In the first big NWSL blockbuster deal of the offseason, Sky Blue traded away one of their key players. It will be hard to imagine the New Jersey side without Kelley O’Hara, who has been a bulwark of the team’s structure, formation, and identity since the founding of the league. However, while it’s obviously never a good thing to lose a world-class player, this was a good deal for Sky Blue, which should help them compete not just in 2017, but for years to come.
The key difficulty with replacing a player like O’Hara is her versatility and adaptability. From her hybrid wingback position last year, she covered almost the entire right flank, offering pace and precision in the attack, wide possession in the midfield, and defensive coverage at the back. There is probably no single player in the league who can fill all those responsibilities. However, this deal does a very good job of covering that gap with two players, and in doing so provides critical depth.
Shea Groom is very good and should be even better at Sky Blue
Shea Groom is already among the league’s best players, a fact which has gone slightly unrecognized due to FCKC’s broader struggles, and her role as a supporting forward rather than a pure goal-scorer. But look at the work she did playing behind Sydney Leroux, and then imagine that same inventiveness, aggression, and movement being leveraged by the world’s best player. Groom was already a very good player, but the chance to play off Sam Kerr for an entire year could be what it takes to launch her up to the next level. Her game is based on inventive movement into space, insightful passing, and sheer relentless aggression. Those qualities will fit perfectly into the Sky Blue attack. With Kerr as the focal point, Groom will be free to pull strings from behind and then burst into unlocked spaces.
This is something that Sky Blue desperately missed in 2017, with O’Hara offering some support, and players like Maya Hayes often making critical contributions as well. But O’Hara’s defensive responsibilities kept her too deep to sustain useful wide possession on a regular basis, and the other forward options were too inconsistent. Groom should fill that space, and free up everyone else to focus more on their own positional responsibilities as well.
That is an important, underlooked feature of this deal. Obviously, Sky Blue’s problem in 2017 wasn’t in the attack (they were among the league leaders in goal scored), but rather the defense. However, those things are connected. Their attack was strong, but often extremely chaotic. They scored by throwing numbers forward, trying to get the ball to Kerr, and hoping for the best. Bringing in a player like Groom – who offers inventiveness, skill in possession, and the potential to form a unified strike force with Kerr – could enable a far more coherent team structure. If so, it will significantly bolster the defense, rendering them less susceptible to being ripped apart in transition.
Christina Gibbons will make a big difference
Bringing in Christina Gibbons should also help on that front. She offers the sort of smooth possession and creative passing from deep positions that Sky Blue was desperately missing last year. Her skill on the ball, and her off-the-charts passing IQ, could be critical to a smoother game.
The big question with Gibbons is her best position. She started last season at left back, before moving to the central midfield halfway through the season. The transition was generally successfully, if not a perfect fit. The problem is that she simply isn’t as fast or as physical as you’d like from a modern attacking fullback, while also not (yet) showing the positional acumen you’d like in a central midfielder. Those are not huge liabilities, and even without being a perfect fit in either role she remains an extremely good player. But if she is able to settle into one role, and learn to compensate more effectively for her modest limitations, she could be a truly excellent player.
If the team is willing to think a little outside the box, there are a lot of options here. For example, while Sky Blue is already possessed of some solid midfield depth, a 3-5-2 setup might be able to leverage their strengths and manage some of their weaknesses. Adding a third body to the backline could stabilize the defense, and give Gibbons a bit more freedom to play a more expansive role upfield, without needing to use her exclusively in the already-clogged central midfield positions. This is just one idea. Surely, there are plenty of other options.
The other piece of the deal – the swap in draft picks – is not likely to have major immediate consequences, but does give Sky Blue some additional options. Their biggest needs are: 1) a pure defensive midfielder, 2) depth in defense, and 3) wingers. Unfortunately, the pickings in those areas are somewhat slim. But with two consecutive picks, they may now be able to spend one on filling those gaps, while using the other on a better player, even if she doesn’t necessarily fit a particular need.
Losing O’Hara is tough, but this deal is a good one
In the end, Sky Blue have done a superb job managing the loss of a club talisman. O’Hara provided on all three lines, and no single player could have replaced her. But the combination of Groom and Gibbons gives them a reasonably close approximation of O’Hara’s contributions, while also adding significantly to the club’s depth. Last year, they often felt like the Sam and Kelley show, with everyone else just trying to the boat from sinking. Under those conditions, trading out one world-class player for two good-to-great players makes a lot of sense. Particularly when those two players are young, and have enormous breakout potential.
Any trade which gives up a player as good as Kelley O’Hara will be tough to swallow. And by itself, this is probably only a lateral move for 2017. It doesn’t fix the core problem of the defense, and it actually magnifies the problem of relative inexperience in the team. Still, by adding several players of great quality, it does a lot to improve the team’s chances in the long term. And if one or both of Groom and Gibbons take that next step forward, we might just look back on this as a key moment in Sky Blue’s transition from a solid mid-table team to a title contender.
That doesn’t make it a bad trade for Utah, especially given Laura Harvey’s noted skill at using the international market to bolster her team. And there is still plenty of time for other big moves (with the rumored return of Caitlin Foord very much in the mix) to complicate the picture. But this is certainly a strong start to the Reddy era at Sky Blue.