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The Lowdown: Sky Blue’s subtle but effective culture change

Christy Holly has Sky Blue FC believing--and winning--but he is hardly satisfied (photo courtesy:  Sky Blue FC)

Christy Holly has Sky Blue FC believing–and winning–but he is hardly satisfied (photo courtesy: Sky Blue FC)

When predictions began popping up for the 2016 NWSL season, the one published by Allison McCann and Jay Boice at FiveThirtyEight stood out for its optimistic outlook on Sky Blue FC. McCann picked Sky Blue to finish sixth. Most others—mine included—had them no higher than ninth.

Nearly four months later the New Jersey outfit is turning heads. A third straight win on Saturday combined with recent Red Stars struggles means that Christy Holly’s club is sitting above the red line with a single game left before the Olympic break and just six games remaining in the season.

“I had a huge amount of confidence,” Holly said earlier this week, “that as soon as these players got to know each other on and off the field and developed that chemistry and understood each other’s tendencies that once we got going it would be quite fun to watch.”

Holly wants one thing to be clear though. Fourth, an important place since four teams make the playoffs, is not good enough: “We’re not content with sitting fourth. Someone asked me if I’m happy being in the playoffs. No, I’m not happy to be in the playoff. I’ll only be content if we finish first. Second, third, fourth it’s all the same.”
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That tell-it-like-it-is mentality is a large part of why Holly has things on the up-and-up at a franchise that regularly checks in last in NWSL attendance and has been near the bottom of most players’ wish lists due to a tiny locker room and inconsistent training grounds. It also nearly cost him the head coaching job—or so he thought after his initial meeting with management after Jim Gabarra resigned to take the Washington Spirit job closer to his family.

“I was very honest with the owners,” he said of the interview process which included several meetings, “to the point where I left there after the first meeting thinking I would never get a job with Sky Blue again because I was so honest.”

The meetings were about more than just honesty. Holly asked questions as well. For one he wanted to know what the identity was at the club where he had assisted Gabarra for three seasons including 2013 when they reached the playoffs.

“When I realized that we didn’t have the answers there and then, that was the first thing I though. If I’m going to get involved and do this I want to make sure that everyone coming into this club knows what they’re coming into and has the same motivations as myself. And the big thing, which I’ve said a number of times, is that every single player that is at Sky Blue wants to be at Sky Blue.”

{CURREN: NWSL Week in Review — Sky Blue, Holly defying the odds}

By December it was becoming apparent that Holly was going to be the next head coach at Yurcak Field. For various reasons including Holly going home to Ireland for the holidays the announcement was delayed until just before the draft in January. The timing, in terms of both the announcement as well as the length of the process, may have been a public relations loss for Sky Blue. But culture change was underway.
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Taylor Lytle has been with Sky Blue since the dawn of NWSL. She admits there was concern among the players as the long offseason played out and no one was being announced to replace Gabarra.

“We were all kind of concerned just because we hadn’t heard anything,” Lytle said. “We didn’t hear anything about a coach until about January. I think at that point in time everyone that was going to come back just kind of was like let’s take on this season with a positive attitude regardless of who is our coach. We’re kind of in control of our own destiny a little bit.”

The phrase “everyone that was going to come back” stands out because while Sky Blue was dragging their heels on announcing a coach there was also a mass player exile. Katy Freels took the 2016 season off to spend more time at home. Lindsi Cutshall was advised to sit out the season to rest her body. Brittany Cameron went on loan to Japan and wound up with a contract to remain there. Caitlin Foord elected not to come back for personal reasons that The Equalizer has learned are not related to any dissatisfaction with Sky Blue.

“We definitely faced challenges in the offseason and there is no secret behind that,” Holly said. “Every cloud has a silver lining. The silver lining behind that was just an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start new.”

Two other players left Sky Blue, one noted and one very much under the radar, but the departures of both via trade helped lay some of the groundwork for 2016. One was Chioma Ubogagu, a stretch pick in the 2015 4th round because of her stated desire to play in England. When she desired to return and play for the Dash, Sky Blue traded her rights there for another 4th round pick. On draft day Holly used that pick and Sky Blue’s natural 4th round pick to move up to No. 29 where he was able to draft All-American goalkeeper Caroline Casey.

The other, bigger trade involved Nadia Nadim. The Danish forward had requested a trade and wound up in Portland in a trade that was in the works for some time but not officially announced until the morning of the draft. After a tough negotiation Holly was able to land a flip-flop of 1st round picks which allowed him to draft Raquel Rodriguez at No. 2 overall. The trade also gives Sky Blue the Thorns 1st round pick in 2017 (with Sky Blue’s 2nd round pick heading to Portland and a later round pick going to Sky Blue.)

