July 22, 2009

Match Report-Saint Louis 1, Sky Blue FC 0

Eniola Aluko picked a defender's pocket at the top of the box, then dribbled around Sky Blue keeper Jen Branam and sent the ball into the net giving Athletica a 1-0 lead in the 48th minute, which is how the game would end. Jillian Loyden made a heartstopping save grabbing the ball off of Kacey White's foot in stoppage time to preserve the victory for Saint Louis. The victory puts Athletica back into 2nd place, just 2 points ahead of Boston.

For Saint Louis, it moved them one step closer to a playoff berth. A victory on Sunday against FC Gold Pride, combined with a Sky Blue tie or loss to Boston or a Washington loss to Chicago would put them in the playoffs. Sky Blue still has their destiny in their own hands, but they must fend off 5th place Washington.

Loyden, making just her 3rd start for Saint Louis, was brilliant in goal, save for one very nearly embarrassing and disastrous play. She earned her 2nd shutout, making seven saves in the process. For her part, Jen Branam was equally brilliant for most of the evening, making 4 saves.

Early in the match, Athletica dominated possession and chances. Branam made some fairly easy saves early on, but was tested more severely in the 18th minute when Aluko hit a low shot from inside the penalty area to Branam's left. Branam dove to make the save.

Loyden's otherwise strong performance nearly hit a speed bump in the 22nd minute. She moved to her left post to catch a seemingly harmless shot. Just as she was ready to reach for the ball, her feet slid out from under her and she barely got a hand on it to send the ball just wide of the goal. On the ensuing corner kick, the ball came loose in front of the Athletica goal, with Elise Weber clearing it from about two yards from the line.

Athletica continued to pressure the Sky Blue goal, but Branam was up to the task. Niki Cross hit a low shot from about 22 yards out that Branam dove and covered nicely. A minute later, Lori Chalupny sent in a nice cross from the left, that Amanda Cinalli's sliding attempt just missed connecting on. Just a few minutes later, it was Cinalli again, as she received a pass from Aluko and found herself with a chance from about 12 yards, but she sent it just over the bar.

In the 36th minute, Keeley Dowling attempted a bicycle kick, but she didn't get much on it and Loyden made the easy save. The best chance for Sky Blue, however, came in the closing minutes of the 1st half. Natasha Kai got a step on the defender and dribbled into the penalty area. Loyden came out to cut off the angle and Kai sent a shot just over the crossbar. The half ended in a scoreless tie.

Unlike Saturday's game against the Freedom, Athletica forwards pressed Sky Blue's defenders throughout the game. It finally paid off in the opening minutes of the 2nd half, as Aluko stole the ball from a Sky Blue defender and calmly dribbled around Branam to give Athletica the lead. For Aluko, it was her 5th goal of the season.

The teams traded good chances throughout the 2nd half and there were quite a few of them. Sky Blue came close to equalizing several times. In the 58th minute, Yael Averbuch unleased a long shot from the left side, that either glanced off the post or Loyden barely got her hand on. About 10 minutes later, Natasha Kai was running onto a ball in the Athletica penalty area, that Loyden just dove out and grabbed off Kai's foot.

The momentum then swung back to Saint Louis. In the 72nd minute, Lori Chalupny made a nice turn on a defender to get herself clear for a shot from about 14 yards out. Branam came out, cut down the angle, and blocked the shot, robbing Chalupny and Athletica of a 2nd goal. In the 77th minute, Chalupny struck a corner that Angie Woznuk hit a glancing header toward the far post. A charging Sara Larsson was just late getting to the ball and it rolled just wide. Three minutes later, Aluko hit a nice shot from the left side that had Branam beat high to the far post, but it just missed by inches.

Sky Blue wasn't through yet. In the 88th minute, there was a scrum in front of the Athletica net, but Loyden was able to grab the ball out of the air for the save. But the biggest save for Loyden came in stoppage. A Sky Blue attacking player was coming in alone on Loyden. I originally had thought it was Noelle Keselica from my viewpoint over 100 yards away, however I was later corrected that it was Kacey White. White appeared to be nearly around Loyden, but at the last second Loyden reached out with a hand and grabbed the ball away from White's feet to save the day and the game for Athletica.

For the match, Sky Blue outshot Athletica 14-11, although the chances were fairly even overall. Sky Blue was playing without several players for this game. Heather O'Reilly (USA) and Kelly Parker (Canada) were playing in the US-Canada friendly in South Carolina. Anita Asante was in England facing off against Denmark in a friendly for her country. Christie Rampone had emergency surgery just a few days ago. For Athletica, Lori Chalupny was scheduled to be playing in the US-Canada match, but returned to Saint Louis because of the death of her grandfather, whose funeral was today.

Both teams played extremely well and both Loyden and Branam were exceptional in the nets. Aluko was dangerous throughout the match. Kendall Fletcher kept up her fine defensive work as she blanketed Rosana for much of the match. Chalupny's presence and play was clearly a difference maker for Saint Louis. Athletica's defense was solid for much of the match, except for that last anxious moment when Sky Blue nearly tied the game.

For Sky Blue, Natasha Kai and Kacey White both did a nice job of putting the pressure on Saint Louis. Yael Averbuch played very well in the midfield. There is no doubt that SBFC missed having Rampone and Asante in the middle of their defense.

Sky Blue returns to action on Saturday as they travel to Boston to play the Breakers in another match with major playoff implications. Saint Louis hosts FC Gold Pride on Sunday evening, with a potential chance to clinch a playoff berth with a victory and other events falling their way.