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Sky Blue, Portland Thorns share points in entertaining 2-2 draw

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — After going two matches without a goal, Sky Blue FC finally scored its first goals of the season and picked up a point in a 2-2 draw Sunday against the visiting Portland Thorns.

The hosts went up early, with Carli Lloyd scoring the team’s first goal of the season. From midfield, Raquel Rodriguez sent a ball to Lloyd on the right side of the field. The U.S. women’s national team player then made a run into the penalty area and scored past Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch after only six minutes.

Lloyd doubled the lead 12 minutes later. Franch came off her line in an effort to stop Lloyd, but the forward managed to leap over the goalkeeper and eventually flicked the ball into the empty goal from a wide angle.

Sky Blue’s goals reflected the team’s energetic start to the match. They pressed the Thorns defense several times in the early parts of the first half, which was part of the preparation for the task.

Lloyd said her side was “on the front foot” to start the match. She added that the team had “the courage to not be afraid. Having the courage to go out, to put them under pressure. Obviously, we’re respectful of their players, but at the same time, we’re not going to be afraid of them.”

Defender Erica Skroski elaborated on the team’s game plan, saying the active start is similar to how the team trains, but “the first game, we couldn’t find that. I think one of the biggest things is our back line. We stood up higher, and that allows our midfield line and our forward line to be able to receive the ball higher up the field, and have more time and space instead of sitting in our own half trying to now go to goal.”

Following Lloyd’s second goal, the Thorns got in a huddle for an evaluation of their performance after 20 minutes. As Franch described it post-match, it was a short and blunt conversation.

Not good enough, period,” the goalkeeper said. On the opening part of the match, Franch added the Thorns “kind of slacked off and they punished us.” Eventually, though, the visitors began to disrupt Sky Blue’s rhythm and started to give the opposing defense work to do. It resulted in two quick goals.

First came a 32nd-minute goal from defender Emily Sonnett. The sequence started with a free kick from New Jersey native Tobin Heath, with the ball finding Christine Sinclair in between before Sonnett took advantage from a close position in a crowded penalty area.

Two minutes later, Heath scored a goal of her own in impressive form. Caitlin Foord sent a cross in from the right side of the field, which eventually found Heath near the goal. From there, the midfielder turned around and scored a backheel for the second time this season. The Thorns finished the second half with momentum on their side, and level on the scoreboard.

The fact that we came back is good character that we want,” Franch said. “We need to continue with that throughout the season.”

The second half saw the visitors pick up from where they left off, challenging the Sky Blue defense frequently. Sky Blue goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan was forced into a few saves early on as her side absorbed the pressure being put on by the talented Thorns offense. As they did that, Sky Blue was comfortable eventually looking for its opportunities on the counterattack, frequently with midfielder Nahomi Kawasumi making runs on the right flank.

Both teams came close to finding a game-winner, ending the match with 14 shots each. The intensity was high throughout the second half, eventually resulting in a back-and-forth ending. However, between close attempts, impressive saves, other defensive efforts and their own misfirings, a game-winner never came.

Late in the match, Sky Blue received a boost when midfielder Savannah McCaskill picked up her first minutes of the season as an 81st-minute substitute in a return from injury.

For both sides, there are positives to take; the Thorns salvaged a draw from a losing position and did so quickly, while Sky Blue got a point off of one of the league’s most consistent teams. Yet, neither team was particularly satisfied with the result.

For the visitors, Franch said the performance was “not good enough, same kind of thing. That’s the feeling that we’re leaving with. We feel like we lost points on the table.”

Lloyd was similarly disappointed, but still took on a tone of positivity. “We scored in the first six, seven minutes of the game, and you want to continue to hold that lead,” she said. “I think there’s some growing pains and learning experiences that we can all look back at and try to be better. … The season is a long marathon, not a sprint.”

Additionally, the match served as a World Cup send-off of sorts, as Franch suggested she would not rejoin the Thorns until after the USWNT’s journey in France ends. Lloyd confirmed with Pro Soccer USA that Sunday’s match was her final one with Sky Blue before leaving for a World Cup training camp.

Sky Blue continues the search for its first win of the season next week, heading to WakeMed Soccer Park on May 4 to take on 2018 National Women’s Soccer League champion North Carolina Courage.

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