PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The first 75 minutes at Yurcak Field on Saturday night were nothing to write home about. The final 15, on the other hand, packed in the action. It began when Lauren Barnes curled a long, low shot into the lower 90 for her first NWSL goal, continued with a stoppage-time penalty to level it for Sky Blue, and finished with a few more in a series of calls—or lack thereof—which had both coaches scratching their heads.
“It was hard to tell what a foul was in this game,” Sky Blue coach Jim Gabarra said.
Indeed the early portions of the match were played with what seemed like fewer fouls called than committed. Then came the 74th minute, when Sky Blue substitute Maya Hayes cut inside the box and appeared to be fouled by Keelin Winters for a penalty. Head referee Matthew Kreitzer did not see it that way, and the Reign cleared the box.
“It looked like a sure penalty to me,” Gabarra said. “He’s got to blow his whistle. It’s either a dive or it’s a foul.”
Two minutes later the Reign had a corner kick which they played high. Sky Blue successfully pushed Jess Fishlock off the ball but lost track of Barnes, who was playing her 50th NWSL match and until that moment she had never scored a goal.
“I think we lost our mark and she hit it right in the near post,” Sky Blue goalkeeper Brittany Cameron. “It did take a (bad) bounce in the end. I mean I should have gotten it. It had to go on the ground through 10, 15 people. We have to do better as a team including myself.”
Asked if the Reign playing the corner kick up high caught her off guard, Cameron said, “Not at all. We have to do better. Plain and simple.”
Barnes’s goal nearly undid some great work by Cameron, who made one great save in the 1st half and a fabulous double save on Merritt Mathias and Keelin Winters in the 2nd half. And with Sky Blue struggling to score it looked like the Reign were about to win their third straight match at Yurcak. But the Reign struck a dangerous free kick into the wall and Fishlock missed a free header in front, either of which could have made it 2-0.
“Goals change games,” Reign coach Laura Harvey said, referring as much to the goals that are not scored as the ones that are. “We’re disappointed with conceding so late, but we’ll be more disappointed when we reflect on it that we didn’t kill the game off because we had so much possession. We didn’t have clear cut chances, but like Jess’s chance being inches wide and their goalkeeper made two fantastic saves, it’s a thing for us that at the minute that goals change games and you have to be prepared that as long as the score is at 1 the other team’s always got a chance.”
Sky Blue made good on that chance after Reign keeper Haley Kopmeyer was unable to keep a deflected shot inbounds. Sarah Killion took the corner kick to the far post, where Kim DeCesare made the play of the night—heading it back towards the middle where it seemed like every player on the pitch touched it. The key touch though, came off Fishlock’s hand, which gave Sky Blue a penalty.
“She said she didn’t handball it. She said she headed it,” Harvey said. “I couldn’t see; I don’t think anyone else could. There were a thousand people in the box.”
Fishlock was not made available for comment after the match.
Nadia Nadim stepped up and made the penalty but not before more confusion ensued while Kreitzer consulted his assistant referee—who had made the original handball call—and they determined the red card for Fishlock.
“Normally you just take it, but here I was like ‘Oh my God it is taking so long,’ I tried to concentrate and stay focused. We needed the point.” Nadim said. The Danish striker added that she her routine is to look at the keeper and then decide where to put the shot, meaning the delay did not impact her mindset about where to place the penalty.
The drama was not quite done yet. The Reign played it right back into the Sky Blue penalty area, where Lindsi Cutshall and Mariah Nogueira came together and the contact had Harvey shouting for a return penalty.
“I was disappointed with a lot of things,” she said concerning the final 10 minutes and stoppage time. Asked to expand Harvey said, “No, because I’ll get fined.”
Still the focus for the Reign will be on closing out matches. After a near-perfect regular season in 2014, the encore has seen a few hiccups.
“People will say that we dominated or whatever…but goals change games,” Harvey said. “We learned it the cruelest way possible last year and so far on the road we’ve learned it the same way. It’s about killing games off which at home we’re good at. On the road we just have to be a little bit better.”
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