Sky Blue 2 Freedom 1

It all comes down to this . . . the missing Europeans, the player-coach, the goalkeeper-forward collisions, the unbearable heat . . . the playoffs, 2009.  The playoffs started with an entertaining match with a lot of end to end action.  The inability of offensive players to put wide open shots on frame, a malady that has afflicted the entire league all season, was present in this one, but by and large, a fairly well played match.  For the Freedom, a dominant first half possession-wise, but as has been the case when they’ve struggled this season, they were missing that final touch and weren’t getting numbers forward. Defensively they were fairly solid but I think the whole team’s legs ran out on them for a stretch in the second half.  They finished up strong though, they just ran out of time. 

Sky Blue’s game was similar.  Too many wasted opportunities, a handful by Averbuch, and as active as Kai was when she came in, she really muffed a couple of chances shortly after her goal.  I think Sky Blue thought they had it all sewn up after that first goal and weren’t playing with a lot of urgency when they got around the goalmouth.  They really should have put the Freedom away with those chances in the aftermath of the first goal.  That said, dang, really gotta take my hat off to that team.  They have been through it this season, and with each hit they take, they seem to get stronger.  I’m a Freedom fan, first and foremost, but I tell ya, I just can’t get too upset seeing this Sky Blue team move forward. 

Formation:

Freedom (4-4-2, back-front, left-right): GK – McLeod; Def – Senty, Sauerbrunn, Whitehill, Krieger; MF – Moros, Lindsey, Sawa, Gilbeau; F – DeVanna, Wambach.  Singer in for Gilbeau, Krieger moves to the right flank in the midfield and Singer plays right back.  Long in for Moros, Huffman in for Lindsey for her first action of the year. 

Sky Blue (4-4-2, back-front, left-right):  GK – Branam; Def – Schnur, Rampone, Buczkowski, Dowling; MF – Averbuch in the defensive mid, White, O’Reilly on the flanks, McCallum in the attacking midfield; Hanks, Rosana.  Kai in for Hanks, Francielle in for McCallum and Parker in for White.

Freedom Players

McLeod – She’s been fantastic for the Freedom all year.  This year would have been a disaster without her.  That said, the Francielle goal was a really soft one.  Near post, within her range, a very stoppable ball.  I think she just got caught ball watching a little and didn’t react well to the ball off Francielle’s foot.  Not sure if she even saw it well enough to know where it was going.  As for the rest of her game, she was solid and reliable.  Made a fantastic reflex stop on an early Rosana shot and that established an early tone for the Freedom.  Strong kicking game, good with her feet in the run of play, good decision-making.  As many shots as Sky Blue had, apart from those that scored, only a couple were worrisome.  Nice way to finish the season.  Hopefully next year, the Freedom will get some speed on that backline that can actually defend.  The Freedom defense wasn’t fast enough to compensate for mistakes, especially when it was the speedy players making said mistakes and the tried and true, but slower, central defenders trying to compensate.  All this puts a bit more on the goalkeeper than a side with at least one defender who both reads the game well and has some speed. 

Senty – She does a lot of chasing.  And if she’s doing a lot of chasing, then she’s not doing a whole bunch of anticipating.  This is the dilemma for the Freedom I suppose.  Do you play Senty, the better athlete, or Singer, the player who reads the game a little better.  I think the Freedom went for the better athlete in this one in the hopes that the wing defenders would provide a bit more support to the attack.  She was getting forward in the early going, but this wasn’t something that the Freedom sustained during the game.  Numbers forward was a problem all game long.  Defensively, she was getting caught in the midfield quite often which left Sauerbrunn outside trying to defend the speedy Brazilian.  This was not the best option and she should have been tracking back more effectively.  Not a bad outing.  Can’t really think of anything she did wrong during the game, she just didn’t make much of an impact. 

