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D’Avanzo: Three takeaways from Sky Blue’s latest W

Christie Pearce and Sky Blue are now 2-0-0 at Yurcak Field this season. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Christie Pearce and Sky Blue are now 2-0-0 at Yurcak Field this season. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — A late game-winner by midfielder Raquel Rodriguez lifted Sky Blue FC over the Houston Dash 2-1 on Saturday afternoon at Yurcak Field, giving the New Jersey squad a total of six points in the home-and-home series.

Midfielder Sarah Killion converted a penalty kick in the 20th minute to take the early lead, but Houston’s Andressinha equalized in the 40th minute to make the score 1-1 at halftime. Rodriguez found the back of the net in the 84th minute to secure the club’s third win of the 2017 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season. Here are three takeaways from the match:

Making a home stand

The win marked Sky Blue FC’s second home win of the season, improving the club’s record to 2-0 at Yurcak Field. In the 1-0 win against FC Kansas City on April 30, head coach Christy Holly said afterwards that it was not the team’s best performance, and the win against Houston had a similar tale to tell.

“We dropped our tempo and we dropped our standard,” said Holly. “It was a far from pleasing performance. It was not acceptable and that’s what we just talked to a lot of the players about. But, the attitude and application to get through and turn what should have been a draw, or maybe a loss, into a win, is something that’s different from this team than last year.”

The performance against Houston was indeed slow, and at times many players had a case of “heavy legs” that also lead to poor decision-making. There were multiple instances throughout the game where players were not distributing quickly enough due to holding onto the ball too long, or players not providing supporting angles in a timely manner. On the defensive side, several players were struggling to get behind the ball to establish a solid defensive shape, which resulted in the team being exposed against a quick Houston attack. Fortunately for Sky Blue FC, the New Jersey side was able to take advantage of the Dash’s poor defending from a set piece and secure the three points.

As Holly mentioned, the team’s ability to prevail at Yurcak has not been common in recent years. In 2016 & 2015, the club went 3-4-3 at Yurcak Field, and the last time Sky Blue FC had a winning record at home was the NWSL inaugural season in 2013. It’s also the only year SBFC has seen the NWSL playoffs so far.

The 2017 campaign is still young, but so far Rodriguez has been the home field hero, scoring both game-winners within the last ten minutes of the match. However, the players are very aware of their less-than-ideal performance, and the level of play will need to improve in New Jersey if the squad wants to stay in playoff contention.

Kailen Sheridan – “She plays beyond her years.” – Holly

In case you forgot, Sky Blue FC drafted Kailen Sheridan in the 2017 NWSL College Draft with the 23rd overall pick. She may only be 21 years old and have just six NWSL games under her belt, but Sheridan is playing like a veteran.

“She’s very mature and very composed back there,” said Holly. “You can see her distribution is fantastic, and she’s got those big saves in her when she’s needed.”

Sheridan made multiple plays to help keep Sky Blue FC in the game on Saturday, whether it was coming out to grab a cross out of the air, punching the ball out of danger or making a diving save with minutes remaining. She communicates with the team throughout the match and is comfortable playing with her feet, a skill-set that all great keepers need to succeed in the modern game.

One of the areas Holly would like to see Sheridan improve on is getting more shutouts. So far, her only clean sheet of the season was on April 30 against FCKC (and that was without captain and veteran Christie Pearce on the backline to boot). In Houston’s goal-scoring play, Sheridan was unable to dive quick enough to block Andressinha’s first shot, and was just getting back on her feet as Andressinha struck again off the rebound. Granted, other factors outside of Sheridan’s control contributed to the Dash goal, but Holly believes Sheridan has the potential to earn more shutouts and continuing improving her game.

For Sheridan, this season has been a huge learning experience already, especially playing behind Pearce. Although she has started all six games so far this season, she knows nothing is guaranteed and that she must work every day to earn her spot on the starting line-up.

“It’s amazing playing behind Christy,” said Sheridan. “She has so much knowledge of the game and I’ve already learned a lot from her in just the six games that I have been here. I can’t wait to continue to work with her, but it’s something I don’t have to worry about when she’s playing in front of me. I know she’s got it.”

Sam Kerr

Since returning from her trip to Australia, Kerr has been making a huge impact on the field. On May 1, Kerr was awarded the Julie Dolan Medal – the most valuable player award for the 2016-17 Westfield W-League season. Since returning to the states, she has scored one goal and added an assist, as well as create headaches for opponents.

Kerr’s effort to chase down a Kelley O’Hara ball into the box is what eventually resulted in the penalty kick in the 20th minute of the match. On the play, O’Hara cut inside with the ball towards the middle, and then played a chip over top looking for Kerr. At first glance, it appeared O’Hara’s pass was too strong, but Kerr was able to fight Dash defender Cari Roccaro off the ball and play a pass towards the penalty mark and into the path of Rodriguez. Midfielder Amber Brooks took down Rodriguez from behind, and a penalty was awarded to Sky Blue FC for the third consecutive game. From there, Killion converted her third straight to give the New Jersey club a 1-0 lead.

The Australia international was very close to scoring in the 68th minute off a header from an O’Hara cross, but Houston goalkeeper Lydia Williams made a great save to deny Kerr from scoring in back-to-back games.

Even though Kerr may not have had her best game, or gotten on the score sheet, she was a presence on the field and helped draw attention to create space for her teammates. Her tenacity and the threat she poses has caused her to take a lot of hits so far this season, and with the short week for Sky Blue FC, don’t be surprised if she is a scratch for either Wednesday’s match against the North Caroline Courage or Saturday against the Orlando Pride.

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