Route Two Soccer – Sky Blue Lose to Houston: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Sky Blue knew this would be a difficult year, but they didn’t know it would start out this rough. After four games, they’ve managed only one solitary point. And while there’s still plenty of time to reverse course, it’s worth taking a moment to assess precisely how things have gone wrong.

This weekend’s game against Houston provides a nice focal point for that conversation, because it illustrates both the potential in this team as well as the glaring weaknesses. Let’s start with the good parts, before turning to the problems.

The Good: a young but very talented attack

First, there is a ton of talent in the Sky Blue attack. Katie Johnson made headlines by scoring two goals against Houston, and there’s every reason to think she could develop into a top-level forward. There’s still some rough pieces of her game, but she’s got a classic striker’s instinct for finding the half-step of space and the knack for finishing once the opportunities open up. She’ll likely never be the sort of player who can carry an offense alone, but with a good supporting cast, she should thrive.

Fortunately, Sky Blue have a good supporting cast. Shea Groom is perpetually underrated, and often misdiagnosed as a pure striker, when in fact her primary talents are moving at speed with the ball at her feet, and incisive passing to cut open defenses. In a different era, she’d make a hell of a winger, but with the modern move away from classic 4-4-2s, she’s still a great wide attacker. Then there’s Janine Beckie, whose performances for Canada make her talent abundantly clear. She’s blessed with brilliant field vision and can pick out a through-ball with the very best. She never really found her rhythm with Houston, but a change of scenery might be what it takes to unlock that ability. Results from the first month haven’t been great, but she’s a player worth betting on. Sky Blue also picked up Savannah McCaskill from the Boston dispersal draft, giving them a player good enough to earn several national team caps before her first professional game. Her introduction to the league hasn’t been wholly successful—she’s spent a lot of time chasing the game, and hasn’t always handled the speed at which possession gets closed down—but McCaskill is the real deal.

That makes four top-notch attacking players, all with plenty of room to improve (at 25, Groom is the oldest of the group). This core will struggle here and there but should be a strong point for the team in the long run.

What’s more, there’s also an excellent group of supporting players behind this group—featuring Adriana Leon, McKenzie Meehan, Jen Hoy, and Madison Tiernan. That’s a wealth of attacking talent. Almost too much, since you can only play so many of them at a time. A point which will guide our considerations in the next sections…

The Bad: the backline

Sky Blue’s defense was a worry going into the season, and nothing we’ve seen so far suggests that the problems have been resolved. Going into the Houston match, they’d conceded three goals in three games—not a terrible record by any means—but never looked particularly sharp. Against Houston, though, the frailty was truly exposed. Remember, before this game, Houston had managed one solitary goal in 450 minutes. Against Sky Blue, they scored three and easily could have had more.

None of the back five were blameless. Kailen Sheridan had a dreadful game in goal (a theme for the week), while the centerbacks struggled to deal with the pace and physicality of Rachel Daly. The fullbacks, meanwhile, barely played like fullbacks at all. Mandy Freeman virtually never entered the Houston half, and while Christina Gibbons did get forward a bit more, it was severely constrained. She also had a lot of trouble containing Kealia Ohai’s quick attacks.

Still, while none of these five had a good game, it’s also true that they were given very little to work with. Defense is a team game, after all, and the backline didn’t get much help, creating the conditions for the breakdowns that then ensued. If we want to assign blame, then, we also need to look further upfield.

The Ugly: a weak and confused midfield

When she’s on her game, Carli Lloyd is still one of the world’s best players. The big question is just how often she can be on, and whether a team can afford to rely on her for all the other games. Four games into her homecoming, results are somewhat inconclusive, but not especially promising. Certainly, the midfield hasn’t looked good, though it’s not clear precisely where the blame lies.

Sarah Killion spent several years as one of the league’s most underrated players, but she looked a bit lost last year and has failed to rediscover her form this season. At her best, she was great at recycling play and starting attacks from a deep position. But we’ve seen very little of that this year. In a similar vein, Raquel Rodriguez has failed to do much to develop on her promising rookie campaign in 2016. She often drifts out of games for extended periods, and when she does find her way back in, she often pushes too hard and turns the ball over quickly. Defensively, she is almost a complete non-entity, doing very little of the necessary work to occupy space and inhibit opposition transitions.

The point of detailing these flaws in Killion and Rodriguez is not to call them out, but only to note that Lloyd herself suffers from many of these same limitations. When the three are combined, it seems to be a recipe for an aimless midfield which poses vanishingly little threat to the opposition attack, and which struggles to do much with the ball in attack. In particular, this trio is desperately lacking a deep-lying fulcrum who can dictate play on both sides of the ball.

