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Clean slate of playoffs welcomed by Sky Blue FC

There have not been many scenes like this -- an opening day win over the Flash -- lately for Sky Blue FC. (Photo copyright Howard C. Smith)

Sky Blue FC were a tale of two halves during the 2013 NWSL regular season. Luckily for them, the playoffs offer a reset button.

Despite leading the league for two months from mid-May to mid-July, Jim Gabarra’s side is the No. 4 seed in the inaugural NWSL playoffs, after being hit with injuries down the stretch. The encouraging part: Despite the hardships — including U.S. left back/utility player Kelley O’Hara ultimately needing right ankle surgery and right back Caitlin Foord out with a Lisfranc sprain — they still only finished 2 pts. behind the three teams tied on 38 pts.

And after defeating the Western New York Flash 1-0 on opening night, Sky Blue FC (10-6-6, 36 pts.) opened the season with a surprising 7-1-1 record. But three of their six losses this season have come against Western New York  — the team they face in the NWSL semifinals on Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT (Fox Sports 2 and — and they’ve been ugly.

Sky Blue, however, is wiping its collective memory clean.

“We’re approaching this as a new game,” Gabarra said. “It’s the same opponent. We have some learning points that we’ve done a good job of addressing.”

[MORE: Kansas City sliding entering semifinal vs. PortlandThorns face questions, too]

Sky Blue’s breakdowns against the Flash have been on the defensive side of the ball, both in the midfield and on the back line. Their last match against the Flash, at Sahlen’s Stadium on July 21, was their most sluggish of the season, made worse by first half injuries to Australians Foord and Lisa De Vanna, whose status for Saturday is still unknown. Gabarra would only completely rule out Foord and O’Hara, adding that midfielder Sophie Schmidt should be able to play.

The injury to 18-year-old Foord left Gabarra looking for answers at right back as he tested out Danesha Adams in the spot before Manya Makoski. Couple that with rookie Kendall Johnson on the left side and veteran Christie Rampone being paired with 23-year-old CoCo Goodson, the defense has been solid, but a revolving door of injuries and relative youth.

On Saturday, they’ll need to contain the most potent attacking duo in the league — Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd, who have 11 goals and 8 goals, respectively, this season. Western New York’s attacking threats also include Sam Kerr, who frequently turns the corner on the wing, Angela Salem, the foundation of most of the Flash’s build-ups, and even center back Brittany Taylor, who has proven dangerous getting forward, especially on set pieces.

And set pieces are always an issue when the world’s greatest aerial threat, Wambach, is on the field. But Gabarra’s concern with dead balls isn’t necessarily Wambach in the air.

“It’s certainly something we have to focus on; I’m not worried about the matchups,” Gabarra said. “I think it’s more important that the refereeing is consistent and fair and the free kick is taken where the foul is committed. I think they are very good at moving the ball forward enough to where Brittany Taylor can serve it into the opponent’s box, even though the foul took place 10 or 20 yards deeper in the field. But we’ve got a game plan – obviously Abby in the air, you can game plan all you want, but she has an ability to get in the air and score goals.”

Nothing like a little subtle smack talk to get the playoffs heated up.

The Equalizer will profile each of the four NWSL playoff teams ahead of Saturday’s semifinal games. Later today: Western New York Flash.


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