Our first midweek game gives us another top of the table battle, as Sky Blue FC takes their two-game winning streak to visit the North Carolina Courage. With these teams ranked second and third in goals and shots on goal, we’re in for an offensive treat (and a defender’s nightmare).
Sky Blue FC (3-2-1) at North Carolina Courage (4-2-0)
Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Sahlen’s Stadium
All-time series: Courage lead, 7-3-1 (plus 1-0-0 in playoffs)
In North Carolina: first meeting
Last meeting: May 21, 2016; 5-2 Flash
It says a lot that North Carolina enters this game still in command of first place after losing two games in a row. It also says a lot that North Carolina lost two games in a row, one at home and one to the (at that time) last place team. The Courage are still very good, but teams have begun to find cracks in their armor. Paul Riley’s first solution, albeit forced by the suspension of Abby Erceg, was to try all-time NWSL leading scorer Jess McDonald at right back. While she wasn’t at fault for any of Chicago’s goals, she looked exactly what she was – out of place, and the Courage were much better when she returned up top. It may be worth returning to a four-back defensive formation as the last two teams have found plenty of space in their defense, helped by a puzzling Abby Dahlkemper slump. Erceg returns, but Dahlkemper needs to sort herself out, as does Samantha Mewis in front of her to relieve pressure. Jaelene Hinkle had a very strong game in her return from injury, driving up the left flank and providing outstanding service, but she’s back on the injury list as probable, and she may be tied up defensively by Kelley O’Hara.
Speaking of O’Hara, she may not have had quite as much direct impact on last week’s game as in previous weeks, but she’s developing a knack for finding Sam Kerr and was a nuisance to the Dash all afternoon. She is a vital part of the Sky Blue attack that is really hitting its stride, with Raquel Rodriguez providing the engine and Kerr the finish. Sarah Killion, though quieter and sitting deeper, is equally as important. Where Sky Blue is most vulnerable is in their outside backs, where more than a couple of their young defenders have struggled, including Erin Simon, who was turned at will by Kealia Ohai. With Makenzy Doniak, fresh off an enticing matchup against Casey Short (and coming up the victor more than once), serving quality balls and Lynn Williams driving inside, look for much of the battle to be fought on the flanks, and it may come to down to whether or not Christie Pearce continues to laugh in the face of age.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
If anyone is going to slow Rodriguez down, it’s the feisty midfielder. Playing in more of a central role than she did in last year’s championship run, Zerboni has proven once again that she can hold down the fort when Mewis pushes forward, or drive toward the box herself, firing rockets.
Sky Blue’s keeper is about as composed as they come despite the fact that she’s the youngest out of a very young defense. She’ll need to be, facing a team that leads the league in shots and is capable of simply overwhelming its opponents in the box.
Keep an eye on:
• Sabrina D’Angelo, who broke her wrist in their last meeting and played through it
• Who rolls out in Christy Holly’s backline