Sky Blue FC was a study in contradictions in 2016. They came out with a big win over the Seattle Reign at Memorial Stadium before a series of draws and losses that left them 2-3-2 by the end of May. Finishing in 7th place with a record of 7-8-5was obviously not what the team had in mind on opening day in 2016. But the team was able to grow during their first year under Head Coach Christy Holly in a way that flies partly under the radar given their 7th place finish. Add in some strong draft picks in the 2017 draft and the fifth season is pretty positive for the New Jersey team.
The Sky Blue attack underwent some key upgrades during the off-season. First, Sky Blue welcomes midfielder Daphne Corboz back to their team after a stint in England where she played for Manchester City Women. The Georgetown Hoya was a top attacking player in college and actually drafted by SBFC in the 2015 NWSL College Draft. After gaining considerable experience in England, Corboz could be in for a big season as she makes her NWSL debut.
In a move some fans have been dying to see, US National Team defender Kelley O’Hara is finally being listed at forward on the Sky Blue roster. A top-scorer at Stanford, O’Hara will be able to step in and fill gaps in the defense when called upon, but having her attention more focused on the attack in 2017 is a big win for the team. While O’Hara is an accomplished defender, having won an Olympic gold as a starting left back for the USWNT, her talents have always lent themselves more toward the attack. With two first round draft picks added to the defense O’Hara is finally able to be moved higher up the pitch.
Then there’s Raquel Rodriguez, the sophomore star fresh off her 2016 NWSL Rookie of the Year award, who has the benefit of a full season under her belt. The young midfielder and Costa Rican international’s experience, both in the league and in international play, can only benefit the New Jersey team that came in closer to the bottom than anyone should be comfortable with. During the last international break before the NWSL season kicks off, Rodriguez will be with her national team in Japan. If the Japan WNT isn’t a great warm up for the NWSL season, I’m not sure what is. Her ability to keep on her feet and not be pushed off the ball is something from 2016 I am hoping to see improved in 2017. Some of that is adapting from a college game to the pros. If she can improve upon her 2016 play she could be a staple in the midfield for seasons to come.
Perhaps the biggest element in Sky Blue’s 2017 attacking side is a healthy Sam Kerr. After the season Kerr had in the W-League during the NWSL’s off-season, it isn’t hard to see why she is regarded as one of the best forwards in the world with the ability to score from nearly anywhere and a fearless approach to taking shots. Her time in the W-League showed that she is finally fully fit and healthy after some foot issues over the last year or so, something that should strike fear into the hearts of defenders all over the NWSL. If she can stay healthy for the season, Kerr will likely be in the running for the NWSL Golden Boot with the way she managed five goals in only nine games while battling back from injury in 2016.
And still, these are just four of the attacking players Holly will have to pick from when putting together his XI. Sarah Killion, Taylor Lytle, Nikki Stanton, Kim DeCesare, Leah Galton, Maya Hayes, and Tasha Kai–when she returns–could all see significant playing time, among others.
One of the issues that plagued Sky Blue the most in 2016 was the way they continued to give up easy goals. And their lack of defensive cohesion meant that their attacking play could never quite count on having the breathing room necessary at times to make plays and find the net.
But this year, Sky Blue’s back five will have a drastically different look. To start, Kristen Grubka is no longer with the team and Kelley O’Hara will be playing as a forward. The two holes will likely be filled with draft picks Mandy Freeman and Kayla Mills. With a backline composed of Mills, Rampone, Freeman, and Skroski, Sky Blue has a much better chance of staying in the game and giving the attack help when needed.
Both Freeman and Mills won a NCAA title in 2016 with USC before being drafted to Sky Blue. Freeman has the ability to step into the midfield if needed to give Holly some flexibility in terms of depth while Mills is a top defender who is able to get forward when needed and help on the attack. Skroski had a very nice 2016, playing in 20 games and scoring once. I’ve written extensively on Rampone’s ability in the past and expect her to challenge, if not flat out win, NWSL Defender of the Year for 2017. Domi Richardson and Erin Simon will be the likely subs on defense leaving the team a bit thin there, which makes it likely that Holly will need O’Hara to step in if injuries happen. But on paper, the backline seems primed for success this year. The only question there seems to be how thin they are if the injury bug hits.
The goalkeeping situation looks better in 2017 than it did in 2016. Kailen Sheridan, a Canadian international, was drafted by the team and made a Federation player, while Caroline Casey is back with the team for her sophomore season. Additionally, Caroline Stanley is no longer with the team.
In my estimation, Sheridan will win the goalkeeper battle. Sheridan has some limited international experience with Canada and has demonstrated good technique and solid skill both at the international level and the collegiate level, where she played for Clemson. Honestly, she gives Sky Blue what might be their best option since Brittany Cameron left after 2015. Casey, while serving as the backup so far this preseason, looks to have improved over her 2016 form. I don’t expect the goalkeeping fight to be a long one but for the first few games, there might be a little back and forth between the two keepers.
Though admittedly biased, someone who follows the team as closely as Jen Muller – one of the leaders of Sky Blue’s Cloud 9 supporter group – has noticed a change from 2016 to 2017:
“I’m much more optimistic at this point as opposed to this time last year. With a full year under his belt, Holly has been able to continue the culture shift in and around the club. It’s obviously still a young team and there are some question marks, but the veteran leadership of Christie and Kelley combined with the talent that’s returning (plus off-season pickup Corboz) and a strong draft class, I think they have a legitimate shot at making a run for a playoff spot.”
Sky Blue is a team trying to build a brand new culture into their franchise. And while there is no statistic that can measure heart, no metric that can quantify how willing a player is to play for the person next to them, Coach Christy Holly is using his own measures to find a team that looks to leave nothing on the pitch and rallies around a sense of pride in each other’s accomplishments.
It’s hard to predict where SBFC will land come the end of the season this year. Harder than most because while they had turn over, they didn’t add or lose a ton of players. Additionally, the players they kept have suffered from cold streaks in the past. They could click and take off, landing themselves in the playoffs and shocking those who have decidedly lackluster expectations. Or they could persist as they have for the last few seasons, good but not great, able to hang with better-placed teams to a point but giving up a goal or two due to unforced errors and mental lapses.
For all the question marks with the team, for all the doubts as you might have and the team’s history of consistent effort that just quite misses the final mark, I only have one thing left to say.
They’re gonna be good, just trust me.
2017 Sky Blue FC
GOALKEEPERS (2): Caroline Casey, Kailen Sheridan (FED-CAN)
DEFENDERS (6): Mandy Freeman, Kayla Mills, Christie Rampone, Domi Richardson, Erin Simon, Erica Skroski
MIDFIELDERS (6): Daphne Corboz, Sarah Killion, Taylor Lytle, Raquel Rodriguez (INTL-CRC), Nikki Stanton, Madison Tiernan
FORWARDS (7): Kim DeCesare, Leah Galton (INTL-ENG), Maya Hayes, Tasha Kai (OOM, D45), Sam Kerr (INTL-AUS), McKenzie Meehan, Kelley O’Hara (FED-USA)