Sky Blue FC played in front of a packed house in Kagoshima.
85th Game-Winner Gives Tight Result to Host Side, 2-1
A highly animated and spirited crowd of nearly 7,300 Japanese soccer fans poured into Kagoshima Prefectural Kamioke Athletics Stadium on Tuesday, with the host INAC Kobe Leonessa using an 85th minute tally to edge visiting Sky Blue FC in the first leg of a two-match series, 2-1. Sky Blue FC, representing both Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) and also its home nation of the United States of America, more than held its own against one of the best club teams in the world, taking a 1-0 lead into halftime after forward Casey Nogueira drove home a powerful half volley in the 45th minute.
From the opening whistle, the exuberant Japanese fan base created an incredible atmosphere for those on the playing field. Sky Blue FC faced a tall task against a team that had not tasted defeat in over two years, but the American side proved it was very much up to the challenge at hand. INAC used the trademark Japanese style of play in patiently banging around the ball from the onset of the match, and the hosts nearly found an answer in the 12th minute of action. Striker Nahomi Kawasumi chipped a feed forward to Sinobu Ohno, who then raced onto the distribution and gave it a solid touch. However, Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Brittany Cameron saw the run developing and immediately extended to her left when the shot got off, knocking away the would-be goal.
From the early going, Sky Blue FC captain McCall Zerboni was doing a nice job of creating offensive opportunities for her team, nearly finding her mark on a series of shot attempts.
Sky Blue FC had its first highly opportune development of the game in the 32nd minute, with midfielder Beverly Goebel shaking a defender in the midfield before weaving her way through traffic and into the opposing end of the pitch. As she began moving down the center of the field, she saw a streaking Nogueira on her left, dealing her a well-placed ball that the two-time NCAA College Player of the Year carried into the box before being taken down by an opposing defender for a penalty kick. Looking to take advantage of the ensuing chance, Nogueira then fired a ball to the left side of the frame, but INAC goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori perfectly timed her dive to punch away the strike.
Despite that setback, Nogueira would even the score on Kaihori for that athletic save before these two clubs headed into the locker rooms for intermission. In the 45th minute, Zerboni stole the ball in the midfield and started driving towards the middle of the field. She then turned and dished it to the right flank for fellow midfielder Nikki Washington, who then delivered a cross to the wide side of the penalty area. After a quick touch on the feed, Nogueira hammered a side volley beyond the outstretched arms of Kaihori, giving the visitors a 1-0 advantage when the whistle blew to end the opening half of play.
When the two clubs reconvened for the second half, INAC came out with a distinct ambition to capture an equalizer. With the Japanese side knocking around the ball in dangerous territory, defender Yukari Kinga made the long journey from the back to receive distribution on the right flank. She quickly then settled and struck a well-placed ball into the top netting, evening the tally at a goal each.
Sky Blue FC continued to be tested throughout the entire second half, but some nice reads and sure handed stops by Cameron kept the game knotted up. Her efforts were not done alone, although, as her back line of Brittany Bock, Kendall Fletcher, Camille Levin and Rebecca Moros played with aggressive intent and made sure no free opportunities were given to the opposing offense. The middle of the playing field was also in good hands, with Carolyn Blank, Amanda DaCosta, Zerboni and Goebel displaying a speedy pace and doing a nice job of slowing the pass-driven attack of INAC. Former Michigan State standout Laura Heyboer also got in on the fun in the 61st minute when she replaced Washington, showing a non-stop motor that constantly had her involved in the action. The final substitution of the match came with 10 minutes to go when forward Jazmyne Avant entered the game for DaCosta, who put in a solid performance during her 80 minutes of play.
With the momentum swinging back and forth throughout the entirety of this pairing, INAC was finally able to break the 1-1 deadlock in the waning minutes of action. After a long floating ball was sent forward from the back in the 86th minute, striker Megumi Takase was able to capitalize on the feed. After a quick settle, the Japanese forward placed a hard strike on a ball that would prove to be the game-winner. Five more minutes would elapse after that go-ahead notch, but a final count of 2-1 in INAC’s favor would stand when the referee signaled the end of the match.
Sky Blue FC will now head to Okinawa on Wednesday, and this two-game series will conclude when these clubs meet again on March 24th at Comprehensive Athletic Park.