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Sam Kerr is magic and other takeaways from Sky Blue-Seattle

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — On a Saturday night in Yurcak Field, Sam Kerr scored back-to-back-to-back goals to lead Sky Blue FC past a multi-goal deficit to secure a victory late in the second half—stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The thing is, you have. It’s a story that has been told several times over this season as Sam Kerr continues to inch Sky Blue closer and closer towards playoff contention. This time, Kerr’s magic rallied a Sky Blue side wrought in off-field drama to overcome a three-goal deficit and defeat the Seattle Reign, 5-4. Here’s my three takeaways from last night’s Sky Blue win.

Down, but not out

Jill Loyden and David Hodgson, filling in for Christy Holly, speak to the media following Sky Blue’s win over Seattle. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

If Sky Blue had lost last night’s match, no one would have blamed them. On Wednesday, head coach Christy Holly stepped down, and on Friday it was announced that captain and veteran defender Christie Pearce would miss the remainder of the season, sidelined by accumulative injuries. Although Kelley O’Hara and Sam Kerr were named co-captains, no official interim coach was named, nor does it seem as though one will be. That off-field turmoil would have been more than a sufficient excuse for dropping a result, regardless of how needed it was in regards to playoff contention, and for many fans around the league, it appeared as though Sky Blue’s fate was doomed.

And for the entire first half, it looked as though that’s exactly what would happen as the Reign put three unanswered goals in the back of the net. As of halftime, starting goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan and the young backline in front of her had allowed 17 goals in their last 315 minutes, more than the North Carolina Courage have given up all season. The view from the stands was dire, and it appeared as though Sky Blue’s losing streak was going to extend to four. But that all changed at the halftime whistle, and the team came out with more life, energy, and heart than it had shown in either of the last two games.

“It was one thing after the other, pretty much. It was an eventful week, but it’s beyond our control. At the end of the day, we can’t do anything about it. So we stuck together every day and we said ‘This is how it’s going to be, and we can either drop, or we can grow,'” outside back Erica Skroski said. “I think the first half, if that was the end of the book, you could have said we dropped, but we came out here and we worked. We left everything on the field. And you could say this is the beginning of that (growth) instead of the end of our season. This is day one, so I think we’re growing from here.”

According to David Hodgson, one of four assistant coaches running the team in the wake of Holly’s departure, the desire to make post-season play for the first time since 2013 was the driving force behind the team’s second-half comeback. When asked what was said in the locker room at halftime to light the fire within the team, he said that it was quite simple.

We just touched on what we spoke about all week, that we believe that playoffs are still happening. If we lose this game, playoffs are not still happening. So we said, ‘Ladies, do you want the playoffs?’ and they said, ‘Yeah.’ So we said, ‘Well we need to go out and win this game,’ and that was it.”

Kerr echoed the sentiments that last night’s game was a must win for the team: “We just said we cannot lose this game. We cannot lose. And that was a mindset change.”

Although a loss for the home team would not have mathematically eliminated them from playoff race, it would have increased Seattle’s point total to 30 and lifted the Reign past Chicago and Orlando to overtake the No. 3 spot on the table (at least temporarily since Chicago plays tonight). It also would have kept Sky Blue at just 23 points, six points behind the next best team, a much steeper hill to climb to reach a playoff spot. But Sky Blue managed to pull off the upset, and the three points earned last night keep Sky Blue in sixth place behind the Reign, just two spots and three points out of playoff contention.

“There’s two teams that we can catch and barring that North Carolina or Chicago lose most games from now on, I don’t think it’s realistic that we catch them, but we don’t care. We’re going for finals,” Kerr said. “We can only control ourselves and, obviously we need a little bit of luck, but…if we keep winning games like this, we’ll go to the playoffs.

“I think you saw tonight that we’re all sort of together, we’re very positive, and we’re a tight knit team, and that’s what’s going to take us to the playoffs. We haven’t turned against each other, we’ve had some pretty rough results, and we’ve stuck together, so that’s a credit to the team.”

Defense needs a lot of work (and maybe a little rest)

Kailen Sheridan watches the field during Sky Blue’s 5-4 win over Seattle. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

As the old adage goes, offense wins games, but defense wins championships. Watching any Sky Blue game, it’s easy to see that defense is their weakest attribute, and it’s costing them. In six consecutive games (eight total this season), Sky Blue has gone down multiple goals and had to fight to try to come from behind to salvage a result. That hasn’t been easy for the team as it has only a 2-5-1 record when conceding multiple goals first, and three of those five losses were shutouts for the New Jersey side.

One obvious reason for the defensive issues is injuries. As previously stated, Christie Pearce is out for the rest of the season as a result of several injuries sustained throughout the seasons, and she was previously out for two matches following the league’s concussion protocol. Kelley O’Hara was sidelined last night by a right adductor strain suffered while with the national team, and Erin Simon remains on the 45-day disabled list after fracturing her left foot. Last weekend Mandy Freeman returned to the starting lineup after losing multiple games to an ankle sprain, and Skroski was sidelined for several weeks for Sky Blue, causing her to miss a camp with the US U-23 team as well.

The plethora of injuries has resulted in a bit of a revolving door on the Sky Blue backline. Over 19 games, the team has implemented 14 different defensive lineups, and no backline was used more than twice in a row. O’Hara, who is listed as a forward and started out up top, has since returned to outside back, the position she predominately played last season and currently plays for the USWNT. A dearth of healthy defenders has also resulted in midfielders Nikki Stanton and Sarah Killion being pushed back onto the backline. That high amount of traffic in and out of Sky Blue’s defense, combined with the youth and inexperience of the roster (four of the six listed defenders have less than two years of professional soccer under the belts), results in a lack of chemistry and cohesion on the field and conceding goals early. It’s no wonder that Sky Blue’s defense is the worst in the league.

