April 10, 2011

Philadelphia at Sky Blue FC

Perhaps it is fitting that Tasha Kai's first match for her new team, the Philadelphia Independence, would be against her old team, Sky Blue FC. By most accounts, the relationship between Kai and Sky Blue was a bit of a rocky one in 2010.

One fact that remains is that Kai was Sky Blue's leading scorer both seasons. She scored 11 of Sky Blue's 39 goals in 2009-10. When she takes the field today, it will be in the familiar surroundings of Yurcak Field, but wearing a visitor's kit instead.

It will also be a new start for former Washington coach Jim Gabarra, who took the Freedom to the playoffs in 2009 and 2010, the only team to be in the playoffs both years. Gabarra's squad looked pretty sharp in a preseason warmup tournament in Turkey, winning two of their three matches.

Sky Blue overhauled their roster for the 2011 season. Besides Kai, gone are Christie Rampone, Kacey White, Keeley Dowling, Meghan Schnur, Yael Averbuch, and Rosana, all starters, all two-year veterans for Sky Blue, and all members of the 2009 championship side.

The new cast consists of some pretty good talent, too. SBFC brought in Eni Aluko, Angie Kerr, Tobin Heath, and Carolyn Blank from Atlanta. They picked up Carrie Dew, Erin Guthrie, and Casey Nogueira from Gold Pride and Chicago. They also added a pair of new internationals, Swedish veteran Therese Sjögran and Spanish striker Adriana.

The only constants over the three seasons are a pair of goalkeepers, Karen Bardsley and Jen Branam, and USWNT starter Heather O'Reilly. Those three, plus veteran defender Kendall Fletcher, Finnish striker Laura Kalmari, and three second-year players, Brittany Taylor, Danielle Johnson, and Kiersten Dallstream, are the only returnees from 2010.

With Aluko and Kalmari starting up front, Sky Blue has a fairly accomplished scoring duo. The addition of Heath and Sjögran should help Sky Blue have better control of possession in the midfield. The tandem of Bardsley and Branam in goal should make Sky Blue hard to score against.

Philadelphia did a nice job of keeping their 2010 runner-up team together. Ten of the eleven starters from the 2010 championship match return for the 2011 season. Only Caroline Seger is missing from that lineup, so the Independence should come together quite quickly in the new season.

If anything, Philadelphia has added more offense, bringing in a pair of Spanish strikers Laura del Rio and Veronica Boquete, USWNT starter Megan Rapinoe, and the aforementioned Tasha Kai. They drafted a pair of highly regarded midfielders, Sinead Farrelly out of Virginia and Lauren Fowlkes out of Notre Dame. Another addition is USWNT goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, picked up from Gold Pride. Coach Paul Riley has a lot of talent at his disposal.

With a very strong midfield group back, including Lori Lindsey, Tina DiMartino, Joanna Lohman, and Jen Buczkowski, this team should be able to win many battles for possession. If the Independence can defend, they should be a tough team to beat. Val Henderson returns in goal after becoming the Independence starter down the stretch.

Sky Blue was the Cinderella story in 2009 and Philadelphia very nearly was in 2010. Whatever happens, this should be an interesting contest to start the season.

Roster Report: Allison Falk and Danesha Adams are listed as injured for Philadelphia, while Veronica Boquete is listed as unavailable and Frida Magnusdottir will not make the trip to New Jersey.

For Sky Blue, Lindsey Johnson is injured and Adriana is listed as unavailable for today's match.