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The Lowdown: Sky Blue looks for all-points improvement

Sky Blue FC hopes a new training ground will help stabilize the franchise's off-field fortunes

Sky Blue FC’s recent announcement about a new training facility may not have generated headlines around NWSL, but it could turn out to be a significant development for the New Jersey club.  After years of nomadic training existence, the 2009 WPS champions will call Georgian Court University in Lakewood, N.J., their permanent training ground.  The facility is replete with three grass fields, a weight room and locker rooms with showers, all at the disposal of Sky Blue players.

“This is a tremendous improvement,” Tony Novo, who became the club’s general manager in November, said.  “They pretty much have opened the door for us.

“A lot of the players were unhappy with the training facilities last year.  I think now that we’ve finalized our commitment to train at Georgian Court University that has changed a lot of people’s perspectives about wanting to play at Sky Blue—for the better.  Our training facility this year will be second to none.”

The club ran at or near the top of the table for much of last season before losing a semifinal match at Western New York, but they took some hits off the field.  After going dormant in 2012 when no top flight league operated Sky Blue struggled to attract fans to Yurcak Field.  And just before hiring Novo, owner Thomas Hofstetter had a lengthy courtship with Red Bull that ultimately failed to produce a deal to merge the clubs or even create a working agreement.

“You have to remember last year was a rebuilding year after taking 2012 off,” Novo said.  “(This year) I know that we’ve done a much better job reaching out to our former season ticket holders and local youth soccer organizations.  We’ll be making some announcements in the near future on that.”

There has been no formal announcement about the team returning to Yurcak Field for home matches but Novo gave no indication that would not be the case.

“There is no better grass surface in our league,” Novo said.

As for attendance, Novo expects what he calls “tremendous improvement” over last season’s average of 1,677.  That included a high-water mark of 3,002 for the June 22 match against the Thorns.  Half of the league averaged more than that and the Dash look to be well on their way to being a top-three attendance club.  Novo did not provide a specific attendance goal for 2014 but reiterated that the decision to operate Sky Blue in 2013 was last minute.

As for the on-field product the club lost Brittany Bock and Danesha Adams in the Expansion Draft, but kept their defense intact.  That includes both goalkeepers, U.S. allocation Jill Loyden and Brittany Cameron who ran with the chance to start when Loyden broke her hand before the start of last season.

“We are in a good position with two No. 1 goalkeepers that have developed a healthy working relationship,” head coach Jim Gabarra said.  The coach added that the expansion draft was “painful as usual” but that he was pleased to have retained most of his defensive depth.

“That being said,” Gabarra added, “Bock is a top-level defensive midfielder that we will miss.”

Sky Blue surprised some people by exposing Kendall Johnson while protecting Lindsee Lisonbee-Cutshall.  Cutshall was the 4th overall pick in the 2013 draft but was late to join the team full-time and later picked up an injury.  “The Cutshall or Johnson decision was one of the toughest,” Gabarra acknowledged.  “Cutshall was our 1st Round pick last year and we expect more from her this season.”  Once the Dash selected Bock, Sky Blue made the Cutshall/Johnson issue moot by pulling back Johnson.

Offseason acquisitions include defender Camille Levin as a discovery player and Maya Hayes and Haley Haagsma as the top two picks on draft day.  “Getting Maya Hayes gives us more pace up front and she has scored goals consistently in college and at the youth national team level,” Gabarra said of the Penn State product.  “Haley Haagsma comes from Texas Tech and Tom Stone has always done a great job developing players.”

Gabarra anticipates Haagsma adding even more depth to Sky Blue’s defensive presence.  He also gives 3rd and 4th Round picks Michelle Pao and Elizabeth Eddy great chances of making the roster.

If things go well on the field, Gabarra will help Novo achieve one of three goals for the team in 2014—winning the NWSL Championship.  The others are improvement at the gate and an increase in sponsorship revenue.

“Jim Gabarra and I are going to jokingly argue about this all day long.  I’m not going to say that should be two or three or one (on the list of 2014 objectives), but from a front office standpoint, winning a championship helps those other two factors.”

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