“We’ve had a shifting backline all year, so from here, we trained all week together in that formation,” Skroski said. “As a backline, looking back at when I went to Rutgers, it took us over three years to build that backline we had. (With Sky Blue,) going in, we had three days, four days of training. It’s tough.”

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Which brings us to Kailen Sheridan, the only constant fixture in Sky Blue’s ever-revolving back five. As Sky Blue began getting results and climbing up the ladder, it was largely because of the stellar performances by Sheridan in net, and it wasn’t long before her name began being thrown around in Rookie of the Year conversations. Even when her team lost, her superb saves and daring darts off her line to snuff out attempts on goal earned her much respect from around the league. Just look at Sky Blue’s May 24th game against the North Carolina Courage, which they lost 2-0. Sheridan conceded two goals in the first half, but went on to tally 11 saves on the night (an NWSL-era single-game record for the team) to prevent an even bigger loss.

But as the season has progressed, Sky Blue now leads the league in goals conceded with 41. That’s more than two times as many as the team with the fewest allowed, the No. 1-ranked Courage (14). And as a result, Sheridan’s name is not as often mentioned in regards to Rookie of the Year. And that’s unfortunate because, as Sky Blue’s coaches are quick to point out, the blame doesn’t fall completely on the rookie goalkeeper’s shoulders.

“Yeah, we’ve given up a lot of goals, but this is a brand new team, and we’re fixing some problems in the back, but she still remains our number one,” goalkeeping coach Jill Loyden said last night. “We have the utmost confidence in her.”

“I think it’s a little shortsighted to blame these goals we’ve conceded on the goalkeeper,” Hodgson added. “She’s made two world-class saves at least today.”

It’s not a lack of skill or talent that’s causing Sheridan to give up goals, but fatigue may realistically be a contributing factor. The goalkeeper has played every minute of the 2017 season, one of only four goalkeepers in the league to do so. Of those four, she’s also the only rookie and the only one currently playing internationally. In addition to the 1,710 minutes she’s seen on the field for Sky Blue this year, she’s also been called into multiple camps and made three appearances for Canada. That includes a start against Germany, then ranked No. 1 in the world. Because of national team duty, the most recent FIFA window, when Canada did not hold a camp, is the first time that Sheridan has had a break since the NWSL preseason kicked off. That amount of consistent playing time would be taxing on any player, but especially so for one in just her first year of playing professionally. She’s also played through a couple of injuries that are likely the result of fatigue and overexertion.

With that in mind and a home match against Boston on the horizon, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to give Sheridan some rest. They have a solid backup keeper in Caroline Casey, who split starting duties with Caroline Stanley last season. Casey could get some more experience under her belt and be better prepared in case she did get called in unexpectedly to fill in for Sheridan, and Sheridan could get some rest in order to be re-energized for the final playoff push.

Stating the obvious, but Sam Kerr is good

Sam Kerr driving the ball during the first half against Seattle. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Is there any player in the world hotter than Sam Kerr right now? Not according to Laura Harvey.

“She’s the best player in the world right now, no question,” the Reign coach said last night, completely unprompted. But that’s not a surprise, considering her team had just given up a 3-0 lead to lose 5-4 off a Sam Kerr-inspired comeback. Kerr’s four goals not only helped Sky Blue earn the win, but it was also the first time a player has scored four goals in a single game and the first time a player has scored multiple hat tricks in one season. She also retook the lead in this year’s Golden Boot race with 15 goals on the season.

And it’s not just NWSL play where she’s been excelling on the field. Kerr entered the NWSL season on the heels of a season in the Australian W-League in which she scored 10 goals to lead Perth Glory to its second Grand Final appearance and earn the Julie Dolan Medal for league MVP. Internationally she just led Australia to win the inaugural Tournament of Nations, scoring four goals, including her first international hat trick, over three games. She was also dynamic in Australia’s first ever win over the USWNT even though she didn’t score in that match.

Sam Kerr is playing the best soccer of her life and, as a result, she was recently shortlisted for Best FIFA Women’s Player of 2017, the first ever Australian player to be nominated for the highest honor in women’s soccer. That puts her in the same company as some of the biggest names in club and international soccer, like Carli Lloyd, Lucy Bronze, Dzsenifer Marozsan, and Lieke Martens.

“I think it’s a boost for not only me (but) Sky Blue, the Matildas, Perth Glory. That doesn’t happen very often—well, it’s the first time in Australia,” Kerr said of the nomination. “It’s obviously a huge honor, especially against the players there are in that category. Obviously it’s very humbling and it’s exciting for me and one of my goals has been to be one of the best in the world, so yeah, it’s nice.”

All things considered, it’s no wonder that Sam Kerr is, and has been, a contender for this year’s league MVP. Although some may argue that her MVP nomination should be contingent on whether Sky Blue makes playoffs, it goes without question that she has been the leading contributing factor in keeping Sky Blue in the playoff hunt this long. Even if she doesn’t score another goal all season, she will still undoubtedly be the team’s MVP at the end of the season, and with reason. As the Cloud 9 banner hanging at Yurcak Field reads, Sam Kerr is magic.

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