By: Emily Mendes
Sky Blue FC will take on the Washington Spirit this Saturday, July 18, at 12:30 p.m. ET in the Club’s quarterfinal match of the NWSL Challenge Cup. Hackensack Meridian Health is proudly presenting this match for Sky Blue FC fans.
“The whole group is very much excited to play Washington,” said Head Coach Freya Coombe in her pre-match press conference yesterday. “We are excited to go toe-to-toe with them and now it is go-time with the knockouts. We were prepared to face any opponent. It becomes just about focusing on us and doing what we do well.”
After going 1-2-1 in the preliminary round, Sky Blue FC finished seventh in the table based on tiebreakers heading into the knockout stages. The team will look to bounce back against a Spirit squad that closed out its preliminary round with a 1-0 win over Houston, a team that Sky Blue defeated 2-0 on July 8. A win this weekend would push Sky Blue FC through to a semifinal contest on Wednesday, July 22, against the winner of the OL Reign and Chicago Red Stars match.
“Mentality is always a win,” said veteran defender Gina Lewandowski on the switch between preliminary round and knockout rounds. “We want to put 100% out all the time on the field and in every game. This is do-or-die, so we’re going to go into this game with a bit more energy and excitement because we want to get to that next round.”
The quarterfinal match will be streamed on CBS All Access for fans in the United States and Canada. A recording will be uploaded after the final whistle for fans who are not able to watch the match live. International fans can stream the match on Twitch.
Sky Blue FC heads into its quarterfinal match with a total of four points earned in the preliminary round. The team looks to regain focus after falling to the North Carolina Courage in a 2-0 loss on July 13 that featured Sky Blue FC holding 57.5% of possession and nine shots taken against the reigning NWSL Champions. The match also featured a standout performance by Sabrina Flores, the Saker ShopRite Woman of the Match.
The Club enters this weekend’s match with a young offensive unit hoping to break down an experienced Spirit backline. Forwards Ifeoma Onumonu, Paige Monaghan, and Evelyne Viens will look to finish chances in the final third and capitalize on opportunities created by midfielders Nahomi Kawasumi, McCall Zerboni, and Jennifer Cudjoe. The team has maintained its possession style of play throughout the tournament and will look to build out of the back even against a strong Washington front line.
“We’ve been really pleased with our forward line and the work they’ve been doing,” said Coombe. “I thought Onumonu had great games against North Carolina and Houston. I am hoping that she can get a goal because she is certainly deserving of one. I am pleased with the performance [Evelyne] Viens has put in off the bench. She’s looked dangerous at times. Our wide players like Naho [Kawasumi] have been instrumental in our ability to possess and create opportunities.”
“It’s a challenge. Credit to [Paige Nielsen and Sam Staab], they are great players, but I’m always up for a challenge,” said Monaghan regarding Spirit’s strong center back pair. “Now it’s go time and there is no leaving anything behind.”
On the other end of the field, veteran defenders Estelle Johnson and Gina Lewandowski will lead the charge in shutting down a Washington attack led by midfielder and U.S. Women’s National Team star Rose Lavelle and forward Ashley Hatch. The 2017 Rookie of the Year, Hatch, scored the game-winner in the most recent meeting between the two teams.
Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan will likely find herself in the starting lineup after an impressive run in net throughout the NWSL Challenge Cup. Sheridan was tested often in Sky Blue’s final preliminary match, making six saves, and earning Verizon’s Save of the Match for the third time in the tournament. The fourth-year keeper is leading the Challenge Cup with 14 saves and has recorded two clean sheets.
The Washington Spirit enters the Challenge Cup after a strong finish to the 2019 NWSL season.
After winning three and drawing four of their final eight matches, the team narrowly missed the playoffs.
The club has taken a massive leap under second-year coach Rickie Burke. His team finished the 2019 season with the highest passing percentage in the league and remains committed to keeping possession and patiently building out of the back. The Spirit may struggle to execute this style of play without Captain Andi Sullivan anchoring the midfield. Sullivan, unfortunately, suffered a torn meniscus in the club’s previous match and will miss the remainder of the Challenge Cup.
The Spirit saw numerous roster additions over the offseason and comes into the tournament with seven rookies and four international newcomers. The fourth-overall 2020 NWSL College Draft pick Ashley Sanchez has already proven to be a threat during her short stint with the Spirit. It appears the coaching staff entrusts Sanchez to fill the role of the now-departed Mallory Pugh, who Sky Blue FC acquire earlier in the year in exchange for a handful of draft picks.
Joining Sanchez are Bayley Feist and Dorian Bailey, who both played the full 90 against the Dash. The promising young duo stepped up after standout midfielders Rose Lavelle and Jordan DiBiasi were left out of the starting lineup. Feist led the team in shots and shots on target while Bailey completed 100% of her passes during the match.
Rounding out the team is a talented group of veterans, including 2019 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe and defenders Tori Huster and Paige Nielsen. Helping to anchor the backline is the second-year center back, Sam Staab, who played every minute of the 2019 season. After a successful 2019 campaign, the Spirit’s defensive lineup will likely remain the same for its quarterfinal match.
Sky Blue FC last played the Washington Spirit in a 1-0 loss at home on July 24, 2019. A win sees Sky Blue onto the semifinals that will move from Zions Bank Stadium to Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday, July 22.