Sauerbrunn – She’s been the most consistent player for the Freedom all season long.  It’s not spectacular, she doesn’t have fantastic closing speed to chase down all comers, but what she’s got is a brilliant ability to read the game.  She sees what’s coming at her and those playing alongside her at least 2 or 3 clicks before everyone else.  She mopped up a couple of balls right in front of goal in this one and just had her usual solid outing.  As much as I love this player, I’ve got to comment on the weakness and what is probably one of the things keeping her from even being considered at the National Team level – if she’s not clearing a ball, she has no idea what to do with it.  Every single time she finds the ball at her feet she immediately looks to drop it off to Whitehill.  She’s got to learn to distribute the ball to the midfield herself.  If folks watch some tape in the off-season, you’re going to see more forwards lurking between Sauerbrunn and Whitehill next year in an effort pick some of those balls off, or to force Becky into making a bad decision.  Solid game, solid season, easily my favorite Freedom player this year. 

Whitehill – That leg of hers is a ridiculously dangerous weapon.  I know I’ve been moaning about this all season, but I really would like to see it used in the run of play a bit more.  The occasional direct ball from Whitehill to the most dominant target player in the league, Abby Wambach, really won’t cause the entire offense to self destruct.  Especially on a day when the midfielders stopped making their runs forward after about the 30th minute anyway.  You’ve got to know your personnel’s strengths and use them.  Now, I’m not advocating long ball as a strategy, no one has been more critical of that over the years than I, but mixing up the attack and using two of your team’s most dangerous weapons in a way that could be quite effective?  There’s not a thing in the world wrong with that.  No rule that says you can only aim for Abby’s head from distance on a set piece.  OK – rant over.  Cat was solid all game long.  A bit of a missed mark on the Kai goal, but that really was just nicely done with three very quick touches by Sky Blue. As the season wore on Whitehill really started to look more like herself.  It will be nice to have her at 100% from beginning to end next year.

Krieger – She’s growing on me.  I prefer her in the midfield and therefore preferred her second half.  In the first half, I thought she was very quiet.  Defense was solid enough, I didn’t notice that an unreasonable number of corners were earned by Sky Blue and I didn’t notice that she was being picked on as she had been earlier in the season.  I also didn’t notice that she was providing much support to the attack though.  As someone with the offensive credentials that she has, I was expecting a bit more – I’ve been expecting a bit more offensively from the outside backs all season though, so I’m thinking it’s just not a priority for the Freedom.  What I really enjoyed about her game was her second half.  In the first few minutes of the second half, right after her position switch into the midfield she made a fantastic run right at goal and took a fantastic shot from distance that necessitated an impressive save from Branam.  This season we’ve gotten hints of the dynamic player I think she can be.  I hope the Freedom get her for the whole season next year, so they can see the kind of player she can become.

Singer – I think I like this player better than the Freedom coaching staff, or I’m just not aware of a limitation they have to put on her minutes (and that very well could be the case as she had some injury issues earlier in the season).  The Freedom haven’t gotten much offensive support from their outside backs the whole season and been just fine, so I would have gone with the scary tough defender and worried less about speed.  The speed on this team doesn’t read things well defensively so the advantage the speedy players have over Singer is negated.  While she generally doesn’t provide much to the offense, she actually got forward quite a bit.  She just looked a tad out of sorts and didn’t know what to do with the ball when she got up there.  What she does bring to the pitch is a defensive mind as acute as Sauerbrunn’s and Whitehill’s, someone who reads the game well and someone who brings a toughness and physicality to the field that really isn’t found on the Freedom outside of Wambach and McLeod.  Anyway she was solid defensively, didn’t provide much offensively, yet she’s someone I would have had on the pitch at the start.  I just like the fundamental and tough defenders who aren’t afraid of contact though, so I might be biased. 

Moros – She started well.  Made a couple of great runs forward with the ball and some runs off the ball in support of the forwards.  Had a great chance to put the ball far post in the early going, but no one made the run with her so nothing much happened with it.  I liked the thought of much of what she did in the early going, execution just wasn’t great.  Then she just fell off the page for me.  In the latter stages of the first half there was just no support from either of the outside midfielders.  I have no clue where they were, but by about minute 30, they weren’t supporting the forwards.  DeVanna was actually looking to pass in this one and she was up there by herself all too often.  The Freedom have been inconsistent on their off ball runs all season.  Some games the team was brilliant, clicking on all cylinders, 5 players running forward on every possession with excellent spacing.  Other games, it was Wambach and/or DeVanna on their own.  This game, the Freedom started well, but by the 30th minute you had DeVanna getting caught surrounded by three defenders and absolutely no one making runs in support of her so she had nowhere to dump the ball off.  Aggravating and is why, despite controlling the pace of play and possession most of the first half, the Freedom had very few real chances to capitalize.  Anyway – quiet outing for Moros.  Bompastor was missed . . . Bompastor was missed very much.

