Sky Blue FC defeated the Houston Dash 2-0 Wednesday night in the third NWSL Challenge Cup preliminary round match, which was presented by Provident Bank. Forward Paige Monaghan and midfielder Nahomi Kawasumi both found the back of the net, helping the team secure its first win of the tournament. The win moves Sky Blue into second place in the Challenge Cup table with four points through three matches.
Sky Blue brought the energy early in the match, as they controlled the tempo throughout the first half. Offensively, McCall Zerboni, Paige Monaghan, Ifeoma Onumonu, and Jennifer Cudjoe all connected well through the midfield, putting pressure on the Dash defense. When Houston did win the ball, Sky Blue was quick to recover and shut down the counter-attack.
The strong start paid off in the 17th minute when Monaghan found the back of the net for the team’s first goal of the tournament. Zerboni picked the ball up in midfield, then played it to Onumonu, who slotted it through to a darting Monaghan at the penalty spot. Monaghan then touched the ball past an oncoming Campbell, and tapped it into the open net, giving Sky Blue the 1-0 lead.
Sky Blue did not let up after their first goal, as they stayed on the front foot and continued to create chances. The team doubled the lead in the 34th minute off a shot from Kawasumi. Campbell had come out of her box to clear the ball away from an oncoming Onumonu. Kawasumi, who was waiting on the left side, quickly settled the clearance and chipped the ball into the back of the net from about forty yards out. With the goal, Sky Blue entered halftime up 2-0 over the Dash.
Houston came out of half time looking for a comeback, but the team was unable to break through Sky Blue’s compact and cohesive defense. Centerbacks Estelle Johnson and Gina Lewandowski each made several key clearances, helping to hold Houston to zero shots on goal in the second half. On the other end, Sky Blue maintained the majority of the possession, continuing with the strong midfield connections.
The team pushed for a third goal in stoppage time when Evelyne Viens drove a shot to the near post, forcing Campbell to make the diving save. After a few more minutes of added time, the whistle finally blew, and Sky Blue officially added three points to their Challenge Cup campaign.
After the match, Monaghan’s goal to open up the scoring was named the Secret No Sweat Play of the Game. Meanwhile, Kawasumi, whose 34th-minute goal was her first in a Sky Blue uniform, earned the Budweiser Woman of the Match, as well as the Saker ShopRite Woman of the Match for her help in securing the victory for her team.
“It was just an appropriate reward, especially for Naho,” said Head Coach Freya Coombe on the midfielder’s performance. “She’s just been so smart and so clever and doesn’t always get the praise that she deserves. I thought that was just a perfect opportunity for her. We’re really happy with her out wide. I thought she did a great job.”
With the 2-0 victory, Sky Blue earned its second shutout of the tournament, having given up just one goal through three games. The tight defense, combined with the strong showing offensively, helped Sky Blue become one of only two teams to have a positive goal differential at this point in the Challenge Cup.
“I think it was just a great reward,” said Coombe on the victory. “I think it’s an element of relief, but also just how well-deserved it was for the shift the players put in and how well they are playing.”
The team will conclude the preliminary round on Monday, July 13, at 10 p.m. ET against the North Carolina Courage. A win in this match would likely result in Sky Blue finishing second in the NWSL Challenge Cup table.
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