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The Lowdown: Sky Blue’s slump continues

There have not been many scenes like this lately for Sky Blue FC, shutout in three straight. (Photo copyright Howard C. Smith)

Sky Blue FC just cannot seem to play to expectations.  Few thought much of their chances starting the season, and all they did was race out to first place for much of the first half.  And then just when they started to make believers out of the masses, the club hit the skids.

“I think we’ve probably been slumping for six to eight games,” coach Jim Gabarra acknowledged following Sunday’s 1-0 home loss to FC Kansas City.  “But I think we’re a pretty solid defensive team and that has gotten us some points.”

The defensive prowess nearly got Sky Blue another point against Kansas City.  They did an excellent job on Lauren Holiday and Erika Tymrak, and at times stifled the Kansas City attack before it reached the middle of the park.  But despite a few good chances, Sky Blue were shut out again, the third straight time they have been held off the scoresheet.

“If you can’t score you’re not going to get any points,” Gabarra said.  The three-match scoreless streak has produced one scoreless draw.  Over their last seven the team is 1-3-3 after an 8-2-1 start.

Asked to pinpoint a reason for the scoreless run that has reached 286 minutes, Gabarra had several answers.

“We haven’t had our forwards in a good training rhythm, whether it’s due to injuries or players that are playing out of position.  It’s not going to happen next week either.  Scoring is kind of a repetition and a timing thing.  When you get players playing 30 minutes, 45 minutes, getting injured and putting someone else in, it makes it difficult.

“Monica (Ocampo) had an injury where she wasn’t training.  Now she’s thrown back into the matches.  Lisa (De Vanna) hasn’t trained much at all.  It throws off the rhythm and the timing.”

It may sound like a bunch of excuses from Gabarra, but consider this: For a long stretch covering most of May and June, Sky Blue’s midfield trio of Manya Makoski, Katy Freels, and Taylor Lytle was playing as well as any midfield in the league.  And the back four with Christie Rampone leading a trio of youngsters was in lock step with each other.  Then Kelley O’Hara hurt her ankle and the wheels have been in constant motion ever since.

With De Vanna nursing injuries to both hamstrings and the midfield playing well without Sophie Schmidt, the Canadian has spent some time at forward, where she is far less effective than at midfield.  Other injuries include a concussion for Makoski and a foot injury for right back Caitlin Foord, who is on crutches and most likely done for the season.

Gabarra has now run Danesha Adams, Maddie Thompson, and Lindsi Lisonbee-Cutshall out at right back over the last few matches (some because of Foord being with the Australian national team).

Lisonbee-Cutshall at least was one of the bright spots in Sunday’s loss.  The 4th overall pick in the college draft was making her first professional start after arriving late to training camp and then being injured earlier in the season.

“I thought she was great,” Gabarra said.  “Obviously she was nervous and the speed of play was difficult.  She was everything I expected of her.  It was great to have her in there and get her some game time, especially 90 minutes.”

Despite the praise Gabarra noted that like others, Lisonbee-Cutshall was playing out of position.  She spent the first half playing right in front of the Sky Blue bench, which gave frequent instruction, often urging her to get further into the attack.

“She’s a central defender and we’re playing her out right,” he said.  “When you have the player on your side of the field it gives you more of an opportunity to coach them during the game.  It’s a timing thing as well knowing when to get forward and get forward early enough to receive the ball in a dangerous spot rather than just getting it and allowing the team to adjust and slide over in possession.”

Lisonbee-Cutshall wound up making the defensive play of the night when she slid across the goal line to deny Courtney Jones a second goal and keep Sky Blue within range of tying the match in stoppage time.

The week ahead is a big one for Sky Blue, who could feasibly make the playoffs even without securing another point.  They will make a quick trip—if that is possible—out west to play Portland Thorns FC on Wednesday night before returning to Yurcak Field to face the Washington Spirit and their 11-game winless streak.  And they could be without two other players.  De Vanna aggravated her hamstring early against FC Kansas City and was mostly ineffective before not returning for the second half.  And goalkeeper Brittany Cameron was shaken up in a hard collision with Melissa Henderson.  Cameron remained in the game but was iced and noticeably limping afterwards.