Grabbing Rodriguez and Casey was only part of Sky Blue’s draft day. In the 2nd round they selected Leah Galton who missed the first month of the season to finish her degree but has vaulted into the Rookie of the Year conversation with her explosive play on the left flank. In the 3rd round it was Erica Skroski who has played all but three minutes, most recently out of position as right back.

“Leah is like a true winger and just wants to take people down the sideline and get crosses off and get shots off,” Lytle said. “She’s aggressive and fast and has a great left foot. Not only is she this amazing soccer player but she’s so funny and fun to be around. Adding her to the team was awesome.”
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Having a roster full of players that are fun to be around is another important part of the revival at Sky Blue. And there is nothing like the veteran of all veterans to set the tone. That of course is Christie Rampone who is the individual most closely associated with Sky Blue since the club sprung up in 2009. Now 41 she continues to be one of the best defenders in the world even though she pulled herself out of consideration for an Olympic spot saying she could no longer handle the training rigors of the international game. Her quasi-retirement from the national team has been Sky Blue’s gain and when Sarah Killion missed last weekend with an injury it left Rampone as the only Sky Blue player to have been on the pitch every minute of the 2016 season.

Holly openly credits Rampone with keeping an inexperienced defensive unit organized and efficient, but she may have put her biggest stamp on the season the first time the players got together.

At the very first meeting of the season, Christie Rampone sat with the Sky Blue rookies. (Photo Copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

At the very first meeting of the season, Christie Rampone sat with the Sky Blue rookies. (Photo Copyright Linehan Photography for The Equalizer)

“We had so many rookies in the room,” recalled Holly who on two recent occasions started five true rookies, winning both times. “Everybody was shy and everybody was nervous. The rookies obviously sit together. I looked down from where I was presenting from and there was Christie sitting right in the middle of the rookie table. It just summed everything up.

“We talk a lot that there’s no egos allowed in our dressing room. When you look at someone of her level and the accomplishments she has and she just blends herself in; as a player you say, ‘If you I be like her and I can rub shoulders with her and I can be like her then I’m going o follow her lead.’ She’s made my job a lot easier.”

It is also not lost on Holly that Rampone has fully invested herself in Sky Blue when her mind could be drifting to thoughts of the first major international tournament she will miss since the 1996 Olymics, or even to retirement.

“It’s huge. The important thing from Christie is that she was able to play this year. She’s just enjoying herself. And she’s probably the most competitive person I’ve ever come across. That in itself sets a culture.”

Lytle credits Holly’s general outlook on soccer for making Sky Blue a more desirous place to play in 2016. “If you watch our games you can see that our team is actually having fun. That’s a big part of when we train and stuff. Obviously we all want to be competitive but we want to enjoy it and have fun and get better. His coaching style brings that out in everyone. We all really want to fight for each other on and off the field.”

Two examples of that fight—one on the field and on off—come to mind. Early in the season a rival coach said Sky Blue was playing for each other moreso than in prior seasons. Told of the comment, Holly said: “That’s great to hear. From my standpoint that’s the best thing you can hear. That is what we want. We have a lot of players that compliment us and make each other better.”

Off the field, when Rodriguez was nominated for an ESPY, Casey organized a GoFundMe to raise money for Rodriguez and her father to attend (the ESPY nomination does not come with transportation to the event, which is held in California). The fund was successful enough that Rodriguez’s teammates surprised her by flying her father into New Jersey to watch a Sky Blue home match before heading to the ESPYs.

“I don’t think it’s possible for me to put into words what that meant to me,” Rodriguez said in an interview conducted prior to both the ESPYs and her father arriving to surprise her. “It’s just amazing. I cannot thank enough every donor but also my teammates and everything they have done for me and my family. It means the world.”

Lytle said the esprit de corps was not necessarily missing in previous seasons but is more of a focus in the Holly regime.

“It was always there. I don’t think we were as open about it maybe and as free. It wasn’t emphasized as much as it is this year.”

Lytle also credits her new coach with creating a system that fits his players instead of falling into the age-old trap of trying to shoehorn players into his own vision of what soccer should be. As if to prove that point, Holly acknowledged using more defensive tactics early in the season in order to build confidence even though, “it is not really my preferred style of soccer.”
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Culture aside it takes good soccer to win matches. Sky Blue opened the season in Seattle against the two-time defending Shield winners who had ever lost on their home field. Few expected the match to be competitive. Yet a bound and determined Sky Blue side grinded out a 2-1 victory that resonated as one of the biggest single upsets in NWSL history and set the tone for Sky Blue’s surprising run.

“We had had a really good preseason and we all had a good feeling going into Seattle,” Lytle said. “We have a bunch of rookies and coming into this league they have such a fresh mentality. They didn’t care who Seattle was. I don’t think it was a surprise to anyone. We were all just so happy because all the work that we put into preseason actually showed in the first game.”

