Sky Blue FC is set to kick off against the Chicago Red Stars on July 22 at 10 p.m. ET in the semifinals of the 2020 National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup. This match is proudly presented to Sky Blue FC fans digitally by NJM Insurance.
Sky Blue’s quarterfinal victory in penalty kicks over the Washington Spirit on July 18 marked the franchise’s first-ever National Women’s Soccer League playoff victory, a testament to the organization’s shifting culture. In her first full year at the Club’s helm, Head Coach Freya Coombe led her team to its first knockout game since 2013. With mounting momentum and seemingly unlimited potential, Sky Blue will face off against a Chicago squad that has seen playoff success in the last five years.
“Everything leading up to this point has prepared us for this game and we’re ready to go,” team captain Sarah Woldmoe told reporters in anticipation of Wednesday’s competition.
The Sky Blue FC semifinal match of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup can be streamed on CBS All Access for fans in the United States and Canada. Following the conclusion of play, recordings of each match are posted to the streaming site. International fans can watch the Challenge Cup live on Twitch.
Sky Blue’s attacking unit has shown tenacity and grit throughout the tournament pressuring oppositions in the offensive third. Saturday’s match highlighted the team’s increasing ability to channel through the midfield in order to create scoring opportunities. Once again, Coombe arranged her team with one striker, Ifeoma Onumonu, up top as they had done earlier this tournament, highlighting the club’s versatility of formation. Onumonu led the charge by putting continuous pressure on the Spirit’s backline.
“We’ve got a great group of players that are willing to absorb lots of information,” said Coombe. “They are willing to try different things and they have a lot of trust in each other and trust in the coaching staff.”
Offseason addition McCall Zerboni has been a vocal leader both on and off the field, providing guidance to a roster boasting 18 players under the age of 27. As the team enters its first semifinal match since 2013, the three-time NWSL Champion will offer a wealth of experience.
Fourth-year goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan was a force to be reckoned with en route to earning her third clean sheet of the tournament. Sheridan’s seven saves in regular time also included a Verizon Save of the Match recognition. In the 42nd minute, the Saker Shop Rite Woman of the Match made a one-handed diving save to keep the Spirit’s Ashley Sanchez from converting on an opener header. Following the shutout, Sheridan, who leads the tournament in saves, was also named the NWSL Budweiser Woman of the Match. The Canadian will be a crucial member of Wednesday’s starting XI.
Sheridan is joined in the backfield by veteran defenders Gina Lewandowski and Estelle Johnson as well as outside backs Midge Purce and Imani Dorsey. For center back Lewandowski, she is one of only four Sky Blue players to have played every minute of the Challenge Cup. Also seeing significant time as an outside back is recent-signing Sabrina Flores. Since signing to the team in June of this year, Flores has been a valuable addition to the squad. Following the Club’s final preliminary match against the North Carolina Courage, Flores was named Saker Shop Rite Woman of the Match for her work on both sides of the ball. In the quarterfinal matchup, Flores once again demonstrated her prowess creating the team’s best scoring opportunity in the 71sth minute. Looking forward, the New Jersey native will be expected to make an impact on both ends of the pitch.
“It’s important to celebrate the performance of the team and how far they’ve come, but we can’t just celebrate a quarterfinal,” said Coombe. “The real celebration will come on Sunday and we just need to focus on getting there.”
The Chicago Red Stars ticket to the semifinal round was also stamped with a 4-3 victory in penalties after going 0-0 throughout regulation. Chicago entered the quarterfinals as the sixth seed after going 1-2-1 throughout the preliminary round. They opened play against the Washington Spirit falling in a close 1-2 matchup. On July 1, the Red Stars earned their first point of the tournament tying Portland Thorns FC 0-0. After falling to the Courage 1-0, Chicago secured their first win of the tournament, besting the Utah Royals 1-0 to close out the opening round.
Last season, the Red Stars made their first NWSL Championship Final appearance since joining the league in 2013. A founding team in the league, Chicago had previously made five consecutive playoff appearances.
The Red Stars have been led by Head Coach Rory Dames since 2011, when Chicago was still part of the Women’s Premier Soccer League. From 2015-2018, he led his hometown team to four consecutive NWSL semifinal matches.
The greatest gap in Chicago’s formation came with the departure of forward Sam Kerr this offseason. In 2019, Kerr broke the record for most goals scored in a single NWSL (18), a record she had previously set in 2017 with Sky Blue. In 40 games with Chicago, the striker notched a whopping 34 goals.
This winter, the Red Stars acquired forwards Kealie Watt, Rachel Hill, and Makenzy Doniak. Watt and Hill have both started four games on the forward line, while Doniak has made one start and come off the bench in the remaining four matches. Watt and Hill’s greatest impact came in the quarterfinal match as they each netted a penalty kick.
Despite the loss of Kerr, Chicago has returned multiple big names this season including four United States Women’s National Team members – defenders Casey Short and Tierna Davidson, midfielders Julie Ertz and Morgan Gautrat (Brian), and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
Short has been a fixture on U.S. National Teams since first joining the United States U-20 team in 2010. She competed with both the U-20 then the U-23 teams for three years before being called up to the full national team in 2016. Since then, she has made 32 international appearances. The defender notched Chicago’s lone goal against Utah in the 85th minute of play.
Ertz has been with the USWNT since 2013 amassing 20 goals on 102 appearances. Prior to the 2020 season, the two-time U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year made 72 appearances with the Red Stars and found the back of the net six times. Short and Ertz bring poise and experience to a backfield that has only allowed three goals in five games.
Naeher is currently second in the league in saves (18) after playing four matches in goal. Following the 2016 Olympics, Naeher was slotted as the United States’ number one goalkeeper. Last summer, Naeher played every minute in net for the 2019 FIFA World Cup-winning team after serving as a backup to Hope Solo at the 2015 World Cup. During Saturday’s quarterfinal match, the NWSL Budweiser Woman of the Match made six saves to secure her second shutout of the season.
Chicago’s only other goal of the tournament came off the boot of Gautrat in the 51sth minute of the first match against the Spirit. The midfielder has been named to two World Cup rosters and one Olympic roster.
Sky Blue FC and the Chicago Red Stars faced off three times last season with Sky Blue securing two victories on both July 6 and August 14.
The winner of this match will face off against either Portland Thorns FC or Houston Dash in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup Final presented by Budweiser, and shown nationally on CBS. In the words of forward Paige Monaghan, Sky Blue is “humble, hungry, and confident.”