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D’Avanzo: One last look back at Sky Blue’s dramatic comeback over FC Kansas City

In a match that left hearts pounding up until the last second, Sky Blue FC pulled off an incredible comeback to defeat FC Kansas City 3-2 on Saturday night at Yurcak Field. Heading into the 78th minute with a 2-0 deficit, Sam Kerr scored a hat trick in the final 12 minutes of the match to lead the New Jersey club to victory. With all the ups and downs that occurred in the contest, here are three takeaways:

Kelley O’Hara

Kelley O'Hara pushing forward against FC Kansas City (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Kelley O’Hara pushing forward against FC Kansas City (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Following Sky Blue FC’s last home match against the Orlando Pride, I discussed Kelley O’Hara’s evolving role in the attack. Saturday night brought the chance to expand on the player whose hard work made Sam Kerr’s heroics possible.

Defenders pushing forward, especially fullbacks, is not a foreign concept. However, in Sky Blue FC’s case, it appears Holly has built his offense to rely on the transition play of O’Hara to reach its full potential. When Sky Blue FC is defending, a four-back system is in place with O’Hara on the right. Once the New Jersey squad gains possession, O’Hara is immediately providing width and transitioning into a right flank player while Daphne Corboz or Taylor Lytle shifts inside to create a triangle of center midfielders. The backline adjusts to three players with captain Christie Pearce anchoring the crew.

O’Hara is currently the only defensive player that creates a formation shift when pushing into the attack. Before Erica Skroski and Erin Simon suffered injuries in May, the fullbacks were not making as many runs forward or creating team adjustments like this consistently. Skroski, Simon and Kayla Mills would get involved offensively on a more opportunistic basis.

In Saturday night’s match against FC Kansas City, O’Hara made an offensive run forward (by this, I mean getting into FCKC’s half and putting herself in a position to support the SBFC build-up to goal) six-eight times more than the rest of the defense combined, and this was just the first half. There’s a reason Kerr joked after the game that O’Hara must of ran a 50K; it’s because O’Hara is running up and down the field the entire game trying everything possible to help her team win.

For Holly, giving O’Hara the freedom to play this style and adjusting the rest of his line-up accordingly has allowed the Sky Blue FC offensive to start finding its stride. The New Jersey squad has currently scored 22 goals in 14 games played. In 2016, the club scored 24 goals in 20 games, and in 2015, scored 22 goals 20 games.

However, the concern I have is how taxing this will be for O’Hara. She has already missed time this season due to injury, and the nature of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) schedule makes it hard at times to recover between games. If she must miss a game here and there throughout the rest of the 2017 campaign, can Holly make adjustments to compensate for O’Hara’s absence on both sides of the ball? As injuries continue to plague the SBFC defense, it could become harder to allow O’Hara an extra day of rest. And as legs feel heavy during the final stretch of the season, the more likely the SBFC backline can get exposed on a counterattack.

Making History

Kerr is only 23 years old and is now the NWSL all-time leading scorer with 35 goals. The Australia international scored her first career hat trick in the final 12 minutes to lead her team to a 3-2 comeback victory. The hat trick is also the first that Sky Blue FC fans have ever witnessed at Yurcak Field, and this includes WPS.

It was a tale of two halves for not only the team, but for Kerr as well. In the first half, the forward was not very involved and seemed to have trouble getting around FCKC defender Becky Sauerbrunn. After the match, Kerr said she struggled mentally the first half and felt out of the game.

Sam Kerr brought a lot of joy to Yurcak Field on Saturday night (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Sam Kerr brought a lot of joy to Yurcak Field on Saturday night (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

At the start of the second half, it looked like it would be the type of night where SBFC could not buy a goal even while having a player advantage (more on the red card later). In the 78th minute, everything changed when O’Hara played a beautiful cross into the box and Kerr beat netminder Nicole Barnhart off a diving header. The fire was lit, and Kerr scored twice more to earn three points for her club.

“This is only my second hat trick ever in my whole career, which might be surprising to people, so I’m stoked,” said Kerr. “I’m happy to score anytime, but when you score three – and most importantly when you come back 2-0 – it’s amazing. I can’t believe how deep the girls dug… it was a real team effort.”

“Tonight was one of the first times I’ve seen [Kerr] really look like an out-and-out goal scorer and a real striker,” said Holly. “The finish I think to go up three was just first-class. The touch and the awareness around the 18-yard box… there’s a reason we put a lot of faith in her.”

The victory also came on a historic night for the club as Sky Blue FC became the first team to play its 100th NWSL match. With all eight inaugural clubs still going strong (the Flash have moved to North Carolina), and a league that has seen growth over the course of five years, reaching the centennial mark should be a time of celebration as well as a time for reflection. This leads me to my final point…

NWSL Referee Standards

Let’s get this out of the way. The red card given to Shea Groom in the final minute of first half stoppage time has already caused many debates throughout the women’s soccer community. Whether you believe the card was fair or not is a matter of opinion as both sides have valid points. .I personally think the card was justified since Groom did retaliate by throwing her hands towards Skroski’s face when it was not necessary (or in the words of FIFA, “violent conduct”). Although it took a while to make the decision, at least referee Amber O’Connor consulted with the rest of her officiating crew before giving a yellow card to Skroski and a red card to Groom. However, prior to the play, you could feel the tension rising from the field into the stands as frustrations grew over missed calls throughout the first half. The game should have never gotten to that point in the first place.

“This league has some very good referees, but some of the referees are the worst in the whole world,” said FCKC head coach Vlatko Andonovski. “Unfortunately, if you want this league to go forward, if you want good players to come in this league, if you want people to come, something needs to happen.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Sky Blue and Kerr – beautiful play by them and I congratulate them on the win – but at the same time, I cannot be quiet anymore about the way the referees are reffing these games.”

As many fans know, this is not the first time comments have been made about NWSL referees. Seattle Reign FC was fined last year after head coach and general manager Laura Harvey criticized match officials in her postgame comments and the team’s game recap stated that “the referee apparently suffered from a strange form of paralysis that prevented him from pulling a yellow card from his pocket until late in the game, despite a plethora of bodies in blue that littered the field.” North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley is no stranger to fines for disclosing his opinion about match officials. Even Boston Breakers GM Lee Billiard joined the fun back in 2014 after multiple calls went against the Breakers to result in a 3-3 draw.

( Post-Match Press-Conference: Laura Harvey // Reign FC May 15, 2016)

Being a referee is tough in any sport. Make one bad call and it feels like the whole world is against you. No matter how well a game is officiated, there will still be someone happy to point out the one mistake made during the course of 90+ minutes.

As history shows, officiating standards for the NWSL have been discussed since the inaugural season, and strides have been made to improve league standards. Dan Lauletta wrote a Lowdown back in March recapping the weekend he spent with NWSL referees and documenting the training officials went through to prepare for the 2017 campaign. This may be a great starting point for the league, however, more needs to be done to ensure officiating is more consistent throughout the NWSL.

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