PISCATAWAY, NJ—On July 23, Sky Blue FC (6-4-4, 22 pts) secured a 1-0 victory over the visiting Washington Spirit (8-2-3, 26 pts) in front of their fans at Yurcak field on the Rutgers campus.
Achieving something they haven't since 2014, Sky Blue FC extended their unbeaten to streak to three and disrupted Washington's first-place chances, sending themselves into a tied position for fourth place with the Chicago Red Stars.
Sky Blue is now responsible for two of the Spirit's three losses, controlling the series at 2-1. The two squads will meet up again in Boyds, Maryland on July 30.
With muggy conditions and a scorching sun, small breaks were implemented to give the players time to replenish their energy.
On the heat, head coach Christy Holly said, "We knew that you can't play at that fierce tempo we like. We can't play that high tempo game and real high press. It's more game management."
The first half was off to a slow start, as both teams focused on defense, conserving their energy for attacking opportunities.
This strategy would pay off in the 24th minute when goalkeeper Caroline Casey intercepted a poor quality through-ball from the Spirit, voiding the team's attempt to score.
Starting the counter-attack, Casey passed left over to center-back Christie Rampone, who found left-back Erin Simon leaking up the sideline. From midfield, Simon sent a through-ball past the Spirit's out of position right-back and over to Leah Galton.
With a wide-open flank as the defense pushed up, Galton blazed down the field like American Pharaoh and fiercely charged inside the box.
At the six, Galton quickly fired a shot above keeper, Kelsey Wys and into the upper netting of the goal.
Galton, a rookie midfielder from England, constantly used her dangerous speed to make the defense chase after her, letting the heat to exhaust the defense and her speed play to Sky Blue's advantage.
A minute later, forward Tasha Kai found herself one-on-one with Wys after receiving a beautiful lob pass from midfielder, Catherine Zimmerman who placed it over the Spirit backline.
With pressure quickly coming from behind, Kai attempted a grounder to the right side, however Wys used cat-like reflexes to sprawl out for a fingertip save, sending the ball just a hair wide of the goal.
From this point on, Sky Blue was able to make the Spirit play to their style, which consisted of executing excellent defense, swallowing up any attempt into the middle of the field by the Washington, and converting it into overlap runs, first inside to Lytle who would look for either Galton or Zimmerman streaking up the sidelines.
"The players showed their IQ on the field. They worked together, they picked their moments and said at some point we can slow this down," said Coach Holly. "Bore them to death, that's totally fine. We'll slow it down and pick a time when we're ready, not when they're ready."
With the slow pace, the midfield would continue to utilize Zimmerman and Galton to rush up field and catch the Spirit off guard, resulting in good opportunities and plenty of corners.
The game was dictated through from the defense. If the Spirit were able to get past Shawna Gordon and Nikki Stanton in the midfield, the Sky Blue backline shutdown everything that came at them.
Christie Rampone, Erin Simon, Erica Skroski, and Kristin Grubka forced the ball outside, forcing the Spirit to shoot pressured shots from distance and attempt crosses at terrible angles.
Keeper Caroline Casey's job was made easy, yet there was a sequence of three real chances the Spirit had inside the center of the box in the second half.
With each diving save, Casey quickly needed to get back up and prepare the rebounds Joanna Lohman and Cheyna Williams were finding. With each shot, Casey knew exactly where to be in order to make critically timed saves.
"I think from the 40th minute on I kind of saw the team (Spirit) I'm used to seeing," said Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra. "Not fortunate to get a goal and get back in the game. The first 40 minutes was atrocious....we were very reactionary and passive."
With players like Kai and Galton playing through injuries, Holly said, "It says everything about the team. There were players out there that should not have been on that field because the pain threshold they were going though."
"They want to win, they want to do it for each other. That's something have in years going back."
Sky Blue FC will return home to Yurcak Field on Saturday, August 27, hosting the Chicago Red Stars at 7:00 p.m., and tickets for that match are available now.
Additionally, all fans who eat at Quaker Steak & Lube in Edison before the game will receive free parking for the match.