In a rough, grinding, exhausting tournament like the NWSL Challenge Cup, experience ultimately triumphs. This is exactly what happened in the third quarter final matchup where the youthful, second-ranked Washington Spirit fell to the reinvigorated and experienced seventh-ranked New Jersey Sky Blue on penalty kicks (3-4). When it comes down to it, both of these teams are more similar than different barring the element of experience. Both teams had come into this tournament looking to move beyond more tumultuous pasts. Both teams practice a more possession-based playing style that is highly dependent on a creative and dynamic midfield trio. And both teams are blessed with world-class goalkeepers manning the nets with the Spirit’s Aubrey Bledsoe and Sky Blue’s Kailen Sheridan. These similarities made for an exciting matchup, one that could only be separated by the fine margins on penalty kicks that saw a seventh seed topple another tournament starlet.
To start, the second seeded Washington Spirit lined up in a 4-3-3, grounded by goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, and their strong backline of Tegan McGrady, Sam Staab, Paige Nielsen, and Tori Huster. The midfield-trio of rookie Natalie Jacobs, Bayley Feist, who scored the lone goal against Houston in their final group stage game, and Dorian Bailey is where the Spirit saw the most change. A knee injury to defensive midfield rock Andi Sullivan forced her to end her time in Utah, and USSF-imposed minute limitations on Rose Lavelle and a Jordan DiBiasi injury left them on the bench. The forward line was the Spirit’s most threatening available, with Ashley Sanchez and Kumi Yokoyama flanking center-forward Ashley Hatch.
Finishing in seventh place in the preliminary rounds, Sky Blue also started in a 4-3-3 employing their strongest forces. Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan is supported by speedy and forward-threatening wing-backs Imani Dorsey and Midge Purce, with the experienced duo of Estelle Johnson and Gina Lewandowski holding the center. The midfield trio, which has grown in effectiveness throughout the tournament, is based with the pressing prowess of McCall Zerboni and Sarah Woldmoe giving the freedom for tournament standout Jennifer Cudjoe to work her distribution magic. The frontline is spearheaded by Ifeoma Onumonu in the center and Nahomi Kawasumi and Paige Monaghen on the sides.
The game started as a battle for midfield control. Zerboni, Cudjoe, and Woldmoe immediately took steady possession. A Zerboni and Onumonu press on the Spirit’s defensive line caused some shaky moments for the Spirit in the opening minutes. For the Spirit, Yokoyama and her combinations on the flanks with Huster looked to be creating the most promising opportunities for the Spirit. McGrady’s distribution ability was also well on show during the game. In the 13th minute, McGrady drilled a ball towards the goal from the left side that was well-handled by Sheridan.
Despite both teams being very possession-oriented, the game became unexpectedly open with each team having back-to-back chances on either end. In the 16th minute, Zerboni’s press on Nielsen forced a turnover that Zerboni then shot just wide of the net. Dorsey and Purce proved to be impactful in Sky Blue’s attack, being crucial links between the defensive line and Onumonu, who was able to further distribute to Cudjoe, Monaghan, or Zerboni in the spaces between the Spirit’s defense and midfield. Onumonu also proved her versatility as a center forward. Not only is she able to work off of opposing defenses to bring in her teammates into the attacking fold, but she has the pace and skill to get on the end of direct balls. For instance, in the 38th minute, Onumonu took advantage of loose midfield ball, got on the backside of Spirit’s defense, glided by Staab, and let loose a shot picked up by Bledsoe.
As the game progressed into the first half, the Spirit became more comfortable. Nielsen and Staab practiced typical composure, keeping patient possession from the back. In the midfield, Bailey and Jacobs together proved to be strong replacements for Sullivan, acting as outlets for the defense to move up the field. Feist also began to become more creative, playing off of Hatch and Yokoyama as well as finding Sanchez in the open space behind Purce. In the 25th minute, Feist found Sanchez in this position off of Purce, which led to an easily-saved shot by Sheridan.
