Sky Blue FC’s fairy tale run through the Women’s Professional Soccer Playoffs finished with a happy ending. Heather O’Reilly scored the only goal of the game as Sky Blue FC captured the inaugural WPS Championship presented by MedImmune with a 1-0 win over the Los Angeles Sol.
The victory capped a worst-to-first transformation for Sky Blue FC, which didn’t clinch a spot in the playoffs until the final day of the regular season.
O’Reilly earned WPS Championship MVP honors for scoring the game-winning goal.
Jenni Branam recorded four saves to notch the shutout for the Sky Blue FC. Branam allowed just one goal in three playoff matches behind the strong effort from the back four of Christie Rampone, Keeley Dowling, Meghan Schnur, and Jen Buczkowski.
“I think it’s an exceptional team we have here with Sky Blue FC,” said Rampone, Sky Blue FC’s Interim Player/Coach. “It was a great run for us, battling back to make it into the playoffs and winning three games in eight days. We came out strong, the adrenaline was definitely kicking with us and we went after them and had our legs. Then we got ahead with a goal and we just settled in and tried to finish off the game. We struggled a little bit in the second half but we still had the heart and desire to try to fight them off to get that victory.”
When Sky Blue FC started the season at 1-4-2, few people outside the state of New Jersey gave the team any chance to make the playoffs let alone capture the WPS Championship. Ironically, Sky Blue FC wouldn’t have qualified for the playoffs if not for the effort of Los Angeles, which needed to win or draw against Boston on the final day of the regular season for Sky Blue FC to finish fourth. The Sol came through with a 2-1 win.
Sky Blue FC grasped the opportunity and made the best of it winning three straight playoff matches on the road to capture the title. After a 2-1 win over the Washington Freedom in the first round, Sky Blue FC added a 1-0 victory over Saint Louis Athletica in the Super Semifinal to set the stage for its improbable championship victory over the Sol, which was dominant during the season earning the league’s regular season title.
With Sky Blue FC playing its third match in eight days, a strong start was crucial and O’Reilly provided just that when she buried a shot in the 16th minute. Keeley Dowling sent in a cross from the right side that Natasha Kai flicked toward the far post. O’Reilly, who also scored Sky Blue FC’s opening goal of the season – the franchise’s first-ever, stepped into the ball and nailed a right-footed shot that deflected off Sol goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc and into the far side netting.
“[The play] was going down the right side and I think Keeley Dowling got a solid cross in the box and I was kind of hanging out back post,” O’Reilly said. “Natasha Kai is more well known for headers in the box so I was hanging back post and seeing if Tash was going to get anything on it. She got up well and got a good flick on it and then the ball landed to me in front of the goal. At that point, I was just focusing on keeping it low and getting it on frame and good thing it happened.”
The game took a critical turn in the 27th minute when a great run by Kai led to referee Kari Seitz issuing a red card to the Sol’s Allison Falk, leaving Los Angeles with 10 men the rest of the way. Kai carried the ball forward and cut between two defenders leaving Falk on the wrong side of the Sky Blue FC striker. Falk appeared to make contact, sending Kai tumbling and denying a goal-scoring opportunity.
In the second half, Sky Blue FC had the first good chance as LeBlanc had to come out to stuff O’Reilly in the 50th minute. Los Angeles had the better chances the rest of the way but only produced a couple good chances. In the 72nd minute, Shannon Boxx forced Branam into a diving save off a feed from Marta and in the 84th minute, Branam punched away a free kick from Marta and then grabbed a shot from Boxx on the ensuing corner kick.