It’s been a strange season for Sky Blue FC. They got off to a strong start, and spent most of the first half looking like serious playoff challengers. That came as a surprise to those who had judged them too young, too inexperienced, and too raw to make a serious push this year. And some of us continued to hold to that position well into the season. In mid-June, for example, I wrote a buy/sell/hold column and recommending selling on Sky Blue.
Immediately after that column, Sam Kerr went full superhero and the team reeled off a run of very impressive results. And while there were still obvious flaws in the squad, it wasn’t hard to see them doing enough to compensate for those problems. There was even a clear analogue between the Sky Blue of 2017 and the Western New York Flash of 2016—who also looked to be a few pieces away from the full puzzle but were able to hang onto the 4th playoff spot anyways.
But starting in the middle of July, the wheels started to come off, and the team is now in full crisis mode, having conceded 14 goals in their past three games (by comparison, North Carolina have conceded 14 goals over the whole season). Now, with the news dropping on Wednesday afternoon that head coach Christy Holly is stepping down from the job, it might be a useful time to reflect on how things got so bad.
However, before we get into the thick of it, it’s worth noting that Sky Blue are not out of the playoff race. It’s possible that was part of the motivation for Holly to make this move right now. Whether the fault rested with him (arguable, but by no means obvious), sometimes a change at the top can be useful to reset the system. And as long as they have Kerr terrorizing opposing defenses, there’s a shot. So it will certainly be interesting to watch the end of the season. They’re unlikely to fix everything that’s ailing them, but even some modest improvements might be enough. There are three key areas of concern.
Goalkeeping: Sheridan has been great, but needs a break
Kailen Sheridan has put together an extremely impressive rookie campaign. Confident, athletic, and decisive – she was one of the best keepers in the league through most of the season. But things have taken a turn for the worse, starting with the epic 5-4 match against Seattle. Sheridan took a number of hits that game and collapsed on the field at the final whistle. And the injuries have only continued to pile up. While she hasn’t missed any minutes, her range of motion is clearly suffering, and she has looked far more tentative over the past few games.
The best long-term approach would be to sit the young keeper for a few weeks to let her build back to 100%. It’s understandable that both Sheridan and the team are resistant – and it’s certainly possible that even at 70% Sheridan is the best option. But it’s far from an ideal situation.
Defense: Age, inexperience, and injuries
The defensive line is clearly the heart of the problem, and it was clearly a foreseeable problem as well. Their first choice back five at the start of the season featured four players 22-or-under and one player over 40. But it was hard to anticipate things collapsing quite this completely.
Relatively early in the season, Kelley O’Hara was brought back into the backline, which did make a huge difference. So her recent absence to injury has been a big loss. Without her movement and attacking quality in that fluid right wingback/fullback hybrid role, they’ve been far easier to pin back and much less stable.
Meanwhile, the other veteran on the backline has held off the march of time far longer than anyone could ever have expected. But time eventually defeats us all. And sadly, 2017 seems to be the year that age finally began to catch up with Christie Pearce. She started the season strong, playing as well in the first few months as we’ve seen from her in a long time. But since then, things have started to slip. The pace is still good, but it’s not quite as explosive. Her tackling is less precise. And while you’d be hard pressed to find a player with higher soccer intelligence, Pearce has finally started to look like a player whose body no longer is able to do what her brain needs it to do.
The youth movement has also hit some speed bumps. Sky Blue were lauded for their excellent draft—particularly for getting the duo of Mandy Freeman and Kayla Mills—and early in the season there were some positive returns. Freeman missed six weeks with injury, and even when healthy has suffered from all the expected problems that come with youth. The talent is clearly there, and she will be a rock in their defense for a long time, but she has not been the reliable presence that they’ve needed. Mills has almost limitless potential, but so far has been unable to translate that talent into consistent match performances. They’ve gotten some solid performances from Erica Skroski, but even she has been less dependable than she was last year—perhaps due to constantly being slotted into new positions with new obligations as much as anything else.
It should come as no surprise that young players would stumble, or that they would fade as the season progressed. The professional game is tougher and longer than their other experiences. It would have been surprising if they hadn’t faded a bit. That’s simply one of the dangers of building on youth. And all things considered, blooding young players, and hoping that they might be able to get you through the season probably wasn’t a terrible gamble. If they manage it, you hit the peak of your success cycle earlier than expected. If not … well, this wasn’t supposed to be a playoff team anyways. But with more experience, they might be ready to truly compete by 2018.
And that’s still a possibility. But it’s hard to look at the past few weeks and see a team building toward the future. With makeshift defenders filling in and struggling mightily to cope with expectations, Sky Blue has looked much more like a team on a downward slope than the reverse.
20/20 is perfect, of course, but it’s hard to look at the team right now and not think that they missed a chance to pick up a veteran defender at some point who could help plug some of these gaps. As it is, they’ve got the group that they’ve got. And it’s an open question whether they’ll be able to sort things out enough to at least close down the spigot of goals.
Midfield: Not enough ball-winning, not enough creativity
Team defensive breakdowns are rarely just the fault of the defense. And that’s certainly the case with Sky Blue this year. While the midfield unit is reasonably solid on paper, at times they’ve looked to be a bit less than the sum of their parts.
Look at the roster and you’ll see creative players, players with pace, players who can dribble, players who can shoot. But they’ve had a very difficult time finding an appropriate balance. And a lot of that has to do with the pairing in the middle: Sarah Killion and Raquel Rodriguez. When they’re both clicking, that can be a very successful combination. They’re similar players—all-around talents who can do a defensive job, hold possession, and make attacking runs. But when things aren’t working, it can break down pretty badly. They both tend to play narrow, and neither has the sort of defensive solidity that you’d want from a lock-down holding midfielder. As a result, Sky Blue haven’t really been able to close down the opposition in the midfield with a good ball-winner, nor have they been able to consistently hold possession once they do get the ball.
Combine those two with a rotating cast of often-good-but-inconsistent players like Nikki Stanton, Daphne Corboz, Taylor Lytle, and Madison Tiernan and the result is precisely what you’d expect: a team that can beat anyone on their day but that struggles to maintain much coherence from week to week.
There is a lot of talent here, and during the first part of the season, the mixing-and-matching worked out well enough. But one of the major themes of the past month has been the consistent breakdown of the midfield. Players have rotated in and out and there hasn’t been much coherence in the process. Despite the presence of some players with a lot of creative potential (Corboz in particular), they simply haven’t been able to build the structure necessary to let that creativity flourish.
Who is to blame? And where do they go from here?
Under conditions like these, you certainly want to put some of the blame on the coach—whose job it is to develop a system into which players can fit without needing to reinvent the wheel each game. And whose responsibility it was to build a roster that could last over the long haul.
But it’s also important to remember the baseline that this team was working from: “young, developing, probably not ready yet.” So it’s important not to overstate the problems here.
Sky Blue overachieved at the start of the season, and that may have created some rising expectations. But all things considered, they’re right about where they ‘should’ be at the moment. Considering the serious injuries they’ve sustained, I would still rate their performance over the whole season as a modest coaching success.
It’s possible that Holly felt like he had taken the team as far as they could go under him, and he wanted to give them a chance to make the final playoff push with someone else. Perhaps the recent problems generated tension that made his position unsustainable. Perhaps there are other reasons that have little or nothing to do with the performance on the pitch.
But whatever the motivations for the change this week, taking a broad perspective and thinking about his full tenure on the job, there is plenty for Holly to be proud of. Whether or not Sky Blue is able to arrest their decline and make the playoffs this year, they are on far more stable ground than they were when he took on the job.