One of Spirit’s best chances came in the 42nd minute. After hard work from Yokoyama and Hatch to keep possession in Sky Blue’s defensive third, Huster whipped a ball across the box, finding Sanchez on a diving header, which was acrobatically swatted away by Sheridan. Minutes later, Hatch found Sanchez at the top of the box, whose shot was, again, saved by Sheridan. The Spirit increasingly became more threatening, but failed to offer strong shots to challenge Sheridan. Despite many opportunities from both sides, the first half ended goalless.
The second half was mostly a continuation of the first, with an open midfield, end-to-end opportunities, and stellar goalkeeping. The first notable chance of the half went to the Spirit with more Yokoyama magic in the 54th minute. After slipping a ball to Hatch, Yokoyama and Huster both made runs into the box. Hatch slotted a ball to Yokoyama, whose shot hit the crossbar and rebounded into the box, with Sanchez and Jacobs unable to find a touch.
Throughout the half, Sky Blue retained their patience and composure. Zerboni, Kawasumi, Onumonu, Dorsey, and Cudjoe continued to build combinations up the field, which opened up more chances.
In the 60th minute, Rose Lavelle and forward Crystal Thomas entered the game for the Spirit and defender Sabrina Flores for Sky Blue. All of these replacements had immediate impacts on the game, with Lavelle and Thomas continuing Spirit’s attacking threat, and Flores creating some crucial chances for Sky Blue. For instance, in the 70th minute, Flores, off combinations from Zerboni, Monaghan, and Onumonu, whipped a cross that was rebounded out the other side to Dorsey, who was able to get a shot off. In the 71st minute, Sky Blue got their most promising chance off of another Flores play. After receiving the ball from Zerboni, Flores drove another cross that found Onumonu, whose header bounced over the crossbar.
Soon after, in the 73rd minute, Spirit had another critical chance that was saved by Sheridan. Feist’s drilled shot was stifled by Sky Blue defense, but suddenly leapt upon by Huster, whose toe poke was saved by Sheridan.
The 80th minute brought more substitutions, with the Spirit bringing on forward Averie Collins and Sky Blue adding Erica Skroski, Elizabeth Eddy, and Domi Richardson.
The final opportunity came for Sky Blue at the 90th minute with a scramble in the box after a corner kick, that was cleared out by Nielsen. Ultimately, failure to capitalize on many attacking opportunities, which were most promising for the Spirit, led to the game being decided by penalty kicks.
The penalty shootout emphasized the goalkeeping expertise on show during this tournament, especially for Bledsoe and Sheridan. For Sky Blue, Woldmoe and Kawasumi easily slotted their shots past Bledsoe and Lavelle and Hatch did similarly for Sky Blue. Things really heated up in the third kick for both teams. Richardson’s shot was saved by Bledsoe diving to her right side of the net. Spirit’s lead, however, did not last long as Staab shot her chance over the crossbar, leaving the score at 2-2.
Zerboni expertly drove her shot past Bledsoe and Thomas fired left behind Sheridan. On the last shots, Eddy powered her chance past Bledsoe. With the game on the line, Feist’s shot to the right was saved by Sheridan, handing the win and a place in the semifinal to underdogs Sky Blue FC.
In the end, experience won. Despite dominating the game in possession and shots, the Spirit’s youthfulness and missing clinicality led them to waste many crucial chances and free kick opportunities. Sky Blue FC’s maturity and experience equipped them with the ability to grind through this game, control the pace, and have the strength and steadiness in the penalty kick shootout to come out on top. Overall, though, the Spirit should be proud of their tournament. Beating Chicago and Houston and drawing against Portland are certainly impressive results. Their attacking creativity matched with defensive strength shocked the league from the get-go. The Spirit will definitely be a developing and exciting team for the future. Once again, though, the NWSL Challenge Cup has taught us to expect the unexpected.
Beating the odds, Sky Blue FC, coming off a strong rebuild over the past year led by Head Coach Freya Coombe and General Manager Alyse LaHue, impressively enter the semifinals on Wednesday taking on the winner of Chicago Red Stars vs. OL Reign. Once again, the NWSL Challenge Cup has taught us to expect the unexpected.
By Anna Goorevich
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos