In one of two planned preseason updates before season three of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) starts, I headed down to New Jersey to check out the preseason friendly on March 21 between Sky Blue FC and the University of North Carolina at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, N.J. I’ll try to attend a couple of preseason friendly matches before the 2015 campaign begins, my schedule and weather permitting.
For those interested, MCCC has quite a history of top-level junior college soccer and any soccer junkie should take a moment to check out the former players and coaches who went to the central Jersey school.
What I thought was going to be a casual drive down to New Jersey to cover a match turned into an experience I won’t soon forget.
The game itself featured a defensive struggle throughout the 90 minutes as Sky Blue scored the lone goal in the sixth minute when a Maya Hayes pass found Katy Freels just outside the 18-yeard box. Freels’s deflected shot caught Lindsey Harris flat-footed and put Sky Blue up, 1-0. From then on, however, both teams only created a handful of chances but didn’t convert any, and Sky Blue’s goalkeeper Brittany Cameron earned her first clean sheet of the preseason. But the challenge that North Carolina posed throughout the match proved to be a good test for a young Sky Blue club.
“Compliments to North Carolina, they came in and they pressed us and that’s what we wanted,” said head coach Jim Gabarra after the match. “We wanted to learn how to solve that pressure and I think there were times in the first half that we really struggled with it but that is what preseason games are for, to figure out the answers to those questions. Overall, I felt that it was a good performance.”
An emerging theme to watch this season is the high standard of play from the SBFC midfield duo of Freels and rookie Sarah Killion. With only a few weeks of training together, the two were in sync throughout the 90 minutes and dictated the tempo of the game. Gabarra was pleased with Killion’s performance in the second match of her young professional career.
“Sarah is so mature and experienced in how she reads the game and how she plays. She does stuff off the ball and reads the game really well to the point that you’re not worried about the physical-strength aspect of the game because she is so tactically smart,” he said.
Freels added, “It’s awesome playing with Sarah, she’s very technical and soccer savvy. She knows her position very tactically and she always seems to be in the right spot. We play similarly and see the game in the same way. It’s been really nice playing with her and the more we play with each other [in the midfield], the more we will learn about each other.”
For North Carolina, it was mainly a team of underclassman who played against Sky Blue but freshman Jessie Scarpa and sophomore Joanna Boyles put in nice shifts for the Tar Heels. Scarpa featured up top as well as in the back and handled her own against Sky Blue’s speedy forwards and wingers while on defense. Boyles was a presence in the midfield and triggered a few chances for her side as well.
On the Friday before the match, winter made its (hopefully) last stand of the season as another snowstorm hit the tri-state area of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, with snow accumulations rising to as high as six inches in some areas. There was little doubt the match would have to be postponed given the snow didn’t stop falling on MCCC’s turf field until 7 p.m. local time.
Instead of seeing Sky Blue and North Carolina players beginning their warm-ups when I arrived on Saturday afternoon, there were upward of 70 people trying to clear off a field that still had three to four inches of snow and slush in some spots. At that point, about an hour from kickoff, the only cleared spots on the field included the near touch line and 30 yards of the right end of the field. Not ideal circumstances to say the least, so I grabbed a shovel and helped out the cause.
It was quite a diverse group of people who assisted in the shoveling effort: front office staff, Gabarra, players, season ticket holders, and media personnel. I later learned that Sky Blue President and General Manager Tony Novo arrived at the field at 10:30 in the morning and began to work on his own after alerting as many people as he could to bring shovels to get the field ready. Even when the North Carolina team bus arrived, Head Coach Anson Dorrance, along with team managers and staff members, started to pitch in to clear the field.
With the help of all those people (at one point, there weren’t enough shovels, so Sky Blue staff members had to buy more at a local hardware store), plus a truck and a golf cart to carry the excess snow away, the field was cleared by about 4:15 p.m., which allowed the teams to warm up and eventually kick off at 5 p.m.
After the game, a few players said the amount of snow they helped shovel was the most snow they’ve ever shoveled in their lives. Gabarra said he might have shoveled more snow “during the blizzards in the ’70s, but there is a zero chance I’ll be getting out of bed tomorrow morning” after the day’s work.
We’ve seen stories before in which sports teams have asked fans to help shovel snow out of stadiums for an upcoming game, and how hundreds of fans would then descend upon the stadium to do whatever they could so their team could play. However, I’ve never experienced anything like that in the hours before kick off, where a group of people, including both teams, came together for a common cause. While there wasn’t a physical reward for completing the task, there was a shared sense of satisfaction in knowing that a game of soccer carried on through hard work and dedication.
Around the League
Meanwhile, across the rest of the league in preseason friendlies…
The Boston Breakers defeated Boston College 4-0 on March 19 as Maddy Evans scored a pair of goals with rookies Suzanne Pires and Bianca Brinson each adding a goal. The Breakers are in Florida for an eight-day camp, spending four days in Jacksonville and four days in Orlando. They’ll play two friendlies against the Jamaican Women’s National Team, one in St. Augustine on March 25 and the other in Winter Springs on March 28.
The Chicago Red Stars have played two tune-up matches so far this preseason. Chicago defeated Marquette, 3-0, on March 16 behind goals from Lori Chalupny, Alyssa Mautz, and Vanessa DiBernardo. On March 21, the Red Stars faced Wisconsin and recorded a 1-0 win with a second-minute strike from Danielle Colaprico despite a valiant effort from the Badgers. Going forward, there’s something to keep an eye on with Chicago’s goalkeeping situation, as Taylor Vancil announced her retirement from professional soccer weeks ago. With Vancil now retired, the opening day starting goalkeeper position is up for grabs as Karina LeBlanc remains with the Canadian National Team. So far, Michele Dalton has started both friendlies for Chicago. Dalton is a graduate from Wisconsin and played for the Philadelphia Fever in the 2012 WPSL-Elite season before playing overseas in Iceland.
Defending Champions FC Kansas City played one preseason match and rolled over the University of Nebraska, 8-1, on March 15. Sarah Hagen and Erika Tymrak each scored a pair of goals, while Shea Groom, Rebecca Moros, and trialist Kim DeCesare added to the scoreline.
The Portland Thorns also posted a one-sided result against the University of Portland on March 21, but it took the Thorns 70 minutes before scoring off an Allie Long penalty kick. Portland scored three more times in the final 20 minutes as Kendall Johnson and trialists Kelsey Haycook and Meredith Speck added goals.
The Washington Spirit got their preseason schedule off on the right foot by defeating Virginia Tech, 4-0. Estefania Banini opened the scoring in the first half, Amanda Da Costa, Christine Nairn, and Laura Del Rio added goals in the second half.
Finally, the Western New York Flash recorded a 4-0 win over West Virginia on March 14 with goals from Samantha Mewis, Kristen Edmonds, Jasmyne Spencer, and Lynn Williams. Jaelene Hinkle added two assists.