PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Sky Blue FC has started the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League season with a pair of losses, the second coming Saturday against the Houston Dash at Yurcak Field on Saturday. The 1-0 loss was the result of an 83rd-minute winner scored by Sofia Huerta after a deadlock that saw both defenses busy at times. Here are three takeaways from the match:
Another loss, but improvement
Though many parts of the stats sheet read in the favor of the visitors, Sky Blue managed one of the team’s better performances during head coach Denise Reddy’s term. The New Jersey-based team was not too far from the Dash in terms of possession, ending the match with 46% possession and in general plenty of bright spots after a less-than-impressive 2-0 loss to open the season against the Washington Spirit.
Reddy believed her side was “on the front foot” against the Dash. “We controlled when we wanted the low press,” she said. “We controlled when we wanted a high press. … Last game, they did.”
Sky Blue seemed structured to live without the ball at times against the Dash, partly absorbing the pressure with organized defending. At times, the team went on the counter, but managed to keep meaningful possession outside of such moments, seeming comfortable at times with the ball and in particular without it.
“We knew last week against [the Spirit], we obviously didn’t have much possession,” Carli Lloyd said. She said that nerves and a need to jell was Sky Blue’s challenge against the Spirit, but she also noted that the off-the-ball comfort was by design because of that first game.
As for the defensive organization, it had been something Reddy prioritized in preseason. For her, that is also where the team’s biggest positive is.
“Our strength is in all the numbers and the unit,” she said. “We attacked as a unit. We depended as a unit and that’s what’s going to get us points.”
She said it’s a strategy the team will use against opponents that boast some of the league’s most talented players, such as the Portland Thorns, who visit Sky Blue next Saturday.
Sheridan stands out
Huerta’s late goal was equally exciting for the Dash as it was crushing for Sky Blue and, in particular, goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, who had enjoyed a stellar night until that point. From early in the match until its dying minutes, she made several impressive saves, including a kick save in the second half.
“She’s big today. Really big,” Reddy said. “That should be almost like a wave that builds ground and all of a sudden is coming back up. She was big time, and it’s just such an unfortunate goal.”
Sheridan felt the team was “unlucky” to lose the match.
The Canadian actually managed a save in the sequence that led to the game’s lone goal. Rachel Daly took a shot that Sheridan stopped by coming out of her net. Unfortunately for the goalkeeper and Sky Blue, Huerta found the loose ball and scored in the unguarded goal.
“Honestly, my biggest thing right now is [that] I’m frustrated,” Sheridan said. “I think we deserve a little bit more.”
Sheridan’s performance ultimately kept Sky Blue in a match that may have seen improvement, but still required help from a standout goalkeeper. She kept the match tight until the end and seemed unbeatable for the 80-plus minutes she kept the clean sheet.
Still no goals
Though Sky Blue seems to be making strides in terms of its defensive shape, the offense could use some work. The team has conceded three times this season, but has yet to score, and was not particularly menacing offensively against the Dash. The team’s biggest goal-scoring chance came through a penalty, which Lloyd earned and then missed, and though the team got close to goal, the players did not threaten often.
Reddy made one change to her lineup from the match against the Spirit, pairing Lloyd with Jen Hoy up top, while Raquel Rodriguez moved into the midfield and rookie Julie James was benched. In a limited capacity against the Spirit, Hoy provided some impact to an attack looking for it and, overall, the attack ran more smoothly. That said, it may require some more polishing.
Reddy would prefer to overwhelm teams on attack to close out matches and said her team is presently missing an edge. She does not doubt the group has it, though.
“This group is very resilient,” she said. “They want to be here. They want to work hard. They want to be pushed, and they’re strong. They can take it. That’s the little difference. I think we do have the edge.”