To illustrate the point, observe the first half against Houston, where Sky Blue deployed these three players in a midfield trio, to vanishingly little effect. In practice, this played more like a 4-1-4-1, with Killion as the lone holding player—and the only one contributing anything defensively. Rodriguez and Lloyd, meanwhile, could have been tissue paper for all the difficulty they posed for Houston’s attack. Rodriguez, in particular, spent most of her time on the pitch trailing behind runners who she had let slip past.

As a result, while Houston never had much in the way of sustained possession, they didn’t need it. As soon as they gained the ball, they moved forward at lightning pace, blasting right through the midfield, forcing Sky Blue’s backline to defend on the run. With Rodriguez and Lloyd both providing porous points of entry through the center of the pitch, Houston took firm advantage of the easy access to acres of space.

After the half, Groom came on for Rodriguez, which brought some improvement. This allowed McCaskill to shift into the midfield trio, bringing a better work rate and muscle, while Groom slotted in on the left and brought her trademark aggression and dynamic movement. It was certainly an improvement, without necessarily resolving the underlying issues.

What is to be done?

There are no simple solutions here. The fundamental problem for Sky Blue is an unbalanced roster, with too few defensive players and very little in the way of cover. Moreover, any team built around Carli Lloyd is going to run into problems in the midfield. For all her talents (and they are many), the slow grinding work of defensive structure is a persistent weakness. If Lloyd is one of only three midfielders, you are going to have to compensate heavily with the other slots. Think about North Carolina here, who can afford to use a player like Debinha in the attacking midfield role because they have McCall Zerboni, Denise O’Sullivan, and Sam Mewis available to cover for her. Without players like those to paper over the cracks, or without a change of system, Sky Blue is going to be perpetually overrun in the midfield.

So what should they do? One simple move would be to tweak the formation. As noted above, their 4-3-3 really played more like a 4-1-4-1, with Killion as the lone body in the huge expanse of space between their two banks of four. This went pretty disastrously. They could instead drop a second midfielder back and play a 4-2-3-1, giving Killion some support. The problem with this solution is: who do you put in that second holding role? Rodriguez simply can’t do the job, so do you bring back McCaskill and lose her contributions in the front line? If not her, then who else is even available?

There is one clear answer here: Christina Gibbons. We saw last year that Gibbons is excellent in a holding midfield role. Her incisive passing does a lot more damage there, and her ability to defensively track play is also well-suited to the job of shielding a backline. Moreover, that job also limits the damage of her relative weakness as a single isolated defender. As we saw this weekend against Ohai, Gibbons isn’t particularly good at single-handedly containing an energetic forward. She’s far better suited to playing a complementary role as one half of a double pivot, where her great soccer IQ can truly shine.

Of course, there are risks to moving Gibbons off the backline. As already noted, Sky Blue’s defensive depth is quite limited, and there are no obvious candidates to slot in at fullback if Gibbons vacates the role. Kayla Mills might still be a long-term solution, but fitness issues have kept her from playing a meaningful role during most of her tenure with the club. Erica Skroski is probably a better fullback than center back, and could certainly slot over. But then who fill that job in the middle?

I can see two possible solutions, which share a lot of common DNA. The first is to shift to a 3-5-2 setup. Freeman, Stott, and Skroski are all well-suited to the job, and with two holding mids, the math of attackers vs. defenders stays effectively the same. The primary difference is where pressure gets exercised. At the moment, Sky Blue is investing a lot in protecting their flanks but exposing far too much space right down the middle. A back three would significantly strengthen the spine, and close down those quick counter attacks that ripped them apart this weekend. But it does so at the cost of opening up wide channels.

The second solution is a bit more radical, but one that I think deserves serious attention. And that is: convert Shea Groom to a right back. I’ve floated this idea speculatively before, in reference to the US national team, but it makes a ton of sense for Sky Blue right now. As I noted at the start, Groom is versatile enough to play as a traditional striker, but is better deployed as a winger or inside forward, where her ability to move in space is given a chance to flourish. As fullback, those opportunities would abound. She has the pace and energy to cover the job. And while no transition is ever seamless, her tenacity on the defensive end suggests that she might take reasonably well to the change.

Sky Blue got a huge amount of mileage last year out of Kelley O’Hara playing a hybrid fullback/winger role. It might be time to see whether Groom can play a similar role this year. Given the lack of balance in this team, some great attackers are inevitably going to be left on the bench. It might be risky, but there’s a strong argument for shifting the team to get another good player on the pitch, and shore up a weakness in the process.

Image courtesy of Leanne Keator