Thorns FC Opponent Dossier: Sky Blue FC - June 22, 2013

Ex-Pilot Sophie Schmidt leads Sky Blue in rematch with Thorns

Kelly O'Hara, Sophie Schmidt, Sky Blue FC

Photo Credit: 
Photo by Howard C. Smith / ISI Photos

The top two teams in the NWSL face off this Saturday as the Portland Thorns go on the road to take on Sky Blue FC (4pm PT, webstream at www.portlandthornsfc.com). Find out all of the information you need to know on the opposition.

TACTICAL VIEW

What can the Thorns expect?
With both teams expected to have their United States and Canada internationals back on duty, this may prove to be the Thorns’ toughest test so far. When they last met, Sky Blue inflicted a first defeat of the season on Cindy Parlow Cone’s side and caused problems in a lot of areas, especially up front, where Lisa De Vanna and Danesha Adams were dangerous.

Sky Blue is a team that is solid in every position on the pitch and they have struck up a sense of unity, where every player fights for each other. Tough in midfield, they have tended to use a 4-3-3 formation with the outside forwards and the outside backs dropping back and pushing up respectively to provide cover and support. This allows them to cover space and threaten out wide.

Who are their main threats?
Last time, the Thorns found De Vanna to be a real handful, but around her the supporting cast all contribute well. Both Adams and Kelley O’Hara link play superbly, while Monica Ocampo is a forward who can score vital goals. Behind them, Sophie Schmidt and Manya Makoski make them tick by dictating the tempo of the play and helping them transition from defense to attack.

Sky Blue is the top scorers in the league with 20 goals and the most impressive thing about their goalscoring is that it is so varied. Against the Thorns, Taylor Lytle blasted in from long range, but they can convert from inside the penalty area, from set-pieces, or from aerial assaults. In order to deal with that, the Thorns must limit their time on the ball and restrict them from getting crosses into the penalty area.

Where are they most vulnerable?
Any team that operates in a 4-3-3 formation is liable to be exposed on the flanks. If the space between the outside backs and the outside forwards is too much, then Sky Blue may find themselves on the backfoot, especially with someone like Nikki Washington, who attacks so well out wide. It is all about switching the ball into those areas when Sky Blue has overloaded in the centre or on the other side of the pitch.

One way that the Thorns may be able to profit is by getting the ball into a forward who drops into the space between Sky Blue’s defense and midfield. Whether it is Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan or new recruit Tiffany Weimer, they can unload with a shot from distance, drag an opposition defender out of position, or link play if provided with the right kind of service.

KEY PERSONNEL

Head coach: Jim Gabarra
One of the most experienced coaches in the NWSL, Gabarra spent almost a full decade in charge of Washington Freedom during their time in Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) and the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS). He also took charge of the San Diego Spirit for a short stint, but has now taken over from Rick Stainton to lead Sky Blue FC.

Star Player: Lisa De Vanna
This speedy Australian forward scored her fifth goal of the season in Sky Blue’s last outing to reaffirm just how important she is to her team. Excellent when attacking with the ball at her feet, the 28-year-old can be a nightmare for defenders to deal with as her movement can be unpredictable and she uses her body strength well to shift into dangerous areas.

One To Watch: Sophie Schmidt
A powerful midfielder with over 100 caps for Canada, Schmidt is someone who has an impact on the defensive and the attacking sides of the game. Whether she is breaking up opposition attacks or storming forward on a run, the experienced player is regularly involved in the action. A former Portland Pilot, she is a player that makes her team a lot better and can be a game-winner.

FLASHBACK

What happened when the teams last met?
Back on May 16, a single goal did the damage as Lytle fired in on 80 minutes to secure a 1-0 victory for Sky Blue. Not only was it the first loss of the season for the Thorns, it was a game where their luck ran out as they let rip with 11 shots on goal, but just could not convert. It was a tight game, but Sky Blue showed their talent even if they snatched the win late on.

What did the Thorns learn from that game?
Even though they lost the game, the Thorns will have been encouraged by the fact that they matched another title contender in key areas. Unfortunately, Becky Edwards, who was excellent in their last meeting, will be out for this rematch due to her season-ending ACL injry, but Parlow Cone has several players able to step up in midfield where they must limit the influence of Schmidt and put pressure on their opponents early on.

Cutting off the service into O’Hara is important as she is a player who holds the play up to bring her teammates into attacks. If that tactic is shut down, then the Thorns can counterattack quite quickly and spread the ball into positions where Sky Blue may be short on cover. The best way to take on Sky Blue – as the Thorns would have learned from their last clash – is to put it up to them and to enforce your game on them.

What did the coaches have to say last time around?

Portland Thorns head coach Cindy Parlow Cone
“Any time you are pushing and trying to score and you’re getting chances and able to finish, it’s frustrating to the players. I think they kept their head, kept their cool and they kept fighting. I love the attitude, the mentality and the spirit of this team.”

How has Sky Blue fared since then?
It has been a good season thus far for Sky Blue and after beating the Thorns, they recorded a 3-0 win away to Seattle Reign, a 1-0 triumph on the road against FC Kansas City, a 5-1 hammering at home of Boston Breakers, and another win over Boston in a 3-2 away victory. Their perfect record, however, was spoiled by a 3-0 loss at home to Western New York Flash.

In that defeat to New York, it was clear that Sky Blue struggled to cope with the physicality of their opponents as United States international Abby Wambach wreaked havoc. They did out-shoot their visitors (15 to 12), but, just like the Thorns when they met, that finishing touch eluded them. But, crucially, they let in three goals that highlighted a vulnerability when put on the backfoot.

Did You Know?
Sky Blue has recorded five clean sheets with goalkeeper Brittany Cameron, who has made 41 saves overall this season, between the posts for each of those shutouts.

Gareth Maher is a contributing writer to PortlandThornsFC.com. He is a frequent writer about soccer for the Irish Daily Mail in Dublin as well as ESPNFC.com.