The Chicago Red Stars won 3-2 against Sky Blue FC in an exciting semifinal of the NWSL Challenge Cup at the Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. They will face the Houston Dash in the final at the same venue on Sunday, July 26 at 12.30 pm ET, who had earlier in the day won the other semifinal against the Portland Thorns by a 1-0 score.
Sky Blue kept the same winning lineup and formation (4-3-3) as their quarterfinal match against the Washington Spirit, the only change being Sabrina Flores (who had started 3 of their 5 matches previously) coming in for Imani Dorsey at left back.
Even the Red Stars kept their same winning team and formation (4-2-3-1) from their previous match against OL Reign, except for Zoey Goralski (who had started their 2nd match) replacing the experienced Casey Short (injured) at left back.
This was such an entertaining match full of good football that a 5 minute highlights video does not do it any justice. If possible please watch the entire match (CBS All Access in USA and Canada, and on the NWSL website for the rest of the world). Here are some moments in each half that involved good attacking plays.
The Red Stars were in their 6th consecutive semifinal, and last year for the first time, they had made the final. And this experience showed in the initial 10-15 minutes. They were fast out of the blocks, pressing Sky Blue players with high intensity, forcing turnovers and launching quick counterattacks.
Sky Blue looked nervous, they were not their usual assured and composed selves in possession. Their touches were not clean, they did not connect passes, were not first to loose balls, and gave away possession easily.
7': Red Stars right forward Kealia Watt was running freely at the Sky Blue backline when their left central defender Estelle Johnson made a great slide tackle to take the ball away. But in the process, looked a bit hurt.
8': Red Stars Goal. This was an interesting passage of play. Red Stars captain and right central defender Julie Ertz ran up with the ball in midfield, but under pressure from Sky Blue captain and central midfielder Sarah Woldmoe, misplaced it to Sky Blue left forward Nahomi Kawasumi who gave it to Woldmoe. Red Stars central midfielder Vanessa
DiBernardo was quick to not allow Woldmoe to turn cleanly, dispossessed her and laid it off to Watt who gave it to Red Stars central attacking midfielder Savannah McCaskill. She passed it ahead to Red Stars centre forward Katie Johnson who ran with the ball up the central channel passing Sky Blue's Estelle Johnson who had just gone down because of the injury just a minute before. This caused a 3v3. Katie Johnson smartly allowed Sky Blue left back Sabrina Flores to try to take the ball from her but sent it right at the last moment to Red Stars right back Bianca St. Georges who cut inside with her right foot to evade Sky Blue right central defender Gina Lewandowski diving tackle, and then just as Flores was recovering back to stop her, to the surprise of everyone including Sky Blue goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, toepoked the ball with her right foot diagonally across goal. Sheridan maybe thought it was going out and didn't dive to make a save. Sky Blue right back Midge Purce who had to more careful of the Red Stars left forward Rachel Hill, did try to make a last ditch save but it was not enough. The ball hit Sheridan's right post and went in for St. Georges' first NWSL goal.
10': Estelle Johnson had suffered a hamstring injury and was replaced by Erica Skroski.
11': Red Stars Goal. St. Georges is again involved as she brings the ball up in the attack in the right inside channel and lays it off wide to Watt, who dribbles past Flores, gets in the box and tries to get her shot on goal, but is blocked by Woldmoe. The ball falls to St. Georges who just puts a cross in the mix, but Skroski heads it straight to Hill who quickly gets her shot off to the left of a diving Sheridan who gets some fingertips, but not enough to prevent the goal. This was Hill's first goal as a Red Star.
After the second goal, the Red Stars probably decided to lay off the intensity slightly and backed off a bit, but they also started having the same problems Sky Blue were having earlier, and lost the rhythm they were in.
Sky Blue, on the other hand, showed great mental toughness, kept a high defensive line, grew in confidence, and spent much of the remainder of the half in the Red Star’s half, creating chance after chance with nice interplays between their players, but without any goals to show for all the good work.
21’: A cross by Kawasumi was not cleared well by Ertz, and it fell to Sky Blue right forward Paige Monaghan on top of the penalty box centrally, who took a right footed shot from there. Red Stars goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher thought the shot would go out, and didn’t jump to save it, but luckily for her, it hit the top of her left post, and didn’t go in goal.
23’: Ertz stopped a pass to Sky Blue centre forward Ifeoma Onumonu but it went to Woldmoe whose through ball to Onumonu in the inside left channel was slightly heavy, that allowed Naeher to come off her line and collect it before the forward could reach it.
24’: Sheridan lofted a neat pass to right of midfield, which Woldmoe controlled well, before sending a ball over top to Onumonu in the right inside channel, but once again Naeher did well to reach it before her.
