PISCATAWAY, N.J.—Sky Blue FC closed out their 2017 home season with a 1-1 draw against the top-ranked North Carolina Courage, with Ashley Hatch and Raquel Rodriguez scoring for their respective clubs. The draw tied the teams’ three-games series at 1-1-1, but the one point earned was not enough to see the Courage be crowned this season’s Shield winner.
“It’s been a long season. I thought first half we probably could have iced the game by halftime, been done with it, but we didn’t put the chances away and against a team like this, you pay the price,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said after the game. “Hats off to them. They had a good second half. We still had a couple late chances to win it, but I think overall it was a decent performance.”
The Courage took the lead in the 27th minute, although it originally looked as though Ashley Hatch was going to be denied from getting on the board after the first ball she put into the back of the net was negated by the offside flag. Caroline Casey, starting in goal in her first appearance for Sky Blue this season, reset the play with a goal kick, only to have Kristen Hamilton head the ball forward for Hatch, who had snuck in behind the Sky Blue defense to make a run on goal. The rookie striker fired off a second ball that beat Casey, and this time the offside flag stayed down and the goal stood. Hatch’s goal would be the lone goal of the first half, giving the Courage a 1-0 lead entering halftime.
Sky Blue made a personnel switch at the half, subbing in Raquel Rodriguez for Maya Hayes. According to Dave Hodgson, the game day coach for Sky Blue, the Costa Rican international has been dealing with a lingering hamstring injury, so the plan was to be conservative and put her in at the half. The substitution proved fruitful for the New Jersey side, as Rodriguez’s presence in the midfield helped swing the momentum in Sky Blue’s favor. As a result, the home team was the more dominant side for the second half, keeping the Courage on their heels.
The offside flag struck again, this time in the Courage’s favor, at the hour mark when Kelley O’Hara, who was honored in a pregame ceremony for her 100th cap with the USWNT, sent in a ball from the right flank that Kerr ducked to get her head on, putting it past Katelyn Rowland in goal for the Courage. Kerr was ruled offside though, and the current NWSL record for single season goals remains intact for another week.
Although she didn’t score in the match, the Australian star striker did tally an assist on Rodriguez’s equalizer in the 75th minute. Center back Domi Richardson played a long ball over the field, which took a bounce that enticed Rowland off her line. Kerr got to the ball first and chested it down, preventing Rowland from collecting. Rodriguez gained possession of the loose ball and, with a defender on her back, moved it towards goal until she was able to send home a low roller to level the score.
Despite a few dangerous chances on goal by the visitors late in the second half, including one of several speedy breakaways by Lynn Williams to get a chance on goal only to be denied by a brilliant save by Casey, the Courage could not find a game-winner and walked away with a disappointing one point.
“I told the players if you got a point here early season a few months ago, you’d be happy with a point here. But obviously chasing over the home stretch, it’s been difficult. Picking up points is always difficult,” Riley added. “They have nothing to play for, so it’s almost like they have everything to play for because everyone plays with freedom.”
Although Sky Blue closes out the 2017 season on the road against the Boston Breakers on Saturday, September 30, the Courage have another attempt at winning the Shield on Wednesday night when they take on the Houston Dash in a match rescheduled due to Hurricane Harvey. According to Riley, though, the lack of winning the Shield at Yurcak Field doesn’t change his long-term game plan for the final stretch of the season. Their eyes are on the bigger picture: making it to the NWSL Championship match for the second consecutive season.
“I said, ‘It just doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter what happens.’ October 8 is what happens,” Riley said. “What we’ve got to look forward to is getting ready for October 8. I don’t care about winning games if we don’t have to. It’s just about the performance and getting better before October 8.”
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