Sixteen yards out, and Abby Wambach has an open net. A scrum in the box results in Sky Blue FC defender CoCo Goodson and goalkeeper Brittany Cameron on the ground, hoping for the best as the home side clings to a 1-0 lead.
It’s Abby Wambach, the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year. The goalkeeper is out. And it’s the 94th minute, with the Western New York Flash seeking a last-minute equalizer. It’s the 94th minute, with Sky Blue FC hoping to hold onto a lead at Yurcak Field. Of course the ball is going in the back of the net.
But it didn’t.
Sky Blue FC made a habit of blowing these results in Women’s Professional Soccer, particularly in 2011. The breaks just didn’t go their way that season, and they lost plenty of results on late goals like the one that would have been if Wambach, by her own admission postgame, could have back. That 2011 season began at home, at that very same field against the Philadelphia Independence, which clawed back for a 2-2 draw on a 90th minute equalizer from Tina DiMartino after being down 2-0 at the half.
On Sunday, that final chance of the game went over the crossbar as Sky Blue FC defenders retreated to guard their own net. And it was less about Wambach missing than Sky Blue FC holding on.
“It was a great sign. I thank Abby for bailing me out there,” Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra said with a smile.
It’s only Week 1, but getting off on the right foot was essential for a team with a history of looking up at others in the table. The team is idle in Week 2, along with the Chicago Red Stars, but heads into the second round of games alone atop the table. That isn’t a familiar position for this club.
“We had some moments where we were definitely unorganized, but that is going to happen,” said captain Christie Rampone, the only member of the team who was also on the 2009 squad. “We had some moments where we held strong and fought through the end and got the three points.”
A strong defensive effort ultimately was the difference and it centered around holding a high line — so Wambach couldn’t drop too deep — and thwarting the Flash striker with double-teams from central midfielders Brittany Bock and Sophie Schmidt.
It was also a product of a slightly surprising change to the backline. Kelley O’Hara, a fixture at left back back for the U.S. women’s national team, spent most of her limited time in Sky Blue FC preseason camp as a forward, scoring twice in a 3-2 friendly vs. the Boston Breakers on March .
O’Hara was even announced as a forward pregame over the stadium loudspeaker, but those bright orange cleats stuck out like sore thumbs at left back, where O’Hara lined up from the opening whistle.
“I’ve been leaning towards that for the last couple of weeks, simply because otherwise it would be Christie with three rookies, and I felt that she’s played with Kelley — Kelley and Christie have played back there for two years (with the United States).”
O’Hara said she doesn’t mind switching between forward and outside back.
Gabarra held those cards close for the opener and it paid off. Lisa De Vanna was the main target up front and had two clear second-half chances denied by Flash goalkeeper Adrianna Franch.
Cameron stopped Adrianna’s penalty kick in the 16th minute. And in the 42nd minute some a deflection in the box sent the ball into the Flash’s own goal off captain McCall Zerboni. Sometimes those breaks go your way, a still new feeling in New Jersey.
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