Sky Blue FC’s run in the NWSL Challenge Cup came to an end Wednesday, but not without a big helping of late-night drama. Down by 3-0 an hour in against the Chicago Red Stars, they rallied late but only got to within 3-2 before time ran out at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
Chicago put Sky Blue on the back foot immediately, and took the lead in the 8th minute. Bianca St. Georges shot past Kailen Sheridan after a beautiful cutback that left Gina Lewandowski sliding at air.
In the same sequence, Lewandowski’s fellow centerback Estelle Johnson suffered a hamstring injury that forced her to exit the game. Erica Skroski came in.
The Red Stars doubled their lead on their next foray down the field, just three minutes after the first goal. St. Georges set it up, hitting a low cross through the 18-yard box that fell to Rachel Hill for the shot.
Sky Blue finally got its first good look at goal in the 21st minute, a long-range smash off the crossbar by Paige Monaghan. They started to find their way into the game from there, and in the 39th minute Margaret Purce didn’t miss by much, smashing a crossed free kick from McCall Zerboni.
It was just Purce’s second shot of the tournament, which would be unremarkable for a right back were she not equally adept as a forward — and meant to be getting high up the field often in manager Freya Coombe’s system.
Starting left back Sabrina Flores made the point in the 43rd minute. Monaghan sprung free up the right flank, fizzed a low cross through the six-yard box, and Flores was ready to meet it. But Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher got a foot in first and Vanessa DiBernardo got the ball out of danger.
At halftime, Sky Blue had a whopping 62.7% of possession, a 6-4 edge in shots, a 289-172 lead in passes, and an 84.4% pass accuracy rate to Chicago’s 65.1%. But the scoreboard loomed over everything.
Sky Blue continued to dominate possession early in the second half, but couldn’t put together any really good scoring chances. They paid for it in the 60th minute when Chicago broke free on a counterattack. Savannah McCaskill ran two-thirds of the field, fed St. Georges, got the ball back and thumped a shot that Sheridan could only parry into her own net.
It was a brilliant play by McCaskill, who was on the cusp of becoming a U.S. national team regular two years ago but hasn’t been capped since.
Coombe finally made more substitutions in the 67th minute, taking off Flores for Imani Dorsey and Monaghan for Evelyne Viens. They made an immediate impact, as Dorsey set up Ifeoma Onumonu for a header she put just wide. Five minutes later, Viens delivered five minutes by redirecting a Woldmoe header into the net after a Zerboni corner kick.
That gave the game a bit of intrigue. In the 77th, Purce gave it chaos with a textbook overlapping run and cross from almost the end line. The ball hit Julie Ertz in the middle of the 18-yard box and caromed into the net, and suddenly it was 3-2.
There were six minutes of stoppage time at the end — thanks to fouls, substitutions and a hydration break — but there was never a tying goal.
“We just dug ourselves too deep of a hole letting that third goal in, but that’s what happens when you take risks going forward,” Zerboni said, “I think we showed a lot of fight coming back, a lot of belief, and hopefully gave some people some entertainment. Much to my disappointment, but you know, hopefully people enjoyed the show.”
Chicago moved on to its second consecutive NWSL final. The Red Stars fell to powerhouse North Carolina in last year’s playoffs, and this year will face a surprisingly good Houston Dash team for the Challenge Cup title on Sunday (12:30 p.m., CBS3).
Rachel Daly scored on a header in the 69th minute and the Houston Dash advanced to the Challenge Cup title game with a 1-0 victory over the Portland Thorns on Wednesday.
The fourth-seeded Dash, the highest remaining seed in the tournament, had never been to the playoffs in seven years in the National Women's Soccer League.
The Dash will play the Red Stars in the championship game Sunday.
“It’s the best feeling in the world. This team is phenomenal, it’s just such a special team. We talked a lot about the identity of the team,” Daly said. “You know what? I think everywhere in the world is struggling right now with this pandemic and the city of Houston is going through a really tough time. And I think for us, it was for them.”
Nichelle Prince broke away in a sprint toward Portland’s goal in the opening half Wednesday but she was caught by defender Emily Menges. Daly had the lone shot on goal for the Dash in the scoreless half.
Prince had another great opportunity in the 62nd minute but Portland goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom punched it away.
Daly finally broke through with her rebound goal that bounced off Eckerstom’s back and into the net. It was Daly’s third goal of the tournament and ended a three-match shutout for the Dash.
“I thought we played really well collectively. And it’s nice to score a goal in open play and not have to rely on penalty shootouts,” Dash coach James Clarkson said. “So, very happy, but all the praise and everything goes to the players because they were magnificent.”