Sky Blue Notebook: Success is More Than Kerr

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By TOM SLATER

sky blue logoIt’s been no secret that Sam Kerr has been one of the most exciting players in the National Women’s Soccer League over the past two months.

Healthy and fit, the Australia  international has carried Sky Blue on her back the first half of the season. While she racked up Player of the Week, Player of the Month (twice) and Goal of the Week (and probably the season), Sky Blue (6-6-1, 19 points) has stayed among the top four in the standings.

But there has been more to it that only Kerr.

As FC Kansas City arrives to play Sky Blue at Yurcak Field (7 p.m., Saturday) in Piscataway, here are five other factors that have helped Sky Blue.

Pearce and the Young Guns

Christie Pearce turned 42 two weeks ago and announced her retirement via an interview with Ad Week (of all places). But she’s still got juice left and she wants nothing more than to go out in style.

Coach Christy Holly has left his captain in charge of a defense that has, at times, been composed of two rookies and a second-year player. With the Southern California alums Kayla Mills and Mandy Freeman seeing significant playing time and the second-year players Erica Skroski and Erin Simon also standouts, the Sky Blue defense looks solid for years to come.

But this year, mistakes will be made – see the three mistakes that led to goals against Orlando. It’s Pearce’s job to make sure that those mistakes are kept to a minimum.

There’s no better coach-on-the-field than Pearce. How the young defense plays in front of the Canadian international goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, another rookie, down the stretch will go a long way in determining Sky Blue’s future this fall.

O’Hara on Attack

Kelley O’Hara has been silent for the most part this season. She’s been on international duty and she’s had a nagging injury. But if Holly uses her out of the back like he did against North Carolina, Sky Blue not only gets another experienced defender, he gets another attacking player that will give defenses another look.

Whether with the national team or with Sky Blue, O’Hara loves get into the attack down the flank. When she did that down the right side against the Courage, it freed up Kerr even more and allowed the left side of the attack to have more space.

O’Hara can play anywhere but placing her at right back might be the best thing for the team on both sides of the ball.

The Schedule

Sky Blue has played a brutal schedule the first half of the season. They opened with five of their first seven games and eight of 13 away from home. They have twice played three games in a seven-day period.

Sky Blue made the most of it, taking 10 road points.

The stretch run will be a little easier. Seven of their final 11 games are at Yurcak Field, where they aren’t unbeatable but they do have a winning record (3-2-0).

And while not reaching Portland or Orlando sizes, the crowds at Yurcak have been growing bigger and staying loud.

No Sophomore Slump for Rodriguez

Raquel Rodriguez, last year’s NWSL Rookie of the Year, is having a terrific second year. She’s scored three goals — two game-winners and the fastest one in league history, at Portland.

The Costa Rica international has more room to work this year. Her ability to team with Sarah Killion has seen them switch from holding to attacking midfielder seamlessly within the game.

Statistics aside, Rodriguez has improved on her rookie season.

Holly’s Vision

Last year, Holly reset the club culture by signing and playing players who fit his vision. With his second consecutive draft class, he has a young team that will give him and fans some sleepless nights. He calls it “naïvete and inexperience” and it will cost them games such as the one against Orlando at home.

But his ability to mix and match players – when to rest or not rest Kerr, to start Daphne Corboz and to sub in Nikki Stanton – has been an important factor.

When Holly subbed in Stanton late in the match against North Carolina last week, it paid off almost immediately. Stanton won a ball in the midfield and played a strong pass to Maya Hayes on the left side. That led to Kerr’s bicycle kick game-winner.

Building a club culture for the future while trying to make the playoffs isn’t easy, but Holly had Sky Blue as contenders late in the season last year and they’re knocking on the door this year.

Notes

FC Kansas City (3-5-4, 13) comes in struggling. The Blues have not won in their last three road games and are in the midst of a struggle that has seen them go winless in their last five over all after a 2-1 home loss to the Houston Dash in Week 11. A loss Saturday against Sky Blue will see Kansas City tie a club record with six consecutive games without a victory. … Sky Blue looks to win back-to-back games for only the second time this season.