Sky Blue face a daunting trip to Washington this Saturday where they will attempt to beat the Spirit and Gabarra not only for the third time this season but for the second time in eight days. The Olympic break starts on Sunday and ends with a pivotal home match August 27 against the Red Starss—the team currently trailing Sky Blue on the third tiebreaker for the final playoff position and a team Sky Blue has never beaten in NWSL play.

{OLYMPICS: Rapinoe not likely to be ready for opener}

When the Olympics are over, Kelley O’Hara and Sam Kerr should be back and either has the ability to create a dynamic wing force opposite Galton. We can also expect the great question about where to play O’Hara rekindled although for a change it could come from a position of strength rather than deciding which is the best hole to fill. That’s because Erin Simon—an undrafted rookie who took such a shine to Holly’s vision she declined a chance to go to open tryouts with the Pride—has been solid if not spectacular at left back.

Including Saturday there are six games left for Sky Blue to solidify themselves inside the top four. Holly has never approached the season within the context of the 20-match regular season.

“We’ve said all season long there’s not 20 games in the season there’s 22. Everything is relative to where you were, but my own mindset is we want to win everything.”

Attendance

Here are the attendance numbers for NWSL Week 14 plus season totals with comparisons to the same number of home dates in 2015.

SATURDAY
Sky Blue FC – 1,552
Chicago Red Stars – 3,621
Western New York Flash – 3,556
Seattle Reign FC – 5,103

WEEK 14 TOTAL: 13,832
WEEK 14 AVERAGE: 3,458

TEAM AVERAGES AND COMPARISONS

1. Portland Thorns FC – 16,362 (6 games)
2015 average: 15,639
2015 thru 6 games: 13,769

2. Orlando Pride — 9,508 (7 games)

3. Houston Dash – 5,809 (5 games)
2015 average: 6,413
2015 thru 5 games: 4,418

4. Seattle Reign FC – 4,424 (8 games)
2015 average: 4,060
2015 thru 8 games: 3,921

5. Washington Spirit – 3,903 (7 games)
2015 average: 4,087
2015 thru 7 games – 3,663

6. Boston Breakers – 3,684 (6 games)
2015 average: 2,863
2015 thru 6 games: 2,373

7. Western New York Flash – 3,581 (9 games)
2015 average: 2,860
2015 thru 9 games: 2,717

8. FC Kansas City – 3,529 (7 games)
2015 average: 3,091
2015 thru 7 games: 3,262

9. Chicago Red Stars – 3,060 (6 games)
2015 average: 4,210
2015 thru 6 games: 4,827 (includes doubleheader with Fire with announced attendance of 16,017)

10. Sky Blue FC – 1,811 (7 games)
2015 average: 2,189
2015 thru 7 games: 1,653

Free Kicks

Direct

-Old news, but the Red Stars acquired Stephanie McCaffrey on Friday in exchange for two 2nd round picks, an 3rd round pick, a 4th round pick, and an international roster slot, all for the 2017 season. McCaffrey immediately jumped into the 18 and played as a late sub in the Red Stars’ 1-1 draw against the Dash. McCaffrey later indicated she had requested a trade from the Breakers.

Indirect

-My Week 14 Player of the Week ballot: 1) Erin Simon — undrafted rookie enjoyed her best game of the season at left back and was instrumental in keeping Estafania Banini quiet for a majority of the 90 minutes; also added an assist on the only goal of the night; 2) Nicole Barnhart — FC Kansas City’s venerable netminder blew away the league record by making 14 saves, some of them spectacular, to help the holders sneak out of Western New York with three points and some semblance of playoff hopes in tact; 3) Danielle Colaprico — is it time to ask if Colaprico is the best midfielder in NWSL? Scoring the Red Stars goal only served to supplement her standard excellence in defense and distribution

-My hot take on the trade is that the Breakers did well to get so much for a player having a poor season who had asked for a trade. They’ll need to make good on the 2nd rounders and the international spot but the initial trade was solid. Even if McCaffrey gets back on the national team as a Red Star it looked fairly apparent that it was not happening for her in Boston.

{GORDON: McCaffrey debuts, talks trade request | Thoughts from Red Stars-Dash draw}

From the Red Stars perspective, if they can turn McCaffrey into a top striker it will be a good move for them even if it is uncharacteristic of them to unload draft picks (they have never been full on international slots). The brief glimpse on Saturday offered promise but the true test–at least in the short term–will come when McCaffrey partners with Christen Press. The trade may have been a signal that the Red Stars have lost confidence in Sofia Huerta and Jen Hoy being effective secondary scorers behind Press.

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