In this weekly series, I will be highlighting a player from the weekend who was their respective team’s unsung hero, win or lose. A player who does the dirty work, does the little but important things in a game and someone who didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet but found other ways to contribute.
This week I’ve chosen Sky Blue FC defender Mandy Freeman.
The 22-year-old was taken 10th overall in the first round of the 2017 College Draft by Sky Blue. Fresh off a NCAA Championship with USC, Freeman jumped right into the NWSL, so far starting in all 10 games for the New Jersey side. In her first season, she has the opportunity of a lifetime: to be paired next to Christie Pearce. What a mentor to have, huh? Going into the season I wasn’t sure if Sky Blue would be able to start strong, but 10 games into the year we find them in third place and really starting to find a groove.
Sky Blue 3-1 Portland
Sky Blue got off to a perfect start, scoring the opening goal just 24 seconds in. Officially it was given to Raquel Rodriguez (after a lovely pass from Sam Kerr) 25 seconds in, but I have watched it several times and it’s clearly in the back of the net at the 24 second mark–which would make it the fastest goal in NWSL history.
But I’ll move on from that and get down to specifics.
The first play worth talking about from Freeman was in the 11th minute. #22 had darted forward to intercept a pass intended for a Thorn player at the halfway line. Freeman got it to Kerr, who charged forward and put herself in a dangerous position in the middle of the park. Emily Sonnett eventually won a tackle, stopping Kerr just before she entered the 18-yard box. But it was a wonderful attacking move which started with Freeman winning possession and then quickly finding Kerr moving forward.
Now, it’s certainly no easy task to rattle to Portland … at Providence Park … in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 16,736. Also add in the fact that the Thorns had not lost at home since July of 2016. Quite an impressive feat, but in the first half Sky Blue were playing like they were the home team, executing their game plan to a tee.
Freeman wasn’t only doing her defensive duties, she wanted in on the action at the other end too. She awaited the service of a Kelley O’Hara corner in the 17th minute, volleying it towards goal where forward McKenzie Meehan sent it just just over the crossbar. Obviously, Sky Blue drafted her for her defensive abilities but at 5’8″ Freeman could sneak onto the scoring sheet eventually. In her college days at USC, Freeman did find the net twice and earned eight assists as well, so it’s not a completely foreign land to her.
The next big play came in the very next minute. Portland patiently strung together a series of passes, working their way deep into the Sky Blue end. At the end of it, Sinclair turned Mills away with a cute stop-and-go on the right side of the 18 and found Raso, who was in the middle, with a point-blank shot. Or so she thought. But instead, Freeman comes lunging forward with such graceful desperation, putting her body in front of a ball that was on its way to being blasted upper 90 for the equalizer. Freeman once again read the play, reacted in the right way and preserved the lead for Sky Blue. It was a crucial moment. With Portland’s pressure growing and the game moving at a frantic pace, an equalizer could easily have turned the tide on the night and shifted the momentum. Freeman’s clutch stop gave Sky Blue some refuge and let them restore some order to their game plan.
As every team in the NWSL knows, containing Portland is extremely difficult to do. With the likes of Nadia Nadim, Christine Sinclair, Allie Long, Amandine Henry, and Lindsey Horan, Sky Blue and their balanced defense managed to do just that. Balanced meaning two veterans and two rookies keeping the line very organized. Freeman deserves individual plaudits for her containment of Sinclair–a player who has proven capable of escaping from the world’s best defenders. In maybe her best game of the season so far, Freeman kept Canada’s legendary forward in check and off the score sheet.
In the second half, Portland didn’t start well but in the 64th minute, they could’ve had a quality chance on goal if not for Freeman. Building from the back, the Thorns found Meghan Klingenberg out wide, looking to serve the ball toward Long in the box. Once again, Portland were inches away from a goal, but somehow Freeman burst in to steal the header from Long and deny a golden scoring chance.
One last play to highlight Freeman came in the 88th minute with Portland desperately searching for a bit of pride back and a consolation goal. Henry won the ball near the midfield and surged forward, leaving two Sky Blue players in the dust on her way to goal. Freeman came over to support, stood tall against the French playmaker and took it away from her. Then she had the awareness to slot it to Madison Tiernan in the midfield, who sent a long searching ball to a certain Aussie (who beat the entire Portland backline) and raced 15 yards before faking out Adrianna Franch for the cool finish and a brace.
Freeman had to deal with some incredible talent on the night and taking the ball away from Henry and starting the final goal-scoring sequence had to feel good for the rookie as it capped off a fantastic game for her. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this game, it was end-to-end action. And in my opinion, Freeman made the difference for her club on the night.
Sky Blue are currently sitting in third place with five wins, four losses, and one draw. If Freeman and this backline can continue this type of electric play, we could see this team back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013.