Getting to Know...Sky Blue
Freya Coombe is an English coach who has played at Reading FC, and also been part of their coaching staff. Recently, she’s been in the USA in youth soccer coaching for quite some time.
Only team in the NWSL this season to have employed a woman to be a head coach.
The off-season started very badly with their 2 first round picks in the 2019 NWSL College Draft refusing to play for Sky Blue because of poor facilities for players on and off the pitch for quite some time, and the management doing nothing about it. They instead opted to go overseas. Even before this, fans were already furious and disappointed, with the official supporters group, Cloud 9, even refusing to renew their season tickets until conditions improved and General Manager Tony Novo was fired. He was finally replaced by Alyse LaHue as an interim GM in April. This was the pivotal moment. LaHue has previous experience as GM of the Chicago Red Stars from 2012-2016. She listened to the players and fans, and was (still is) transparent in the process towards transforming the club, as she went about winning back their trust. While the pitch at their regular venue, Yurcak Field, is pristine grass, the locker room facilities are not upto professional standards, and the max capacity is just around 5000. With the aim to move to a better venue in 2020, Sky Blue moved 2 of their games to the 25000 seater Red Bull Arena, still in NJ, but much closer and accessible to NYC via public transport compared to Yurcak. With very few days to market and promote the games, we still saw crowds of 8000+ for both matches. From September, LaHue was no longer an interim.
On the field, in late June, Sky Blue let go of head coach Denise Reddy, under whom Sky Blue had won just 1 game the 2018 season, and none in the 2019 one. All 5 matches they won in 2019 were after this. Coombe was introduced to the team, and slowly her responsibilities were increased, before officially appointing her as interim head coach for the final 5 matches of the season. Sky Blue came in 8th with 20 points, only ahead of last placed Orlando (16 points). They conceded 34 goals in 24 matches, ahead only of Houston (36), and Orlando (53). Most worrying was that they came last in number of goals scored (20). In the NWSL, the highest they have ever been is 4th - in the inaugural season in 2013, but lost the playoff semifinal. They did win the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) championship in its first season in 2009 against all odds, after finishing the regular season in 4th place.
National Team Players
Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan (Canada) has been the most valuable player for Sky Blue over the past 3 seasons. Her unbelievable shot stopping and intelligent game reading, has kept them in matches and reduced the number of goals conceded significantly. Her ball distribution is also top notch. She’s one of the leaders on the team now.
McCall Zerboni, who was last capped by the USWNT in 2018, was brought in this year from the North Carolina Courage, and will add much needed steel in the midfield, allowing her teammates to be more creative.
Margaret “Midge” Purce had a very good season in the NWSL last year with the Portland Thorns playing in 22 games, scoring 8 goals, and providing 1 assist. To cap it all, she received her USWNT debut in the last match of the year, even making the starting XI, but at right back. Whether Sky Blue will continue to use her there, or as a striker, or as a wide attacking midfielder, remains to be seen.
Nahomi Kawasumi is Sky Blue’s most famous international star. She won the World Cup with Japan in 2011 defeating the USWNT in the final. She’s also reached the finals of the 2012 London Olympics, and the 2015 World Cup falling to the USWNT each time. She has also won the domestic leagues in both Japan (2011, 2012, 2013) and the USA (NWSL Shield, 2014) with INAC Kobe Leonessa and the Seattle Reign, and numerous other honours. She provides options to Sky Blue while attacking in midfield and forward regions.
Gina Lewandowski was unlucky to be capped by the USWNT only once, back in 2015, given her storied career. With FFC Frankfurt, she won treble (Bundesliga, Pokal, Champions League) in 2007-2008, the Pokal again in 2011, and losing to Lyon in the 2011-2012 in the Champions League final. Lewandowski won the 2011 WPS regular season and the championship with the Western New York Flash. She was with Bayern Munich from 2012 - 2019 winning the league twice (2015 and 2016). She can fill in anywhere on the backline.
NWSL veteren, defender Estelle Johnson was first capped by Cameroon last year, and went on to play all four matches till the Round of 16 at the World Cup.
The team has been really impressed with experienced Ghana national team midfielder Jennifer Cudjoe in this year’s open tryouts and pre-season so far. It will be exciting to see her impact this season on Sky Blue.
Rookie defender Chantelle Swaby is now a regular of Jamaican national team. Most recently she’s played in this year’s CONCACAF Olympics qualifying tournament, and last year's World Cup.
