Sky Blue FC hopes to jump into playoff spot against Washington

killion spirit preview july 23

by TOM SLATER

The next two weeks may tell the tale of the 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season for Sky Blue FC.

Starting with Saturday, the Sky Blue FC will play a home-and-home series with the-tied-for-first-place Washington Spirit. Tonight’s match is at Rutgers University’s Yurcak Field with a 7 p.m. first kick. Next weekend, they’ll do it again at Maryland’s SoccerPlex. In the rivalry week scheduling, the Spirit and Sky Blue meet four times in 2016. In the previous two meetings, the away team prevailed, both by 2-1 scorelines.

While Washington (8-2-2, 26 points) moved into a tie for first place with Portland in the NWSL table, Sky Blue (5-4-4, 19 points) are two points behind Chicago for the fourth playoff spot. Sky Blue comes in with a two-game winning streak and hopes to extend it to three for the first time since 2014.

With the Olympic break coming after next week’s games, Sky Blue is in the unusual position of controlling their destiny. “We control everything and that beautiful things about it,” said Sky Blue FC coach Christy Holly. “We’re in charge right now. We’ve had a game plan from the get go. We had a lot of things we wanted to change. We wanted to change the culture of who we are and what stand for. The players have bought into it and you can see it on the field.”

The fact that Sky Blue FC is still in the hunt this late in the season is a testament to Holly’s change of culture plan.  They’re one of the younger teams in the league. Last week against Boston, they played seven first-year players.

This weekend, it will be more of the same.

For example, veteran Christie Rampone, the 41-year-old wonder, is surrounded by youth. Two rookies and a second-year play along side her on the back four. A rookie in goal. A rookie and a second-year player in front of her in the center midfield.

“She’s amazing because she’s making them all better players,” Holly said. “That’s what people don’t always recognize. She holds herself to a certain level but she makes everyone around her better.”

The young Sky Blue team has jelled quickly. Rookies Erin Simon and Erica Sroski have joined second-year Kristin Grubka as Rampone’s partners. Caroline Casey is in goal for a least another week.  They’ve had their moments but have kept the Jersey girls in every match. Neither team will have their national team players, which means Washington will be without the likes of Crystal Dunn, Ali Kreiger, Stephanie Labbe and Diana Matheson. Sky Blue won’t have Kelley O’Hara and Sam Kerr. They also will be missing Raquel Rodriguez, who will be in Kansas City playing for Costa Rica against the United States.

“A lot of people don’t realize how valuable Rocky (Rodriguez) is,” said Holly. “She was torn between playing for her country and her club. She wanted to do both and she was  trying to fly back for the (Saturday) game. But we told her, no.”

Filling in for her figures to be Kelly Conheeney.

Washington will be trying to extend its lead over idle Portland. Estefania Banini and Katie Stengel are the Spirit’s most dangerous players. Banini is this weeks NWSL player of the week and also has the goal of the week.