Lindsey/Sawa – Lindsey and Sawa have developed a nice chemistry.  The days of them being shackled to each other and occupying the same space for 90 minutes are over.  Here, they’d alternate getting forward.  One stayed back and the other would go and support the offense.  It gave Sawa some really nice runs through the middle of the field and Lindsey was able to hold possession and put some balls through for DeVanna.  I would have liked to see one or both of them more aggressively support the forwards.  I thought Lindsey and Sawa did a better job with off ball runs than the outside midfielders did in the first half (Krieger did a very good job with this in the second half), but there were way too many runs forward from Wambach and DeVanna where I was wondering where the heck everyone else was.  Anyway – solid game from them both.  I still wish that Sawa would just be installed as the offensive midfielder on this team.  The runs where she gets forward are always the most exiting of the game.  And maybe if there was just a singular attacking midfielder on this team responsible for distributing the ball and running the offense, the Freedom might actually get numbers forward more consistently and have better offensive shape than they managed much of this one. 

Gilbeau – She had a couple of games early in the year that had me really excited – largely about that cross she can deliver.  Accurate, good distance, nice pace.  Unfortunately, didn’t see much of it in this game.  A few crossing balls early but they were way too close to goal and went to the keeper or over the endline.  And later in the game, the support to the offense just stopped.  Numbers forward were non-existent toward the latter stages of the first half.  I know it was a hot day, but if you’re losing steam after 25 minutes, even on a hot day, then they really need to rethink their conditioning program.  Some of her difficulty on offense wasn’t her fault.  Spacing was terrible on offense in the first half.  The ball went wide right and Abby would follow it, leaving Gilbeau with no target to whom to send the ball.  Solid season – she shows some promise, but like Cat’s leg, I wish they’d learn to more effectively use Gilbeau’s crosses.

Long – Is there any player in the league who is easier to dispossess than Allie Long?  I’m not saying much else here.  Her workrate, her intensity, her shying from all contact to the point that she just leaves balls off for defenders if they get too close to her have been frustrating all season. She did nothing of note in this one other than dribble the ball forward, see three defenders within 5 yards of her, back off the ball and let them have it.  That’s my lasting image of her this season. 

Huffman – I’m not sure why you do this.  Why you risk a player’s health when the odds of her actually being able to help are slim to none.  She hasn’t played all season long but she’s the best hope the team has for a late game score?  Seriously?  She made no impact.  I look forward to seeing her on the pitch next year for the whole year and wish coaches would stop risking the health of players recovering from ACL injuries by bringing them back way too early. 

DeVanna – She really has developed into a more complete player as the year has progressed.  The thought on a lot of the passes she was trying to make was spot on.  She’s playing with her head up a lot more than she did when she first arrived.  The execution at times is lacking.  She’s not the most accurate passer on the pitch.  There were a few possessions I would have rather she just gone straight at goal than look for the pass.  But ultimately, she had a very strong game.  Made great runs forward, showed great fire and intensity (rightfully yelled at the midfielders for not making off the ball runs in support of her) and had a very high workrate.  Her goal was all about working hard.  Players aren’t in the right place at the right time by accident.  They’re there because they make off ball runs, fill up the box and lo and behold they’re in the exact right spot to get a rebound and slam the ball home.  And that’s exactly what DeVanna did in this one – Wambach and Branam took each other out, ball got loose, DeVanna was right there and netted a very opportunistic goal.  Great game, I really grew to appreciate her as the season progressed.  I hope she’s back next year.

