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2016 NWSL Preview: Sky Blue FC

Christie Rampone, 37, hasn't lost a step, evidenced by last week's stellar road trip.

Christie Rampone might be 40, but her fitness numbers continue to impress.

Equalizer’s NWSL team previews continue today with Sky Blue FC.

Last season (5-8-7, 8th place; missed playoffs): Sky Blue opened the season in a dreadful scoring slump that lasted a dozen games during which they never scored more than once. By the time they began to click it was too little too late and the season ended without a playoff bid for the second year running.

Key Changes: In October, Jim Gabarra stepped down as head coach to accept the same job with the Washington Spirit near his home in Maryland. After a lengthy search, the club named erstwhile assistant Christy Holly as the new field boss. One of Holly’s objectives is to make Sky Blue a more versatile team from top to bottom. Leah Galton from Hofstra could add some scoring depth.

Several familiar faces won’t be back though. Katy Freels has started the last 39 Sky Blue matches but elected to take the season off to spend more time at home. Likewise Lindsi Cutshall recently announced she was sitting out the season to deal with unspecified injury concerns (Cutshall’s injuries will not require surgery.) Also gone are Brittany Cameron, who signed to play in Japan, and Nadia Nadim who was traded to Portland the morning of the draft.

The big additions are from the draft. The Nadim trade positioned Sky Blue to grab Hermann Trophy winner Racquel Rodriguez. They later picked Erica Skroski who played her college career at Yurcak Field helping Rutgers put out the best defense in the country last fall.

There could be one more signing on the way but there were more departures than arrivals in New Jersey this offseason.

{MORE: 2016 Chicago Red Stars preview}

Strengths: Asked about Christie Rampone being a wild card at age 40 and exiting knee surgery, Holly retorted: “I see her as the complete opposite of a wild card; more of a golden card.”

Time is running out on Rampone’s chances to play for the United States at the Olympic this summer. She remains in the mix despite having not been with the team so far in 2016. Holly though, has no reservations about his captain’s health and abilities.

“She doesn’t skip a beat. She’s unbelievable,” Holly said. “They’re always trying to tame her a little bit. She hit the ground the first day of preseason and she’s been at every practice and taken part in every game. Even through the physical tests she’s producing numbers way beyond where she should be. From my standpoint that’s exciting.

“She will surprise a lot of people this season as to what she can still do.”

With Rampone a given to be in the XI each week, Holly has his options open in terms of a partner. CoCo Goodson played next to Rampone in 2013 and parts of 2014 and Kristin Grubka spent time in central defense as a rookie last season. This year’s rookie Skroski is also in the mix for playing time.

“We’re quite fortunate in that position,” Holly said. “We’re a little bit spoiled in that position. The partner next to Christie is very much up for grabs. Everyine is getting a chance to throw their name in the hat.

On Skroski the coach said: “(She)’s come in a little under the radar. From what I’ve seen in preseason and what I knew of her prior in college, she’s a pretty special player and she’s got a great future ahead of her.”

Areas of Development: Cameron’s departure left Sky Blue razor thin at goalkeeper, at least on the experience spectrum. Caroline Stanley was signed just as preseason opened and her single, 90-minute appearance for the Reign last summer stands as the only professional experience on the club. First-team All American Caroline Casey, the 29th pick in the 2016 draft, is the other keeper.

“They may lack in experience but they don’t lack in ambition, drive and ability,” Holly said of his keepers. “When you pair that altogether I feel really good about it.”

Holly added that the Carolines—who unbeknownst to the club have known each other since they were teens—are in an open competition to see who gets the nod when the season opens in Seattle. Whoever wins the job won’t necessarily be anointed No. 1 for the season, but at the same time the coach does not want his starting keeper to be looking over her shoulder after every mistake.

“Every day is a chance to claim that no. 1 but I certainly wouldn’t be the type of coach to put a goalkeeper (in a position) where she makes a mistake and she’s straight out. Once they’ve won the no. 1 spot you have to keep a little bit of faith in them regardless of mistakes. If something prolongs then yes, and the backup is right there.”

Other causes for concern are that Rodriguez is just now set to arrive in camp after an unanticipated Visa holdup and the dynamic Australians Caitlin Foord and Sam Kerr are also absent thus far. Once Foord and Kerr arrive they will likely be shuttling in and out for Olympic preparation, the final touches of which have not been finalized by Australia. Depth behind them could be an issue as well.

Holly has said he is not concerned about the late arrival of Rodriguez or the Australians, all three of whom will bring World Cup experience when they arrive.

Point of Interest: There won’t be many folks that pick Sky Blue to occupy one of the league’s four playoff spots come the end of September. Holly though, is confident his side is good enough to become one of the best in NWSL right now.

“We have players in every position at this point,” he said. “I have full faith and full confidence. There’s a real good vibe around the team.”

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