29’: Lewandowski passed to Purce who was wide right in midfield, who then passed it to Onumonu who had come in a bit deep, who in turn sent nice one time through ball in the inside right channel to Monaghan running into the box who hit a first time shot over goal under pressure by Ertz.
38’: A Sky Blue free kick from just outside the penalty box on the left, was not cleared well by the Red Stars, and it fell centrally to Purce who blasted a first time volley from just in the penalty box, but it went over the top left corner of the goal.
43’: A Red Stars midfielder again hit a ball long, this time under pressure from 2 Sky Blue players, which went to Sky Blue central midfielder McCall Zerbon, who sent it to Skroski, who gave it to Lewandowski, who passed it to Woldmoe in space up in the inside right channel, who then sent it to the wide right and ahead to Monaghan, who ran on the right flank (and in the process beat Red Stars left back Goralski, who was slow or tired to catch up to Monaghan) then cut inside in the box along the endline and sneaked in a low cross to Sky Blue left back Sabrina Flores who was ready at the far post. But Naeher’s slight touch changed the ball’s trajectory, and the Red Stars were able to clear the ball from the goalmouth. This was probably the best chance created by Sky Blue in the first half.
45+1’: Ertz played a long ball, but it went to Sheridan. The ball ended up with Zerboni via Flores and Skroski, who attracted the pressure of 2 Red Stars midfielders, but got out comfortably and then in the space vacated behind them passed to Kawasumi who had come in the inside from the left and lower from the frontline. She then turned and ran upfield, and with a one-two with Woldmoe, who had moved into space on the left touchline, bypassed St. Georges. Kawasumi then played it back to Flores who had come forward to support the attack, who looped a cross in near the penalty spot where Monaghan headed out under pressure from 2 Red Stars defenders.
47’: A Sky Blue free kick near the Red Stars penalty box was cleared easily, and Red Stars central midfielder Danielle Colaprico started a counterattack by releasing the ball ahead wide right to Red Stars right forward Kealia Watt to run into. She dribbled past Kawasumi, and after she reached the penalty box, crossed in but Skroski once again headed it weakly and it fell nicely to the late arriving Red Star left forward Rachel Hill whose first time effort went way over the crossbar.
56’: Naeher sent a volley long which Skroski first timed to Zerboni, who then passed it to a totally free Kawasumi on the left flank. She ran ahead into space and sent in a nicely weighted slightly early whipped in cross that was ahead of the Red Stars back 4, and at the feet of Monaghan at the top of the 6 yard box with only Naeher to beat, but she was offside.
57’: Naeher under pressure from Onumonu hits it out around the Sky Blue's left midfield area. From the Flores throw, Zerboni outside-booted first time to Kawasumi who gave it back to Zerboni who attracted 3 players. Now in the space that opened, she passed to Woldmoe who quickly sent it ahead to Sky Blue central midfielder Cudjoe (all of this in the inside left channel) who saw Purce’s run and sent it to her. But while Purce was controlling the ball on top of the penalty box slightly right of central channel, Hill had tracked all the way back, and pokedthe ball away from Purce for a throw.
60’: Red Stars Goal. Monaghan tried a square pass near the top of Red Stars penalty box centrally but no Sky Blue players were nearby. Watt who has tracked back, intercepts, and initiates the counterattack. She sends it to Dibernardo who sends it forward to McCaskill who shrugs off Flores and runs at the 2 Sky Blue defender backline from the midfield, with St. Georges and Johnson on the right and left respectively. She passes it ahead to St Georges but Skroski has her fairly covered. In the meanwhile Purce runs back quickly to cover a lot of ground to make it 3v3 and handle Johnson, which Lewandowski probably didn't know about, which is probably why she isn't close to McCaskill, but trying to block the cross from St. Georges to Johnson. McCaskill gets the return pass, and first time powers it to the right of Sheridan who has an arm out but it deflects in goal via underside of her arm. Maybe other Sky Blue players should have come back quicker to prevent the numbers up situation. But some looked tired, and didn't have the legs to come back. Maybe all of the cumulated minutes and very less rotation during the tournament was finally getting to them. Maybe a few of them needed to be subbed, to have some fresh legs on the pitch. Also, as good as the Red Stars were in their attack, and as poor as Sky Blue were in their defending, by Sheridan’s own high standards, she should probably have saved all 3 of the goals.
The sideline reporter, Marissa Pilla, on the CBS broadcast had said that Sky Blue assistant coach Becca Moros had informed her that the message to the team was not to play the score but to according to their style (possession with purpose). The players, to their credit, did exactly that even when they were getting scored against at various times in the match. They were repeatedly breaking down the Red Stars even when they were sitting back, and creating many and also decent chances.
63’: Cudjoe dispossesses Colaprico in the Red Stars half and runs at their defence making it a 2v2, but hits a long range shot which goes high over the crossbar. Onumonu who would have been in a better position seemed disappointed the ball wasn’t passed to her.
