PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Though the standings don’t show it yet, there’s clear evidence that Sky Blue FC is a much better team this year than last season, when it didn’t win a game until the last day of the campaign.
In Sunday’s 2-2 draw with the Portland Thorns, Sky Blue looked quick and aggressive, and had plenty of attacking spark. Carli Lloyd’s two goals were well-taken, and the first was set up by a great pass over Portland’s back line from Raquel Rodriguez.
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Portland’s superior talent ultimately shone through, especially Tobin Heath. The New Jersey native stole the show in her homecoming with a spectacular backheeled finish that proved to be the game’s final goal. But Thorns manager Mark Parsons acknowledged that Sky Blue gave his team quite a test.
“It was a great performance from them,” he said. “If you snooze off for a bit, you can be punched in the face, and they took their goals really well.”
Those words would probably thrill Sky Blue defender Erica Skroski, who believes her team is playing with “a little bit of a chip on our shoulder” after last year’s struggles.
“This is the team that we are, and I hope you guys can see the physicality, the fluidness in the movement, the aggressiveness — that’s who we want to be,” said Skroski, a Galloway Township native and product of Rutgers and Absegami High. “That’s what we showed the fans. ... That’s how we’re going to come out every week.”
Lloyd’s influence in the contest went beyond her goals. Playing in the final game for both sides’ U.S. national team players before they leave for World Cup training camp, the Delran native registered six shots and 49 touches, and completed 17 of 28 passes. She came inches away from a hat trick in the 63rd minute, curling a shot from the edge of the 18-yard box that beat Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch but hit the post.
One of the most impressive players Sunday was Sky Blue’s newest attacking addition, Japanese midfielder Nahomi Kawasumi. She covered lots of ground at both ends of the field; recorded two chances created, two tackles and 36 touches; and completed 20 of 23 passes.
“Naho is great — she does all the little things,” Sky Blue manager Denise Reddy said. “She’s so disciplined, and she’s so good on the ball as well. She might not have blazing speed to get in behind, but her experience that she brings and her ability has been great for the team.”
There has been improvement off the field, too, under the watch of interim general manager Alyse LaHue. She can only do so much about the spartan facilities at Yurcak Field, a single-stand steel structure that has only bleachers for fans, and doesn’t have showers for players to use after games. The location also remains a deterrent, being far from New York and Philadelphia, and not close to public transit. But there were pregame activities for fans, a well-stocked merchandise tent, and some halftime entertainment.
Above all, there was a sense that Sky Blue is playing better soccer. And since it will lose fewer players to the World Cup than other NWSL teams — just Lloyd, Kawasumi and Canadian goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, as things stand now — the wait for the year’s first win shouldn’t take nearly as long as it did last year.