changed. Ashley Hatch’s match within the opening ten minutes of the second half hardly helped matters, making it difficult for Sky Blue to ever get their own plans started.

We defended a lot and I think when you kind of don’t have that momentum, and you’re defending a lot, it’s hard to get the attack going,” Carli Lloyd said after her first match following victory at the Women’s World Cup at the beginning of the month. “We just all have to come back against Houston and just all be better, myself included.”

Back to losing ways

Sky Blue started the month on a high, winning its first match of the season at the Chicago Red Stars on July 6 and then following that up with a win at home against the Utah Royals for its first back-to-back wins in almost two years. The team has not noticeably improved, though, and frustration is once again beginning to set in.

I think we all deserve the best,” Lloyd said. “You see some of the players just feeling deflated, and you continue to lose. It’s tough.”

In the meantime, the team has decided to take the high road while the results go against them. Macedo said after the match he was choosing not to look at the team’s mistakes at the time, but that “there’s always something that we can get better.”

We look at tactics and composition, players, and passess — it’s everything,” he said. “[There’s] always something that we can improve for the next game.”

Interim general manager Alyse LaHue once again spoke after the match about creating a better professional environment for the players, but took positives from the players’ reactions after the final whistle was blown.

They came off the field, they’re pissed today, and that’s a good thing,” LaHue said. “They care deeply about this. They want to win. They want to win games, and they sat there and they held themselves accountable today.”

USWNT “cultural moment” key in maintaining attendance bump

Perhaps the most notable event of Wednesday’s match was Sky Blue’s announced attendance of 5,003 fans, the team’s best attendance number since an August 2015 victory over the Portland Thorns. Officially a sellout in Yurcak Field on a day that concluded with a celebration for World Cup participants Lloyd, Kailen Sheridan, and Estelle Johnson, it was hard not to talk of a boost following the tournament.

‘I’ll be totally honest, I didn’t know we were going to sell out coming into today and I’m usually pretty good with my numbers so there was a late surge on this one that was [not] traditional for us,” LaHue said. “Even going into a Wednesday [it’s] pretty unusual… This was really, I think, a lot of fan-driven effort.”

The attendance follows a trend the National Women’s Soccer League has seen as teams around the league have been celebrating World Cup winners and other players in the last several weeks. The bump is similar to one experienced following the United States women’s national team’s previous World Cup victory in 2015, but was not easily maintained. Lloyd, a veteran of the women’s game in the United States, noted that exposure was still needed despite the increase in attention in 2015.

I think the biggest thing is just kind of getting everyone aware that we actually do have a league,” Lloyd said. “There’s some kids that I’ve even had some interactions with that had no idea that there’s a league so I think that a problem that we need to make sure that everybody is aware.

We need more people kind of buying in and supporting and just like this, changing people’s lives. Just going down the line, signing autographs, taking selfies. Kid sees that; ‘I just got a selfie with Carli. I want to come back.’ That’s really what it’s all about.”

A league-wide sponsorship with Budweiser has highlighted what increased attention on women’s soccer means in a tangible sense, and is perhaps the most visible difference between 2015 and 2019 so far. LaHue, having worked in women’s soccer in the U.S. for many years, feels that the spotlight and investment is the result of the victorious 2019 U.S. team carrying a different message than the 2015 team.

“It’s almost a cultural moment for us and women’s sports and talking about gender equity,” LaHue said. “The last time we won the World Cup, it had been a long time coming so it was just the joy in winning that. I think this time the U.S. women’s national team players really took on a much bigger role.

“I think the work that they’ve done off the field is going to have ripple effects so taking that into consideration, I think we’re seeing more interest from sponsors this time around that are wanting to tap into that… There’s something palpable about that that I certainly feel right now and in my role, and it’s exciting.”

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