65’: Colaprico finds Hill in the inside left channel, who plays a nice one-two with McCaskill (beating Lewandowski in the process). Hill takes a left footed shot from the penalty box, but Sheridan who had come off the line, stays tall and makes a big save.
66’: Substitutions -
Red Stars: Hill - Michele Vasconcelos.
Sky Blue: Monaghan - Evelyne Viens, Flores - Imani Dorsey.
69’: A Red Stars long throw by St. Georges was headed ahead by Dorsey in the left inside channel to Zerboni who in turn headed it to Viens who gave it back to Zerboni. She then passed ahead to Cudjoe who ran and sent in a through ball to Viens in the box, but Ertz got there first.
69': From the above, Ertz and the Red Stars started a counterattack, but Purce (on Sky Blue’s backline which was now at midfield level) made an interception and sent it to Woldmoe, who then went on a diagonal run to the left and give it to Kawasumi on the left touchline. Who then executed a nice backheel pass to Dorsey. She then crossed from near the endline perfectly to Onumanu on top of the 6 yard box, who had a free header, but just went wide of the right post. This was the best clear cut chance Sky Blue created in the second half.
72': Sky Blue Goal. Woldmoe delivered an outswinging corner from the right that reached in the box to a free Zerboni who headed it in the ground to Viens who was in front of Naeher but with her back to the goal. She just pushed the ball over Naeher with her head for Sky Blue's first goal of the match, and her first professional goal in her rookie year. Red Stars right back Goralski was on the endline and had not moved up with the rest of her backline, in the process playing Viens onside.
77': Sky Blue Goal. The Red Stars, like most of the first half, were pinned in their own half even in the second half. As a result, the Sky Blue backline was mostly along the midfield. Purce went on an amazing dribbling run from right back, first beating Vasconcelos, then Goralski, ultimately reaching the endline in the box and sending a fast low cross which Ertz tried to clear but it hit her leg and went in for an own goal.
Sky Blue now had all the momentum. The Red Stars totally under the cosh as they were not able to even string 2-3 passes together. The hydration break just after the goal came at the right time for them.
78': Substitutions -
Red Stars: McCaskill - Makenzy Doniak.
Sky Blue: Cudjoe - Elizabeth Eddy.
80' Red Stars head coach Rory Dames switched Watt and St. Georges from right to left to counter Sky Blue's right side attacking threats which were taking advantage of a slow/tired Goralski, who was ultimately subbed out and replaced by Sharples.
For the last 10-15 minutes, the Red Stars game managed the match expertly - taking time for throws, staying down for fouls longer than necessary. Also, they stayed in a compact shape not allowing Sky Blue any spaces.
90 + 3': Sky Blue somehow still found a way through the heart of the Red Stars. Skroski passed ahead to Zerboni who progressed it by sending it to Eddy who passed to Onumanu slight wide right near the penalty box, from where she crossed in the box, but Gorden headed away to safety before Viens could reach it.
In the end Sky Blue just ran out of time to complete the comeback.
What's next for …
Right back, St. Georges has to be the find of the tournament for the Red Stars. Her immense work rate up and down the right side and great football IQ has proved useful in defence and also in creating chances in attack. Their midfield and most of the team is generally reliable and quite technical. So to see them struggle to keep the ball for most parts in this match was surprising and worrying. They need to fix this before the final as the Houston Dash have shown that they are okay to not have the ball much and fine with counterpressing and counterattacking football. Also, the Red Stars may not get many counterattacking chances themselves as they did against Sky Blue in this match.
Given a short pre-season and no practice matches to prepare, Sky Blue have progressed quite nicely with new personnel and style of play over these 6 matches, but are not there yet. The midfield, led by the ever reliable Woldmoe, and supported ably by Zerboni and Cudjoe has done well to control games. They largely kept the same starting XI for all their matches. While this may have caused some fatigue, it helped develop a nice chemistry, which was in full display for the last 75 minutes of this game. Whereas in earlier matches, they struggled to create chances, in this one, they created loads. Also, the style of play that head coach Freya Coombe (and assistant coach Becca Moros) seem to be implementing is a combination of having a high amount of possession with the focus when in possession is to move the ball quickly up the field (and not sideways) using short quick passes, and when out of possession to press (and counterpress) higher up the pitch. This approach has been dubbed 'Vertical Tikitaka'. Maurizio Sarri at Napoli and Chelsea, and to some extent Erik ten Hag at Ajax are some examples of this style. It becomes clear why Coombe wants highly attacking fullbacks (Dorsey and Purce). All 11 players on the pitch need to be very technical and comfortable with the ball. Hopefully they'll recruit well if they find that there is a dearth of such players in the current squad. Once in full flow, it'll be fun watching this team, glimpses of which we could see in this match.
By Alok Dadhekar