Wambach – Spacing Abby, SPACING.  It’s tough to cross the ball into Abby from the flank when she keeps chasing after the ball and running right up to the midfielder trying to put the ball in to her.  It’s tough to have numbers forward when she’s deep in the midfield standing right on top of Sawa and Lindsey and trying to do their jobs.  She’s got to trust a little more.  One play was especially egregious – Gilbeau got the ball wide, sent to her from just outside the box, she turns to cross the ball in and Abby is right on top of her.  Offensive shape was not good for the Freedom in this one.  I applaud the workrate, but not so much the crumbling of the game plan.  Her individual effort was beyond reproach, she was working hard, going back into the midfield to win balls and distribute to others, helping on defense, and just running all over the place.  But an individual can’t win in soccer, players have got to keep some semblance of shape.  Midfielders can’t put balls through if there’s no one up top to run onto the ball, flanks can’t send balls in if forwards don’t stay high, defenders can’t start a quick counter attack if the forwards are deep in the midfield.  They’ve got to keep their shape, they’ve got to concentrate on spacing, and everyone has to be committed to it.  At times this season, it has seemed that the internationals, Bompastor, Wambach and DeVanna haven’t really trusted the talent of their teammates.  Abby not staying high, not keeping shape, not giving any of her teammates a target to whom to pass, really shows the dangers of that lack of trust.  They just didn’t get many real chances at goal in this one. Anyway – great individual effort, but she has got to let everyone do their jobs and stay high and do hers.  

Sky Blue Players

Branam – She gets the tough guy award.  And the Freedom get the “you really couldn’t capitalize on a gimpy keeper” award. They did get behind the defense a couple of times, Branam just made the stop.  She is an adventurous one – lots of keepers play off their lines in this league, no one does it in as nerve wracking a fashion as she does.  They paid for it with one goal, but it worked for them more often than not.  Freedom were taking some decent shots/making some decent runs but she managed to stop everything coming her way.  Her kicking game is great – a low driven ball that goes 50+ yards.  Great for quick counters.  That ball got up to Rosana really quickly.  Overall, a very nice game.

Schnur – She was solid.  Got forward nicely – provided more support to the attack than the midfielders at times.  I noticed that many of her runs were fairly central.  The midfielders seemed to be the ones providing most of the width for Sky Blue.  She sent some nice balls in.  Very active – at the outset she seemed to be all over the ball.  Defensively, she is very steady.  With Asante out I thought DeVanna would be able to cause some more damage than she did.  DeVanna had some great runs and got behind the defense a few times, but Schnur ran with her and covered her well enough to alter shots/force bad passes.  Nice game – she’s just steady every time I see this NJ team.

Rampone – All hail the player-coach!  With the spacing issues from Abby and midfield support problems from, well, the entire midfield, I’d have to say that Sky Blue stuck to their game plan a tad better than the Freedom did.  Yeah, Sky Blue’s midfield wasn’t providing much more support for Rosana than the Freedom’s was, but they did keep some semblance of offensive shape in the second half and created a couple of goals from it.  And having Kai and Francielle coming off the bench fresh on a hot day when everyone else’s legs were dead?  Looks like a stroke of genius in hindsight, doesn’t it?  Ya know, I can’t even imagine the pressure Rampone has been under all season to hold this team together and now, to actually be the one who has to coach them.  For that, she gets two huge thumbs up and a pass on any critique.  Let’s hope that NJ cleans up their house before next season so Coach Rampone can just play. 

Buczkowski – You know, I really thought that they’d miss Asante more.  And in the early going, DeVanna was wreaking havoc.  But Buczkowski acquitted herself well.  She’s very good defending in the air.  She broke up a few crosses.  She read the passing lanes well and did a good job covering on the flanks when necessary.  The Freedom had the run of play in the first 30 but the Sky Blue defense really kept too much dangerous from getting through to the goalkeeper.  The defenders on this team play aggressively in the midfield, yet the Freedom weren’t able to slip much in behind them.  A lot of that is due to the smothering play from Buczkowski and Rampone up the center of the field.  With Asante out, they really couldn’t afford to make many mistakes and they didn’t.  Nice game.

Dowling – Keeley Dowling – long time favorite of mine and she rarely disappoints. I love watching her play.  She is solid on defense, reads the attack well and is able to effectively defend speedier players, she reads passing lanes well, tends to make the smart/fundamentally sound play, fantastic in the air – both defensively and offensively and serves a nice enough ball to connect well with the offense.  I’ve enjoyed her game all season.  She was a little quieter in this one than she was in other games I’ve seen (I remember seeing a game in which Rampone was with the National Team earlier in the year and she dominated play), but she was solid.  I think most of the comments I made regarding Schnur apply here, just give Dowling the air advantage.  Nice game by this whole defense.  I was hoping the Freedom would put DeVanna through a bit more effectively than they did and really test the speed of the defense but every time they tried, the defenders met the challenge.  Since St. Louis will be without Aluko on Wednesday, I expect that they’ll handle the Athletica attack fairly effectively as well. 