Players You Should Know
Captain Sarah Woldmoe (Killion) is the heart of the team. She’s a complete central midfielder, but excels in the deep-lying playmaker role. Very few in the world can match her vision, ball control and passing. It is a joy to watch her start and build attacks. She also sends in searching free-kicks and corners. After 5 years in the pro ranks (all of them with Sky Blue), there is now also a street smartness to her play. Sarah was a starter with the USA U-20 team that won the World Cup in 2012, which had current USWNT players like Crystal Dunn, Julie Ertz and Morgan Brian. For the senior team, she’s been on the roster, called into camps, but has not yet been capped. Given how difficult it is to break into the USWNT, I’m just glad she still gets to play the game she loves professionally, and that we get to watch and enjoy her brilliance.
Midfielder Elizabeth Eddy’s work rate is second to none. She’s a tireless performer, who’s very versatile, and brings speed and creativity to the frontline. She has the honour of scoring the first goal for Sky Blue at the Red Bull Arena. Before coming to Sky Blue mid-way last year, she was with the champions North Carolina Courage, from (2015) their Western New York Flash days.
Imani Dorsey won the NWSL Rookie of the Year in 2018 after scoring 4 goals and providing 1 assist in 14 matches for Sky Blue. In 2019, she scored 2 goals, but she was mostly deployed as a fullback. It’ll be interesting to see where she gets to play this year.
Forward Paige Monaghan had a promising rookie season last year with Sky Blue, starting 20 games. She had a sensational match at home against the Chicago Red Stars, which Sky Blue won 2-1, with Paige scoring both goals, and the winner in stoppage time.
Changes in the Off-season:
There were some changes made by the NWSL to player compensation. While the minimum and maximum salaries were increased, it is still not near what a professional athlete deserves. The change that’ll bring a bit of stability, and reduce financial and mental strain, is teams now have to provide for year-round housing.
The response Sky Blue received to the 2 games played at Red Bull Arena last year convinced LaHue and the owners that they could take up this challenge, and so made the decision to move all matches there in 2020. They will also be using Red Bulls’s excellent training facilities in East Hanover, NJ.
Removed the interim tag, and made Coombe the Head Coach.
Defender Becca Moros was appointed First Assistant Coach. Till last year, she played in the NWSL at Utah Royals FC. She was part of championship winning sides of Western New York Flash (2011), and FC Kansas City (2015). She has also played in the Japanese league, and their playing style and principles have highly influenced her footballing philosophy.
Here is the rest of the coaching and technical staff.
After last season’s lack of goals, they brought in attackers Midge Purce from the Portland Thorns, Mal Pugh from Washington Spirit, and Ifeoma Onumonu from OL Reign.
Sabrina Flores played 4 matches for Sky Blue last year, then went on to play for Sevilla FC in Spain. She has now signed a 2 year contract with Sky Blue. Mainly a defender (fullback), she can also be used as a midfielder.
Besides Cudjoe, they also added attacking midfielder Nicloe Baxter and defender Cassidy Benintente, both of whom have played for Sky Blue previously, on short-term contracts.
Draft picks: Besides Chantelle Swaby (Rutgers University), they have picked and signed the goal machine Canadian Evelyne Viens, who scored 73 goals and recorded 23 assists in 77 appearances for the University of South Florida, and USA Youth national teamers, defender Kaleigh Riehl (Penn State) and goalkeeper Amanda “Mandy” McGlynn (Virginia Tech), both of whom were top rated in their respective categories.
Departures and injuries:
Accomplished Costa Rican international Raquel “Rocky” Rodríguez was traded to the Portland Thorns for Midge Purce and a 2021 first round draft pick. In 2016, she was the first Sky Blue player to receive the Rookie of the Year award. She along with the captain, were the primary creative forces in the midfield for the for the past 4 years. The hole that she leaves in the attacking midfield role will be tough to fill.
Veteran forward Jen Hoy retired from professional soccer. She started her career in 2013 along with the NWSL with the Chicago Red Stars. She was with Sky Blue for the last 2 years. She had a direct contribution in 3 of the 5 wins last year -
The winner against her old team, the Red Stars, in a 1-2 result away in Chicago.
A stoppage time winner against the Utah Royal in 1-0 result at home.
An assist for the 1st goal against the Houston Dash in a 1-2 win away in Houston.
USWNT attackers Carli Lloyd and Mal Pugh will miss the Challenge Cup due to a left knee and right hip injuries respectively, suffered in off-season training.
NWSL veteran fullback, Caprice Dydasco, who joined Sky Blue from Washington Spirit last year, will miss the Cup after tearing her right ACL during pre-season training.
You can find the Challenge Cup roster here.
