Sky Blue FC win over Houston keeps them in playoff race

taylor and rocky

By TOM SLATER

You might want to call Sky Blue FC’s 1-0 victory over Houston Dash Saturday night a case of grinding one out.

It wasn’t pretty but honestly, pretty doesn’t figure into it. It was a workmanlike effort from the Sky Blue FC worth three valuable points in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) standings. It was a win when nothing less would have been acceptable.

Houston came in without its international players (like everyone else) and had lost five straight matches by identical 1-0 scores. Their last win was months ago. The victory evened Sky Blue FC’s record at 4-4-4 for 16 points. That has vaulted them over Seattle and into fifth place in the standings. That’s a couple of points shy of Chicago for the fourth and final playoff berth with eight weeks left to play.

And Sky Blue has been playing well by piecing together a lineup when it always seemed they were missing one or two key ingredients.

“All of the credit for this performance must go to the players,” said Christy Holly, Sky Blue FC coach. “As the season progresses, you can really see our connection coming together. Our team has a great understanding of one another, and they continue to gel and display fantastic teamwork. We made it a bit hard for ourselves at the end, but I had a supreme amount of confidence that we would close out the game. I could see how hungry our players were for the win, as well as their clear desire in playing for one another.”

Last night, the New Jersey side was close enough to operating on all cylinders as they have been all season. They were missing Kelley O’Hara but for the first time all year, they started Leah Galton, Sam Kerr and Tasha Kai. The three played for the majority of the game with the first two controlling the flanks and Kai serving as her usual great target.

Ironically, none of those players were in on the deciding goal. The deciding factor was a screaming shot in the 53rd minute off the right foot of Taylor Lyle, the unheralded but vital outside midfielder. Lytle took a quick pass from Sarah Killion, had a great first touch toward goal and ripped a shot from about 25 yards that left Houston goalkeeper Bianca Henninger helpless despite a last-resort dive. 10 minutes later, Lytle nearly duplicated the shot from about the same spot but this time the Dash goalkeeper was able to bat the ball away.

“I’ve been hitting them from there in practice and everybody’s been telling me to take those shots,” said Lytle. “Sarah just gave me a great ball and the shot was just there. I’ve been trying to just do my job and it’s easy to play with Sarah and Raquel (Rodriguez).”

Holly said it was no surprise that Lytle scored on that shot.

“We’ve been telling her to take those for the last year and half,” said Holly. “She’s playing great all season and it was great to see her get the goal.”

Although there was no further scoring, Sky Blue had several close chances, mostly involving Kai. The Hawaiian was set up perfectly on a serve from Lytle in the first 45 minutes but couldn’t connect on a diving header. Killion also set up Kai with a perfect serve, beating the offside trap but Kai missed going for the far post.

Sky Blue dominated the action and was most dangerous when

Here are three takeaways from last night’s victory:

Kerr and Galton make a deadly combination: Sky Blue was the dominant team because Houston couldn’t concentrate on one player. Kerr and Galton in the lineup for mostly the entire 90 minutes gave Sky Blue two ways to attack the goal. While Galton has been doing most of the work since stepping into the lineup six weeks ago, Kerr had the majority of the ball Saturday night.

Holly said that was part of the game plan.

“We changed our strategy a bit and that was by design that Leah wasn’t necessarily getting the ball in the same places she had been getting them,” Holly said. “With Sam out there, it gave us another option and we wanted to use that.”

And they did. Kerr had about a half-dozen crosses targeted mostly for Tasha Kai. While the Hawaiian forward didn’t score, she certainly had her chances. Unfortunately, Kerr will be leaving for Olympic camp with Australia and won’t be back in the lineup until after Rio. But Holly is confident that newcomer Catherine Zimmerman or Maya Hayes can provide the speed and ball skills to balance Galton’s aggressiveness on the left side.

Lytle is for real: The Texas Tech midfielder was known as a super sub for most of her career with Sky Blue, but she’s been a constant in the lineup for the New Jersey side in 2016. She has not only started all 12 matches for Sky Blue, but she’s leading the team in assists with four, which also ties her for second on the NWSL.

On a midfield line with Galton, Killion and Rachel Rodriguez — all high draft picks — she’s may have the lowest profile but is surely carrying her weight.

Her goal was icing on the cake last night as she played her usual stellar game – doing the dirty work and setting up her teammates.

The next month will be crucial: Just a couple points out of a playoff spot, Sky Blue can use July and August to make up some ground. They aren’t as hamstrung as other NWSL teams when it comes to missing internationals. They will continue to be without O’Hara until late in the season. The same goes for Kerr. Other than that, the team remains nearly intact (they’ll lose Rodriguez for one game when she plays for Costa Rica against the United States in the final sendoff match in two weeks). After visiting last-place Boston Sunday, they face Washington in back-to-back weekends. Both times, the Spirit will be without its national team players and although they are still potent, they are a different side.

Holly has done a remarkable job piecing the team together position by position. His positive attitude has rubbed off on his players. The fact that Sky Blue is fighting for a playoff spot this late in the season is a testament to his influence on the team.