Sky Blue wants to finish season on a strong note

Kai-at-POR-2016

by TOM SLATER

Portland Thorns FC will visit New Jersey Sunday hoping to leave with the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Supporter’s Shield as the league’s best team in the regular season.

Sky Blue FC will be playing simply for pride – and a winning record.

The Thorns (11-3-5) will take the Supporters Shield if they beat Sky Blue FC and better Washington Spirit’s result against the Chicago Red Stars Saturday night. That means if the Spirit lose, Portland would need just a draw to get win the Supporters Shield. If Washington manages a draw against Chicago, the Thorns would need a victory over Sky Blue FC to lift the trophy. A Spirit victory gives Washington the Supporters Shield.

If Sky Blue (7-7-5) can win their finale, the team will have a winning record for the first time since 2014, when they finished 9-8-7.

“Different players will have their own motivation, whether it’s to get a head start for the next season or to try for a spot on a national team,” said Sky Blue FC Christy Holly. “But collectively, as a team, it’s all about pride. They’ve put too much into the season to do anything less. We want to make sure that we put on a very entertaining and open-attacking game for them, which would also enable us to finish off what has been a very good season on a high note.”

The Thorns present a formidable attack. Key for the Thorns are United States international midfielder Tobin Heath, Canada star Christine Sinclair and Danish international and former Sky Blue forward Nadia Nadim. Nadim notched her ninth goal of the season and Sinclair scored for the third consecutive match in last week’s 3-2 victory over the Western New York Flash that clinched the first-ever home playoff game for Portland. Nadim enters the last week of the 2016 regular season trailing Houston Dash forward Kealia Ohai and Flash forward Lynn Williams for the league lead.

Meanwhile, Sinclair has continued her momentum after winning a bronze medal with Canada at the 2016 Rio Olympics with three goals and an assist in the last four games to take her to six goals and two assists on the year. Heath has a league-leading nine assists despite missing time for national team duty and the Olympics.

“They will be a challenge,” said Holly. “Our back four has been very consistent over the last four or five games. We’re young but we’re lucky to have Christie (Rampone) back there and she sets the bar high. We will have to be disciplined back there because they will punish you if you give them space.”

Sky Blue will be counting on Sam Kerr, the reigning NWSL Player of the Week, to kick start their offense. Kerr has scored goals in the last four games and has five on the season. After early injury and Olympic commitments for Australia, Kerr has blossomed into one of the league’s legitimate scoring threats.

They also will have Leah Galton and Kelley O’Hara back in the lineup along with a healthy Taylor Lytle. If so, it will be one of the few times all year Sky Blue will have all their key parts on the field at once.

Sky Blue was in contention for much of the year after an off-season that saw them have no permanent coach until January and lose a slew of starting players to retirement, trade and the expansion draft.

Bolstered by a strong draft that included Leah Galton, Raquel Rodriguez, Erica Skroski and Caroline Casey – all starters – Sky Blue developed a strong team-first mentality that allowed them to hang with the top teams and always stay in the hunt for a playoff spot until late August.

“I don’t think people realize how young the team is,” said Holly. “To have Galton, and Rocky (Rodriguez), Skroski and Caroline (Casey) all on the field at once. And Kristin Grubka played about 10 games last year. Erin Simon is a rookie. Sarah Killion is a second-year player who only played 10 games or so before getting injured last year. I don’t know if the league keeps these records but I would be interested to know if any team played  that many rookies for those many games in one season.”

Portland will play Sky Blue in the season finale at 7 p.m. Sunday at Rutgers University’s Yurcak Field.