Strengths and Question Marks
Besides goalkeeping, their next best area was the midfield. But now with Rocky Rodríguez and Carli Lloyd both missing, we’ll have to see who steps up to fill the attacking midfield role.
Last year, Lloyd also scored a large portion of their goals (8/20). And now with Hoy retiring, and Pugh missing, Sky Blue will be hoping that the rest of their attacking talent, in which they have enough depth, can do the job.
The defensive record in 2019 was much better than in 2018 in terms of goals conceded (34 vs 52). But it was partly aided by an out-of-this world performance by Sheridan. The return of Mandy Freeman, who missed the whole of last season because of a torn achilles tendon in her right ankle during preseason training, and the other defensive additions, should hopefully strengthen the backline.
Coombe has mentioned that she plans an offensive and exciting style of football this year to entertain the fans. How much of that or any other plans, formations, systems, principles, philosophies, team chemistry and culture, were the coaching staff able to instill into the players, because of the interrupted and shortened pre-season, remains to be seen.
Preliminary Round Matchups
The draw is pretty even for Sky Blue. Of the 4, the only team they couldn’t beat last year was the North Carolina Courage.
OL Reign (June 30, 10 pm ET): Last year’s record against them was a 1-2 loss away, a 1-1 draw at home, and a 0-1 win away.
They have some pretty good players returning from last year. Lauren Barnes and Spanish international Celia Jiménez in the backline, USWNT member Allie Long and Welsh star Jess Fishlock in the midfield, and 2019 Rookie of the Year, Bethany Balcer and England international Jodie Taylor up front. They have added defender Alana Cook on loan from PSG, experienced Costa Rican international Shirley Cruz to the midfield, and Japanese international Yuka Momiki to the frontline.
They have appointed a new coach this season, Farid Benstiti, who has previously coached Lyon and PSG. Only slight advantage Sky Blue may have is that Coombe has been with the squad from midway last year.
Utah Royals (July 4, 12.30 pm ET): Last year’s record against them was a 0-1 loss away, a 1-0 win at home, and a 0-3 loss away.
Losing their 2 best performers from last season in Becky Sauerbrunn (getting transferred to the Portland Thorns) and Christen Press (choosing not to play because of the coronavirus outbreak) is a huge blow. But some of their core quality players like defenders Kelley O’Hara (USWNT) and Scottish international Rachel Corsie, Spanish international attacking midfielder Vero Boquete, and former USWNT forward Amy Rodriguez, are still returning. Will be interesting to see what impact exciting first-round draft pick, forward Tziarra King, will have on the team.
But like Reign, they have appointed a new coach this season, Craig Harrington, who was assistant coach at the Chicago Red Stars. Harrington will have scouted Sky Blue last year pretty well, so he has a slight edge over Benstiti.
Houston Dash (July 8, 10 pm ET): Last year’s record against them was a 0-1 loss at home, a 1-0 loss away, and a 1-2 win away.
Most of the core players are returning like goalkeeper Jane Campbell, midfielders Kristie Mweis and Christine Nairn, and England international, forward Rachel Daly. They have a new backline like with Katie Naughton from the Chicago Red Stars and Megan Oyster from the OL Reign. There were additions to the frontline as well with Katie Stengel from the Utah Royals, and Shea Groom from OL Reign.
It’ll be a tough matchup, but Sky Blue could target the backline which may not have had enough time to gel together.
North Carolina Courage (July 13, 10 pm ET): The Courage with PaulRiley as coach, have a remarkable past 4 years. They won the championship in 2016 (when they were the Western New York Flash), when they were truly the underdog. In 2017, they won the regular season (NWSL Shield), but lost to the Thorns in the championship final 0-1. In 2018 and 2109, they won back to back NWSL Shield and Championship honours.
Sky Blue’s last year’s record against them was a 0-0 draw away, a 1-2 loss at home in which Sky Blue had some clear-cut chances to go ahead or equalize, and a 2-3 loss away.
They have a mostly unchanged squad with the notable additions of draft pick, forward Ally Watt, and Hailie Mace who could fill in at right back if Merritt Mathias has not yet recovered from her ACL injury from last year. If Paul Riley continues with his preferred 4-2-2-2 system, it could be a bit predictable for Sky Blue. One more thing to note is that this is the last of the prelim matches for both teams, so both of them, with enough game time before this, could be clicking and peaking at the right time just before the knock-outs, so we could have a very high quality match.
Where do you expect them to finish?
With there being no elimination before the knockouts, and there being no extra-time in the knockouts, I think Sky Blue FC could go all the way and win the Challenge Cup.
By Alok Dadhekar