Averbuch – You have to appreciate her workrate.  She was all over the field.  Defensively, in support of the offense, just making 50-70 yard runs up and back all game long.  She is the definitive defensive midfielder.  With the exception of Shannon Boxx, she probably played the position in this one as well as anyone I’ve seen this season.  The issue – Hildreth nailed it – she has got to stop putting the ball 10 yards over the cross bar.  If you can’t put the ball on frame from distance, don’t take the shot.  Averbuch has good offensive credentials, I’m not sure what was going on with some of those shots.  What I do know is that Sky Blue is woefully inefficient in front of goal.  It just seems to be a lack of urgency at times.  They’ll just knock this ball where ever because they’ll have another chance.  I don’t know if you’re going to beat St. Louis like that, and I really don’t know if you’ll beat LA.  She has got to be smarter with the ball and treat every single possession as the only chance they’ll get all game.  Anyway – very strong outing, just needs to get those balls on frame or take the extra pass.

White – She was providing nice width most of the night.  Tirelessly making those off ball runs.  At times, I think she was staying a little too wide.  Rosana had no support and if she’d cut inside Rosana might have had some place to dump the ball when she was up top alone.  That’s exactly what she did do on the Kai goal, O’Reilly was wide, so White cut inside to fill in the box and boom, goal scored.  Sent some nice balls in, won more than her share of 50-50 balls.  Got in the air well and brought down that ball beautifully on Kai’s goal.  Just seemed more active than the other offensive players (the ones not named Rosana, anyway).  Nice game – she’s a game plan kind of player.  You can tell that she’s just where she’s supposed to be most of the night.

O’Reilly – You know, I thought she was quiet most of the game.  I uttered the words, where the heck is Heather, more than a few times in this one.  But then you look at how it all turned out, and Heather O was the one who initiated the play on both of the goals.  You realize that even on a relatively quiet night, she’s still the most creative player on the pitch and still figures heavily in the outcome, even if a couple of finishers are getting all the praise.  The long cross to White’s head, off O’Reilly’s foot, the feed to Averbuch on Francielle’s goal, all Heather O.  Like White, she was providing width much of the game and also like White, I think she got a little lost in the offense because of it at times.  Rosana needed help, McCallum and Hanks weren’t providing it, I was expecting O’Reilly to take matters into her own hands a bit more in the first half.  She definitely did in the second, but by the 30th minute, the Freedom’s legs looked heavy – I was waiting for her to do some damage a tad earlier than she did.  Anyway, overall, solid yet quiet outing.  I look for a louder outing on Wednesday – I just feel that the head to head with Chalupny might inspire her a little. 

McCallum – Not terribly impressed with this outing.  Where was she most of the night?  How was Rosana up top alone as often as she was?  How was the defensive midfielder making more of an impact on offense than she was?  Freedom aren’t a very speedy defense up the middle, why weren’t they putting balls through to Rosana and Hanks all night long?  Why wasn’t McCallum possessing the ball and making the decision to do this?  They can’t afford to have an attacking midfielder have as quiet a night as she had in this one.  Sky Blue took a lot of shots, and most of them were really bad shots.  The attacking midfielder has got to make sure those shots are better, she’s got to control play up the middle and make sure she’s the one taking that second to last touch.  If she doesn’t, you get Averbuch shooting from 25+ yards out, Rosana running up top by herself, the flank midfielders running wide with nothing going out their way.  Shape only works if the attacking midfielder does and McCallum just didn’t make an impact in this one.  The most memorable moment of her game for me was the swing and a miss on that corner in the early going. She’s got to have a better game Wednesday.  .

Parker – Sorry gang – got nothin’ here.  Game really picked up by both teams for the last 30 though.  Started strong, and finished strong by both teams.  That said, can’t remember a single thing she did.  I always lose someone.  She was my one.