“We’ve been relying on role players and players to step in, and the injuries kind of got piled on here in the Western New York game,” Gabarra said.  Look for more role players to get chances to perform this week.

Playoff races

The Blues enjoyed a six-point week to surface at the top of the table while the Breakers and Red Stars had their slim hopes further dampened by losing midweek.  Three of the four spots could be clinched by this time next week.  Here is a closer look:

FC Kansas City (10-4-5, 35 pts)
Max points:  44
This Week:  at Thorns (Sun)

The Blues won two games last week and are now 3-0 since blowing the two-goal lead in Chicago and have not conceded a goal in any of those games.  Overall they have not lost over their last nine and one more point—or one more point dropped by the Red Stars—will see FC Kansas City through to the playoffs.

Sky Blue FC (9-5-4, 31 pts)
Max points:  43
This Week:  vs Portland (Wed); vs Spirit (Sat)

The league leaders for much of the summer probably need a point in Portland on Wednesday to maintain a legitimate chance of hosting a playoff match.  The issues are in their injured players—Kelley O’Hara, Caitlin Foord, Manya Makoski, with lesser knocks to Lisa De Vanna, Monica Ocampo, and Brittany Cameron.  They have not scored in three games.  Two wins this week and they are in the playoffs with other paths available to them with lesser points.

Portland Thorns FC (9-4-4, 31 pts)
Max points:  46
This Week:  vs Sky Blue (Wed); vs Kansas City (Sun)

It’s all on the line this week for the Thorns, who will play home matches against Sky Blue and FC Kansas City, the two teams in their way of finishing first in the league.  Two wins will vault them to the top, but dropped points will leave them in arrears and likely leave them with tiebreaker issues as well.  Sunday’s 3-3 draw with the Red Stars was not exactly an advertisement for great Thorns soccer although at least they are scoring again.  Like Sky Blue they will clinch with a six-point week, with a chance to clinch with less if they get some help.

Western New York Flash (7-3-6, 27 pts)
Max points:  42
This Week:  vs Spirit (Wed); at Breakers (Sat)

After getting last week off the Flash are set for a grueling finish to the season as they will play Wednesday-Saturday the next two weeks before a full week of rest ahead of the season finale.  Only one of those matches will be on the road—this Saturday in Boston.  If they can stock up on points there remains a chance the Flash could sneak into a top-two position and host a semifinal match.  Trip up though and risk the Breakers and Red Stars pulling a late miracle.

Boston Breakers (6-7-5, 23 pts)
Max points:  35
This Week:  vs Flash (Sat)

The Breakers looked mentally defeated at the end of Wednesday’s 3-0 loss in Kansas City, but managed to put an early goal behind them Saturday in Washington to win 5-2.  Five different Breakers scored in the match, none of whom was Sydney Leroux.  They need massive help to get to the playoffs but they will essentially need to beat the Flash twice—starting Saturday at Dilboy.  Their chances could end this weekend with a loss and some other results.

Chicago Red Stars (6-7-5, 23 pts)
Max points:  35
This Week:  vs Reign (Sat)

It wasn’t exactly a great week for the Red Stars.  They were routed in Seattle, and outplayed for much of Sunday’s match in Portland, during which they lost Lori Chalupny to a scary-looking ankle injury.  But as they have all season the Red Stars managed to walk away from the week feeling good, the product of erasing a 3-1 deficit in the final 15 minutes to earn a point.  Their playoff chances could wash away this week, but this is a team that has done wonders with an inferior and banged up roster.

Seattle Reign FC (5-10-3, 18 pts)
Max points:  30
This Week:  at Red Stars (Sat)

The transformation of the Reign reached a new level Thursday night when they drubbed the Red Stars even while not necessarily playing their best.  It will be too late for this season but a few tweaks and some luck will have the Reign at the opposite end of the table come this time next year.  They can win Saturday and still get eliminated if the Flash have a four-point week.

