Sky Blue FC pulled off the second big upset of the NWSL Challenge Cup quarterfinals on Saturday, ousting the No. 2 seed Washington Spirit in a penalty kick shootout after regulation ended scoreless at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.
Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan was the hero of the day, making seven saves in the 90 minutes and the game-winning stop in the shootout.
Sky Blue, which finished 7th in the first round, delivered a laudably strong defensive effort. But it came with a caveat: For the first 62 minutes, Washington’s star playmaker Rose Lavelle was on the bench. Lavelle battled an unspecified ankle injury in the days before the game.
Spirit manager Richie Burke said she was on a 30-minute playing limit enforced by the U.S. Soccer Federation on national team stars whose NWSL salaries the governing body pays.
“We had no real choice in the matter — she was playing 30 minutes and that was it,” said Burke, adding that he “would have liked to have played her from the get-go.”
The restrictions were known about heading into the tournament. The league, the federation and those stars all agreed to the deal. On top of that, U.S. national team coach Vlatko Andonovski and general manager Kate Markgraf were in the stands for the game, and Federation sports scientists have been on site behind the scenes all tournament. This was the highest-profile instance of it all.
While Lavelle watched, Washington forward Ashley Sanchez took the spotlight. The No. 4 pick in this year’s draft and major U.S. national team prospect had a game-high three shots. Her best was a superb header in the 42nd minute after a back-post run to meet a cross from Tori Huster. Sheridan made a full-stretch diving save to stop it.
Washington had most of the chances in the game, but Sky Blue held firm. At the start of stoppage time, they had a big chance of their own off a corner kick. Estelle Johnson had an open look at a close-range shot, but Sam Staab slid to block it at the last moment.
So it was off to penalties, with their ritual test of mental strength heightened by the summer heat. Temperatures topped 90 degrees on the field as the shootout began, with additional heat from the venue’s artificial turf. The first four shots were all scored: Sky Blue’s Sarah Woldmoe, then Lavelle, Sky Blue’s Nahomi Kawasumi, and Washington’s Ashley Hatch.
The first player to miss was Sky Blue’s Domi Richardson, who shot low and made it easy for Aubrey Bledsoe to save. But that was followed by Washington’s Sam Staab blasting her attempt over the crossbar, leveling the score again. McCall Zerboni got Sky Blue back on track with a cool finish and a fist pump to her team, then Crystal Thomas scored for the Spirit.
Elizabeth Eddy scored for Sky Blue, so Bayley Feist had to score to keep the game alive. She shot to her right and Sheridan was equal to it — and got to lead a raucous celebration on the field afterward.
“I just told them how much I was proud of them,” Sheridan said. “That 90 minutes really meant everything … All the work that they put in the offseason and in quarantine really showed today.”
Considering Sky Blue’s well-documented years of struggles on and off the field, it’s not a stretch to say this was one of the biggest wins in the team’s history.
“We’re feeling all the hard work that put in really pay off, and we can see this team take a huge shift from last year and the years before to this year,” said Sheridan, who has played for Sky Blue since 2017. “We’ve been through the tough times, and it just really shows that this team really wants to push forward and be better.”
Sky Blue will play the No. 6 seed Chicago Red Stars in the semifinals on Wednesday (10 p.m., CBS All Access), after the Red Stars beat the No. 3 seed OL Reign on penalties after another scoreless tie.
The other semifinal, also Wednesday (12:30 p.m., CBS All Access) will be between the Portland Thorns, who upset the powerhouse North Carolina Courage Saturday; and the Houston Dash, who beat the Utah Royals on penalties after a scoreless tie.
The Chicago Red Stars advanced to the semifinals of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup tournament, prevailing 4-3 on penalties after a scoreless draw with OL Reign on Saturday night.
Lauren Barnes' attempt for the Reign hit the post to seal it for Chicago, which will play Sky Blue on Wednesday night with a chance to play for the title.
Three of the four quarterfinal matches went to penalties. Under tournament rules, tie games after regulation go straight to a shootout rather than to extra periods.
Sky Blue advanced 4-3 on penalties after a scoreless draw with the Washington Spirit earlier Saturday. Sky Blue goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan secured the victory when she stopped Bayley Feist's attempt.
The eighth-seeded Portland Thorns, 1-0 winners over two-time defending champion North Carolina on Friday, will play the Dash in the first semifinal on Wednesday morning. The Dash also advanced on penalties after a scoreless draw Friday night against the Utah Royals.
The Reign's Jessica Fishlock got her first start since tearing her ACL in a game last July. She had one of the best attempts in the first half, but was thwarted by Chicago goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who was solid throughout the game.
Naeher, who was in goal last summer for the U.S. team that won the World Cup, punched away a header from a wide open Sofia Huerta in the 59th minute. Later in the half, she tipped Kristen McNabb's shot from some 30 yards out.
Kealia Watt had a good chance for Chicago out in front of the goal in the 67th minute but it went just wide.