More so than ever, there’s an air of optimism in New Jersey.
Sky Blue FC missed the playoffs in 2014 after nearly pulling off the most miraculous of late-season surges. That came a year after the club qualified for the inaugural National Women’s Soccer League playoffs, but never really had a shot against the Western New York Flash in a road semifinal game thanks in large part due to injuries.
This season, though, Sky Blue FC hopes that everything will click. And the presence alone of forward Nadia Nadim for a full season has brought all sorts of anticipation, however unrealistically high. Last year she scored seven goals in six matches toward the end of the season.
Whether or not success will translate on the field could largely boil down to chemistry and, as always, scoring. World Cup absences are also concerning for Sky Blue.
Nadim is sort of an addition, if for no other reason than she will be with the team for the entire season. Prevailing wisdom says that if she were with Sky Blue FC for all of 2014, the team would have made the playoffs. That theory gets tested this year. Don’t overlook how big a loss Sophie Schmidt is, however. Schmidt would have missed significant time anyway due to the World Cup, but the Canadian midfielder was in many ways a catalyst for Sky Blue, although she was more productive in 2013, scoring seven goals. CoCo Goodson’s retirement leaves a void on the back line which rookie Kristin Grubka will help fill. Head coach Jim Gabarra is very high on former UCLA midfielder Sarah Killion, the No. 2 overall pick in January’s draft. Killion will immediately step into a big role for Sky Blue FC. Sam Kerr is a major addition if she stays long-term, but her impact this season will not be as great due to the World Cup.
Nadim, as mentioned, will be crucial to Sky Blue FC’s success, but Hayes will also need to step up. The chemistry between those two and Katy Freels is something that all three know is essential to a winning formula in New Jersey.
“I hope to get (back to) the game we had — me, Katy, Maya — starting that again. I think we had a good connection there,” Nadim said. “That would be awesome. If it’s the same as last time then I’m pretty sure that we are going to affect games by creating a lot of chances and scoring goals.”
Freels has shown moments of being a game-changing central midfielder but hasn’t yet strung that consistently enough. With Schmidt out of the picture, Freels is truly the commander in the middle who will need to take charge alongside Killion.
World Cup Worries
Sky Blue FC will lose a significant amount of talent to the World Cup: USA’s Christie Rampone and Kelley O’Hara, Mexico’s Monica Ocampo and Australia’s Caitlin Foord and Kerr. Expect Grubka and Lindsi Cutshall to pair at center back when Rampone is gone. Foord and Kerr — who are both Australia teammates and best friends, which prompted the offseason acquisition of Kerr — could prove to be the most dynamic partnership in the league (certainly the fastest) when they finally arrive. But the wait will be long, an potentially costly. Like Foord, O’Hara is versatile and can help anywhere on the field. Ocampo’s absence in the first half of the season is particularly concerning for a Sky Blue team that historically has struggled to score, putting more pressure on Nadim and second-year forward Maya Hayes.
All nine teams have to deal with World Cup absences, but some, like the Boston Breakers and Western New York Flash, will be minimally impacted. Sky Blue FC will be without a talented core of World Cup players until some time in July, which makes this team one that is built for a better second half of the season. But there are plenty of question marks, from Brittany Cameron needing to be solid in net, to the relatively young back line (sans internationals) in front of her and the attacking pieces that need to come together. If Sky Blue can find that chemistry and string together early results, it could set the club up nicely for a playoff push in the second half of the season.
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