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Three Things: The highs and lows of Sky Blue’s Week 11 performances

Sam Kerr led Sky Blue's attack during Week 11, scoring two goals for the club. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Sam Kerr led Sky Blue’s attack during Week 11, scoring two goals for the club. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

At the conclusion of Week 11 of National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) action, Sky Blue FC sits in playoff contention in the fourth and final slot of the NWSL standings. The New Jersey squad snapped its two-game losing streak with a huge 1-0 victory against the North Carolina Courage on Saturday with forward Sam Kerr scoring the game-winner. Sky Blue FC took the lead in all three matches this past week, but the club was finally able to secure a win in the final contest of the tough schedule stretch. With the midway point of the season coming to a close, here are three takeaways from Sky Blue FC’s performance over the past six days.

The Rookies

At the beginning of the season, there was a lot of excitement around the 2017 Sky Blue FC draft class. In Sky Blue FC’s opening match, three of these rookies earned their first NWSL career starts – Kailen Sheridan, Mandy Freeman and Kayla Mills – and all five first-year players have seen playing time so far. Weaknesses displayed by the young backline and mistakes that were made across the pitch were attributed to youth and part of the learning process. Now at the midway point of the 2017 campaign, the narrative regarding the rookies has a new tone.

“Naïveté and youth has cost us the game,” said head coach Christy Holly after Sky Blue FC’s 3-2 loss on Wednesday night against the Orlando Pride. “That’s part of the process right now. We have an exceptionally young team and we’re growing, but what you can do in the college game you can’t do in the pro games because you get punished for it.”

Orlando’s first two goals were the result of mistakes committed by Freeman, and the game-winner saw Mills get beat on the far post by forward Rachel Hill. After uninspiring performances by both Freeman and Mills against the Pride, they were not featured in the starting line-up for Saturday’s match against North Carolina. Freeman was subbed into the match at the 24th minute for Erin Simon due to an injury, but Mills was not listed as available for the contest.

Sheridan is the only rookie to start every game so far for Sky Blue FC, and she is one of the most exciting and frustrating players to watch on the team. There are moments where the Canadian international makes some incredible saves and plays well beyond her years. And then there are times, such as the opening minutes of Saturday’s match-up against the Courage, where what should be a routine save turns into a goal-scoring opportunity for opponents.

Her decision-making still needs work as well, which was showcased on the NWSL Lifetime Game of the Week. In the 53rd minute, Sheridan came off her line to try and smother a ball that Sam Mewis was running onto and instead gave the Courage a penalty. Sheridan was able to save the PK and secure the shutout for her team, but the play resulting in the penalty kick should not have happened. Commentator Aly Wagner said it best: “…Sheridan does not need to come for that. Mewis has nowhere to go. She’s going to run out-of-bounds with that touch. You’d like to say it was a rookie mistake, but Sheridan has been in a lot of these matches now. Poor decision to come off her line ultimately, and now she’s going to have to face the penalty.”

Sheridan is already one of the top goalkeepers in the NWSL and has the potential to take the league by storm. She is also now the first netminder to earn a shutout against top-seed North Carolina Courage. However, it’s time for the rookies to remove their training wheels and fully understand how they can learn from their previous mistakes in the first half of the season to lessen silly errors on the pitch for the remainder of the 2017 campaign.

Sam Kerr Is On Fire

The Australian international has been leading the offensive charge for Sky Blue FC this season and was once again recognized for her strong performances by repeating as the NWSL Player of the Month. In Wednesday’s match-up against Orlando, Kerr thrilled the home crowd with a bicycle kick goal that will most likely win NWSL Goal of the Week.

Kerr kept the magic going on Saturday when she scored the game-winner in the 84th minute to secure three points on the road. Kerr is already the all-time leading scorer in Sky Blue FC franchise history and now has 32 NWSL career goals, only one shy for the all-time lead.

Last season, Kerr scored five goals in nine games for Sky Blue FC. In her first 12 appearances in 2017, Kerr has scored six goals and added three assists to lead the New Jersey club in both.

{RELATED: Sky Blue FC v Orlando Pride photo essay]

“I think the difference between last season and this season is her ability to learn and her willingness to get better,” said Holly. “She’s a phenomenal kid. I can’t speak highly enough about her as a person and as a soccer player because she’s just a sponge who wants to absorb information. She knows she needs to get better and she wants to find out how to do it.”

Since being traded to Sky Blue FC in 2014, Kerr has seen limited playing time due to competing in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games with Australia, as well as suffering an injury before the 2016 season. This year has marked the most games in a season fans have seen Kerr playing on the field, and the result has been class. If Kerr can continue to stay healthy and find support up top, this could mark a historic year for the forward.

Offensive Tactics

After defender Erica Skroski suffered an injury against the Orlando Pride on May 27, Holly was forced to make adjustments to compensate for her absence. In Sky Blue FC’s last two games, Kelley O’Hara has been playing right back when defending. However, once the New Jersey side has gained possession, O’Hara transitions into a right wing while Taylor Lytle or Daphne Corboz shifts towards the center of the field, creating a three-back system while pushing numbers forward into the attack.

This tactical change by Holly has shown its strengths and weaknesses over the past two games and requires a lot of extra work for O’Hara in particular. The positives to this plan center around creating more support in the attack, especially for Kerr, as well as providing a bit more balance in the final third. However, this leaves the backline exposed when O’Hara and the midfield cannot recover quickly.

Holly said that he has been trying to implement this formation shift when attacking over the course of several games, but with a high-caliber player such as O’Hara starting on the backline, it becomes more noticeable. Sky Blue FC improved defensively throughout the week, but with injuries continuing to plague the roster, how much longer will the team have to develop Holly’s new strategy before being forced to try something else?

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