Sky Blue FC came into Harvard Stadium on Sunday night as the defending WPS champion and left with a 4-0 loss to a Boston Breakers team that looks like a genuine contender to win a title of its own in 2010.
With the win Boston beat the New Jersey side for the first time ever and consolidated its third-place position in the WPS table. The victory prolonged a five-game unbeaten streak for the Breakers and extended their recent run of success to seven wins, one draw, and one loss in their last nine games.
Prior to a 2-1 win on July 4 in Philadelphia, the Breakers had won just one match in all of April, May, and June. But whatever dogged the Boston side in the early part of the season is well behind the team now. For the Breakers, though, not much has changed other than results.
"I think that was one of the best games we've played," Boston forward Lauren Cheney said of the comprehensive victory over Sky Blue. "We are playing well together, and hopefully that will continue. I think we were playing well all season. We just couldn't get that edge; we couldn't get that last touch, that last goal. We played good soccer all year, and now things are bouncing our way."
The first goal of Sunday's game bounced Boston's way in just the ninth minute, when Cheney headed past New Jersey goalkeeper Jenni Branam to score her fifth goal of the season.
Boston defender Amy LePeilbet sent a free kick from the goalie's right-hand side into the penalty area, where completely unmarked Boston midfielder Jordan Angeli got a foot on it.
Angeli's shot ricocheted at a bad angle, but Cheney, who was also unmarked while camping out at the far post, headed Angeli's errant kick home to give Boston a 1-0 lead. It was a rare headed goal for Cheney, who has been working on that aspect of her game.
"That's such a relief that I scored with my head," the Boston rookie said. "I work on it all the time, and to know that it's paying off is a huge weight off my shoulders."
Boston continued to create chances throughout the first half while limiting Sky Blue to one half-chance, a Laura Kalmari shot over the bar in the 37th minute. Boston's sophisticated attack and suffocating midfield produced another goal just a few minutes later.
This time, Angeli, who was at the heart of the Breakers' attack all night, notched her sixth goal of the season in a moment of brilliance. In the 41st minute, she volleyed a bouncing ball home with her left foot, effectively chipping Branam, who had come out to play the ball.
"Cheney had a girl on her, so I was telling her to let it go through, and [Cheney] just bodied her," Angeli said. "It was kind of a half-chance. It was bouncing kind of awkwardly, and I just got my foot on it and it went in the goal."
"[At the] last second, Jordie called me off of it, so I just opened my body and I was able to shield [the ball]," Cheney added. "What a goal by Jordan. She's volley queen, and that was a little bit of a half-volley."
But was it an intentional chip, one of the the most difficult and stunning shots in soccer? Angeli answered the question coyly.
"I was working on my golfing, chipping the ball at the driving range the other day," she joked.
With Boston leading 2-0 at the break, Sky Blue coach Rick Stainton took off midfielder Yael Averbuch and defensive midfielder Kendall Fletcher in favor of attacking midfielder Rosana and forward Tasha Kai. By then, though, Boston coach Tony DiCicco's side had already bedeviled Stainton's team.
"What Boston did well that really caught us off guard," Stainton said, "was interchanging their players in the attacking end, with the runners coming through with Cheney and [forward Kelly] Smith changing roles and positions and giving us a sense of confusion to some extent."
The Breakers capitalized again on Sky Blue's defensive confusion with a goal just four minutes into the second half.
In the 49th minute, Breakers forward Lindsay Tarpley volleyed in a ball that had pinballed in the penalty area after a Boston corner. Once again, Angeli was in the mix, this time forcing goalie Branam to parry a headed shot and setting Tarpley up for her second tally of the season.
"Jordan got a great head on the ball," Tarpley said, "and then headed at the goalie, and I was there to finish the rebound."
Boston's last strike, though, would be all about Laura Del Rio. The Spanish forward replaced Smith in the 75th minute and five minutes later blasted her first WPS goal home in fine style.
"Laura's goal was sick," Angeli said.
Indeed. Del Rio found the ball easily 20 yards from goal and just to the left-hand side of Branam. She launched a pitch-perfect, left-footed shot into the opposite top corner of Branam's net to seal Boston's dominant performance.
"I am so excited for my first goal in this league," Del Rio, a native of Madrid, said. "I am right[-footed], but I don't care really. Yesterday, I was practicing this shot. I am training very hard for my first goal, for minutes, for everything."
That training has paid off, DiCicco said.
"Del Rio had a great week in training, and she hasn't been playing," he said. "I said, 'If you put in the work during the week, you'll get your chance.' I was happy that she got her first goal. That was a world-class goal right there."
DiCicco noted that for the Breakers, the win over Sky Blue was an important milestone.
"This is the first time we've beaten them," DiCicco said. "Our players from last season wanted to really have a good game."
For DiCicco, Boston's turnaround in recent months has been all about his players. He called Sunday's performance the best 90 minutes Boston has played all season and offered some reasons why the Breakers have vaulted from underachievers to title contenders since early July.
"We stabilized our goalkeeping position with rookie Alyssa Naeher in goal," he said. "We were gifting some goals. We found Jordan Angeli. She's hot. Cheney now has become hot. There hasn't been a lot of adjustments.
"I think [defender Ifeoma] Dieke in the back gives us the pace to deal with some of the speed in the league, and Tarpley is such a 90-minute player. She's factored into goals by keeping balls alive in the penalty area. We have a formula now, and everybody's on the same page."
Unfortunately for DiCicco, that page is about to turn. For Boston's next game, to be played against Atlanta in Connecticut on Saturday, Smith, Dieke, and defender Alex Scott will all be participating in European Championship qualifiers and will therefore be unavailable to the Breakers.
To compound the bad news, midfielder Leslie Osborne separated her shoulder on Sunday and is not likely to be available for the Atlanta match, DiCicco said. Further details on Osborne's injury are not known at this time.
"She's been very good for us, a great stabilizing holding midfielder for us," DiCicco said of Osborne. "When we didn't have her for three games earlier this season, we lost all three. I think we're a better team than that, and I think the players will fill in for her. But when she came back, we started our run here. It would be a real bonus if she's available next weekend, but I think we've got to plan that she wont be."
Nevertheless, DiCicco is trying to keep his side sharp by giving minutes to a variety of players. Against Sky Blue, with Boston leading 3-0, he substituted attacking midfielder and captain Kristine Lilly for forward Fabiana. Later, still with a 3-0 lead, he made another offense-for-offense substitution by bringing Del Rio in for Smith.
"I just need to keep players engaged," DiCicco said of his substitution strategy. "Fabiana gives us something. She's a starter in my mind. If we don't play her, she's going to start to lose confidence."
Fabiana and Del Rio are "weapons to come into the game," DiCicco added. "They're weapons when we start them, but they're weapons when they come into the game. Both of them are fast; both of them are take-on artists. That's something to deal with."
What Sky Blue dealt with on Sunday was a rampant Breakers side that finished out its regular-season Harvard Stadium slate with a win that thrilled the season-high crowd of 6,108. After Saturday's game against Atlanta, Boston will finish the regular season with four road games, against Philadelphia, Atlanta, Gold Pride, and Sky Blue.
The Breakers remain five points behind Philadelphia in the standings but have a game in hand. They have now distanced themselves from playoff rivals Washington, Chicago, and Sky Blue, which are all at least seven points behind Boston. If they can hold onto third in the WPS table, the Breakers will likely host a playoff game.
The playoff implications of Sunday's win were not lost on DiCicco.
"We were playing against a team that is after the playoffs, and we're separating ourselves from them," he said. "It wasn't that Sky Blue didn't show up to play. We invested a lot in this game."