Francielle – She and Kai both came in on fresh legs and ratcheted up the energy on the field.  Great idea by Rampone to bring two fresh offensive weapons off the bench in the late going.  The Freedom had absolutely nothing with which to counter.  Very high workrate, making all sorts of off ball runs. Once she and Kai got in the game, Rosana was no longer alone.  Freedom had a spot of trouble when they had to defend more than one person in the box.  She shows great flair on the ball.  And apparently she has some mesmerizing properties because she lulled McLeod into some sort of trance and slipped a ball by her near post on that goal. Both she and Kai are incredibly unpredictable on the pitch – I imagine it makes them maddening to coach at times, but in this one, it made them maddening to defend.  She made the most of the time she played.  It will be fun to see her develop as she matures as a player.  Could be a special one here – I hope they get a good coach next year to help that development along.

Hanks – Like McCallum, I was wondering where she was a lot of the match.  It just seemed that Rosana was all alone surrounded by three defenders with no one to dump the ball off to all too often.  I don’t remember Hanks getting behind the defense too often.  I would have thought someone would put her through to test the speed of the Freedom backline a bit more.  She did have some nice runs where she was taking on defenders, but I thought the Freedom handled the Sky Blue attack most effectively in the first half.  It was the second half after Kai and Francielle got in the game that the Freedom were on their heels a little bit.  Not a bad game but a little too quiet.  I really wouldn’t mind seeing her and White switch for the next game, or put Heather O in for McCallum and move her outside and start Kai.  Or she just needs to assert herself a little more.  We shall see.

Rosana – Most active offensive player for Sky Blue for most of the game.  Didn’t get to put one home, but she was really the only one challenging the Freedom defense for about the first 55.  She was making a ton of runs forward, as with most Brazilian players, very strong with the ball at her feet, and not afraid to take on multiple defenders.  Had anyone consistently been running forward with her, she might have been able to do some more damage, but she didn’t have a lot of help.  O’Reilly and White were commonly too wide to help when she got forward and Hanks and McCallum were either left behind too deep in the midfield or weren’t reading Rosana’s runs well and just weren’t in position to bail her out when she got surrounded by defenders and/or forced to the endline.  She’s always active when I see Sky Blue, sometimes with a bit more purpose than others.  This game, I thought her activity very much had a purpose, but her teammates just weren’t on the same page for much of the first half.

Kai – Where she was pandemonium followed – she certainly ratcheted up play.  She was taking on defenders and making off ball runs.  She was placing herself in the box in front of goal repeatedly and it paid off very quickly on that first goal.  O’Reilly sent the cross in, White had cut into the box, received the ball, brought it down and put it right to Kai.  Sky Blue kept shape, nice combination play and Kai was in a great position to capitalize on the play.  Sky Blue’s chances were much more orchestrated and productive in the second half.  All that said, and as much energy as she brought to the pitch, she still does some careless things in front of goal.  She had a near miss taken while she was wide open that really should have been the goal that put the Freedom away.  For Kai to get back in the National Team mix, she needs to do more than play with great energy, she needs to play smart, she needs to put the ball on frame or she needs to make a good pass.  No more just pitching the ball over goal or rolling it over the endline because she can’t think of anything better to do with it.  That said, no denying she and Francielle were the difference makers in this one.  They lit the field on fire, got themselves forward and gave the midfielders a chance to create something that could get Sky Blue the win.

And that is it.  That’s how it ends for the Freedom and how it continues for Sky Blue.  The Freedom’s season wound up better than I thought it would.  There’s still a lot of improvement they can make – fact remains that even though they made the playoffs, they didn’t even win half of their games.  They need help at both defensive backs, they desperately need more depth on offense, they need to actually let someone play attacking midfielder instead of having this double defensive midfield where one of the defensive midfielders will sneak forward every now and again, they need to play within their offense when the pressure’s on (I’m pretty sure they weren’t exactly following Jimmy G’s game plan for most of this one) and they need to get more athletic.  As for Sky Blue – they just need to stabilize behind the scenes, nothing else matters if the drama doesn’t stop.  Hats off to the players on this team for just tuning out the silliness and playing the game

Beulah