Washington Spirit (1-12-4, 7 pts – eliminated from playoff contention)
Max points:  22
This Week:  at Sky Blue (Sat)

The winless streak continued but the Spirit finally scored in the run of play—twice.  Losing Candace Chapman to injury in the opening five minutes surely did not help a team that is down to trying various and assorted midfielders and forwards on defense—Lindsay Taylor was the latest to get thrown to the wolves.  While others fight for playoff spots and position, the Spirit will be assured of finishing last if the Reign win and the Spirit do not beat Sky Blue.

Where are the goals coming from?

A wild week saw five matches produce 22 goals with every level of roster building accounting for at least two goals.  There was even an own goal charged to Kia McNeill.  Four different Canadian allocations scored, as did four different players from the Supplemental Draft.  Here’s how the goals break down with Week 16 totals in parenthesis:

Allocated players – 90 (8)*
United States – 52 (3)*; Canada – 25 (5)* ; Mexico – 13
College Draft – 18 (2)
Free Agent – 45 (2) *
Supplemental Draft – 20 (6)
Discovery et al. 16 (3)
Own Goals – 4 (1)

*-Includes goals scored by players who have joined other teams since originally joining the league

Note:  Free Agent refers to any player signed during the free agent window immediately following the college draft; Discovery includes any player acquired through means not included in any other category

Free Kicks

— Wednesday’s FC Kansas City attendance of 5,024 might have been the most impressive figure of the season in NWSL considering it was a midweek makeup match from April.  While acknowledging that a multitude of local factors helped out at the gate Wednesday, Blues president Brian Budzinski was delighted with the number, which clinched the team’s preseason goal of a 4,000 average attendance.  “We’re happy about the support that the city has given us and honestly the Midwest.  We have a lot season ticket holders or people who bought four-game packages that are from outside the Kansas City market, two to four plus hours away.”

— Thorns’ owner Merritt Paulson was a guest during halftime of Fox Soccer’s broadcast on Sunday and mentioned the league meetings taking place Tuesday in Kansas City.  Among the topics broached by Paulson are minimum standards for facilities and fields as well as web streaming.  I’m told not to expect any significant announcements to emerge from the meetings.

— Alyssa Mautz is a reserve midfielder for the Red Stars but she has scored some of their biggest goals of the season.  She was an 83rd minute sub against Sky Blue on May 8 and buried the equalizer in stoppage time.  Sunday she had the unenviable role of replacing Lori Chalupny midway through the first half and buried two goals—narrowly missing a third—in another dramatic and unlikely draw for the Red Stars.

— Speaking of Chalupny, have not found many who did not think the play that injured her ankle should have resulted in anything but a sending off for Tobin Heath.  The foul was not inherently violent, but it was from behind making of both reckless and irresponsible and there was little attempt made to play the ball.  It would be a shame if those sorts of tackles started creeping into the women’s game which so far is played at a far cleaner place than the men’s.

— No one dropped out of contention for the perfect attendance award although three of the seven play for the Flash, who were off.  The following seven players have been on the pitch every minute of the season for their respective clubs:  Leigh Ann Robinson (KC), Jen Buczkowki (KC), Kathryn Williamson (Por), CoCo Goodson (SBFC), Estelle Johnson (WNY), Alex Sahlen (WNY), and Brittany Taylor (WNY).

— Lauren Holiday and Sydney Leroux were both kept off the scoreboard last week and Abby Wambach’s club had the week off, leaving the trio tied on 10 goals.

— Holiday added an assist, her 9th, to extend her league lead over Lianne Sanderson (7).  One more assist will put Holiday in the 10/10 club, something not achieved in women’s pro soccer since Mia Hamm did it for the 2003 Washington Freedom.  The only other members are Wambach and Danielle Fotopoulos, who both did it in 2001.

— I thought Ashley Phillips also should have been red carded when she handled Melissa Henderson’s shot from outside the area during Wednesday’s match.  A few respected people in the soccer world disagree saying it was not intentional.  I can’t get past Phillips being the last line of defense, plus it wasn’t as if her hand was pinned to her side on contact.

— Anyone who was inside Yurcak Field on Saturday can bring their stub back this Saturday for free admission for the team’s final regular season match at Yurcak Field.  The match was delayed two hours because of lightning and a good bit of the second half was played in steady rain.

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