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Allison’s Friday Favorites: Sky Blue FC leads NWSL to century mark

Players celebrate a Sam Kerr goal during Sky Blue FC's 100th regular-season game. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Players celebrate a Sam Kerr goal during Sky Blue FC’s 100th regular-season game. (photo copyright Katie Cahalin for The Equalizer)

Last Saturday, Sky Blue FC played one of the craziest games in NWSL history. Down two goals to nil late into the second half, the team, led by Australian striker Sam Kerr, surged to an improbable comeback win over FC Kansas City. Sky Blue’s thrilling 3-2 win was historic for a number of reasons: Kerr’s hat trick was the first in WPS or NWSL history at Yurcak Field, her third goal set Sky Blue’s single-season scoring record, and her second saw her beat the all-time NWSL goals record. Not only that, but her third goal, the game winner, tied her for the lead in this season’s Golden Boot race.

But the game is historic for a much bigger reason. The game was Sky Blue’s 100th regular season match, making it the first ever American professional women’s soccer team to hit the century mark.

Although the NWSL was formed after the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), both of those leagues folded after only three seasons, ending well before their clubs could hit the 100-game milestone. Last Saturday marks the first time a pro WoSo league in this country has survived long enough for teams, and soon players, to hit the regular-season century mark. Over the next two weekends, each of the original eight NWSL clubs will also play their 100th games.

Over the past five seasons, the league has created some extremely memorable moments for fans of every team. Seattle became the NWSL’s version of Drake, starting at the bottom and steadily climbing to win back-to-back Shields, only to be denied in the NWSL Final each time by FC Kansas City. In the process, the Portland-Seattle rivalry become one of the fiercest in women’s soccer, and each edition of the Cascadia Clash brings nothing but high-octane excitement to the field.

International players have come and gone while on national team duty, bringing back Olympic medals and World Cup trophies with them. In their absences, the league was sustained by the likes of Kealia Ohai, Lynn Williams and Jess Fishlock, all of whom have become household names among WoSo fans since. Crystal Dunn, notoriously left off the USWNT’s World Cup roster, used that disappointment to fuel her Golden Boot and MVP season for the Spirit, resulting in a regular spot with the national team in the years since.

The Houston Dash and Orlando Pride joined the league as expansion teams, and the Pride made history in each of its first two seasons by breaking the league attendance record and bringing the biggest player in the women’s game, Marta, to the NWSL. The Western New York Flash won the NWSL Championship in dramatic fashion, only to be sold and relocated months later. Now the Courage continue where the Flash left off, sitting at the top of the table and challenging teams like Sky Blue, currently sitting in third, to try to unseat them.

“It’s pretty cool, you know? It’s been exciting to see the NWSL continue on past that kind of doomed third year, and it’s nice to have been with one team this entire time and kind of feel that allegiance to a club and to Jersey,” Sky Blue FC defender Kelley O’Hara told The Equalizer.

O’Hara was one of Sky Blue’s NWSL-era founding players and is now, along with defender Christie Pearce and midfielder Taylor Lytle (both of whom were involved with the team during its WPS days), one of only three players remaining from that 2013 squad. For them, having been with the team since its start made being a part of its 100th game even more special, especially considering everything the team and league have had to overcome to get to this point. 

“Seeing Sky Blue reach the 100th game was amazing,” Lytle said. “All of that stuff that we have been fighting for within our own team and within the league is worth it because you’re seeing it actually happen in real life. I think that that’s basically where every team is in the league. That’s why the league can survive is because we have a lot of women who want it to survive, we’re all fighting for the same fight. We’re fighting for the girls younger than us to have something to look up to.”

No one in the league knows about that better than Pearce, the only active player to have played in every season of U.S. professional soccer and a member of the 1999 World Cup-winning team that forever changed the course of women’s soccer in the U.S. Besides instilling a love of the women’s game in the heart’s of the nation’s women and children–myself included–they also created the first women’s professional league, WUSA. Unlike today’s rookies, when Pearce graduated from college, a future in professional soccer, especially one that has spanned two decades, seemed unlikely.

“You know, growing up and playing multiple sports and going to college and playing two sports, I never envisioned myself playing at a professional level, nevertheless playing until I’m 42, but I’ve been enjoying it and loving it and still can’t believe that I’ve had this lifestyle and this career.”

Thanks to players like Pearce, more and more female athletes are able to make the sport they love their careers. The NWSL is now midway through its unprecedented fifth season, and thankfully it doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon. For the first time ever, rookies who declared for the draft were doing so for the same professional league that existed when they entered college. As a result, O’Hara has seen the quality of rookies entering the league improve with each passing season.

“I think that if you’re a freshman in college now, you hopefully have something to look forward to and you can say, ‘My goal is to not only win a championship with my school, but to be one of the top drafted players out of my class,’ so it gives players something to kind of strive on for, push on for beyond college.”

Pearce echoed O’Hara’s sentiments, saying, “I think they’re coming in and stepping up and really being committed and wanting to push themselves and grow because obviously at this level, you have to be all in, because what’s next? This is the top of the level besides the national team.”

All three players admitted that, while the NWSL still has room for improvement, it has already come a long way since its first season. Although some of the early hardships of the league caused many of its original players to leave for more lucrative careers elsewhere, new sponsors and the Lifetime broadcast deal have made it easier for players to stick around. Those improvements make players like Lytle, who have been around since the very beginning, feel kind of like pioneers, paving the way for those who have since joined Sky Blue’s and the NWSL’s ranks.

“I think that every year we’re all pretty excited because this league keeps growing,” Lytle said. “For me, it’s always been such a big honor to be on a team from the beginning of this league and I feel like all of us kind of take pride in that we’ve all been on the same team for the last four seasons, five seasons including this one.”

Pearce said she is extremely grateful to have a pro team in her home state, allowing her to continue playing longer than she might have otherwise. But for O’Hara and Lytle, natives of Georgia and New Mexico respectively, the ties to Sky Blue that have been created over the last five years are no less strong.

“I don’t know if some of the other girls maybe take it for granted, but for me it’s been really cool to just know that I have something to come back to every year and that I have something to work towards and we have this goal of winning a championship and feeling an allegiance to a team,” O’Hara said.

“I really enjoy the fact that this feels like my home, and it’s good to play for it.”

Allison’s Friday Favorites will feature positive, encouraging or otherwise uplifting stories from around the world of WoSo every week. See something you think would be a good addition to Friday Favorites? Feel free to tweet it to me (@allibecc). All of the columns can be found here

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