Preview: Sky Blue FC at F.C. Kansas City

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by TOM SLATER

With four games left in their National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season, Sky Blue FC still has a favorable schedule left if they are to be one of the four playoff teams at the end of the month.

Out of the four remaining matches, three teams are currently on the outside looking in at a NWSL playoff sport. Only Portland Thorns FC, the season finale at home, has a winning record.

And it starts Sunday night in Kansas City. The two teams meet at 6 p.m. at Swope Soccer Village. You can also view the game live. 

The New Jersey side, once the hottest team in the league, is now on a two-game losing streak — one on each side of the Olympic break. Sky Blue (6-6-4, 22 points) will have to shake off a 3-1 home loss to Chicago Red Stars last Saturday if they want to seriously bid for a playoff spot. Currently, they sit in sixth place, five points behind the Western New York Flash for the fourth playoff spot.

Coach Christy Holly doesn’t think that will be a problem. He could tell from the first moments of this week’s training.

“We came back to practice and they team wasn’t feeling sorry for themselves,’ said Holly. “The team showed up and said let’s go. They remained focus and energetic. They know there’s a challenge ahead.”

Sky Blue FC will do it without Kelley O’Hara. The United States international was cleated on the back of her ankle by Alyssa Mautz of Chicago in the final minutes of last week’s match. Although she left in a boot and crutches, the injury was not as serious as originally thought. O’Hara will not be available for Sunday’s match and unlikely will play against Orlando next week.

Sky Blue will have Australian striker Sam Kerr. And she’s finally healthy. Kerr scored the team’s only game in stoppage time, converting a pass from English rookie Leah Galton.

“It’s nice to be back with Sky Blue,” Kerr said. “It was a disappointing finish to the run we had at the Olympics (a loss in penalty kicks to Brazil) but I like the girls here.  Making the playoffs is doable. It’s going to be a little bit harder now. But we’re up for the challenge. We had some key games coming up and we want to get the points.”

Kerr says she is fully healed from her foot injury and will create a dangerous duo on the flanks with the ever-energetic Tasha Kai up top.

“They are both exciting and teams won’t be able to key on one player,” said Holly. “That gives us extra options and should be challenging for our opponents. What everyone needs to realize is that they’re both in their early 20s. They’re only going to get better and will even be more exciting.”

FC Kansas City (4-8-4, 16 points) on paper, looks like the right medicine for Sky Blue. They have lost four of their last six matches and last week, the two-time defending NWSL champions fell to the last-place Boston Breakers, 2-0, becoming the first team to lose a home match to Boston in two years.

The defeat pushed the Blues to the brink of being eliminated from the playoffs for the first time after FC Kansas City qualified for the league’s first three postseasons.

FCKC will be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with a loss or draw against Sky Blue FC on Sunday. Even with a win against Sky Blue, the Blues would still be officially excluded from the postseason if the Chicago Red Stars win or draw against Seattle Reign FC and the Western New York Flash win versus the Washington Spirit in Week 17.

But Holly knows they won’t be a pushover.

“They’re a very good that is very well-coached,” said Holly. “They may not be having a great season. They’re an extremely difficult team. You can’t write them off. Even in the beginning of the season when things weren’t going their way, you could see what they were trying to do. You can’t write them off. You don’t win the league in back-to-back years by luck.”

FC Kansas City may have an emotional edge as well. New Jersey native and former Sky Blue FC midfielder Heather O’Reilly announced her retirement from international play. O’Reilly, a fan favorite wherever she plays, will continue her NWSL career.

“It’s a credit to the league that you have players like Christie (Rampone) and Heather continue their careers in our league after their international careers are over,” said Holly.

Sunday night marks the second meeting of the season between these two clubs. The two teams drew 1-1 at Yurcak Field in June. In that contest, FC Kansas City struck first in the 27th  minute on an Erika Tymrak-to-Shea Groom tally, which Sky Blue FC countered with a successful Sarah Killion penalty kick conversion just three minutes later.

Sky Blue had appeared to have scored another goal earlier in the game when Kim DeCesare headed a serve from Erika Skroski that hit the crossbar and bounce over the line. However, no goal was called and the end result was a draw.