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2018 NWSL Team Preview: New year, new team for Sky Blue FC

Janine Beckie is one of many new additions to the Sky Blue squad. (photo copyright Jeffrey Auger, courtesy of Sky Blue FC)

Sky Blue FC
2017:  10-11-3 (6th place)
Head Coach: Denise Reddy (1st season with club)
Home Ground: Yurcak Field

’17 in Review:  Sky Blue FC suffered two major blows part way through the season, turning their 2017 upside down. In August, Christy Holly resigned as head coach after less than two seasons at the helm of Sky Blue. No official interim coach was named in his stead as the team opted instead to let Holly’s four assistant coaches lead the team throughout the rest of the season. Shortly after Holly departed the team, longtime captain and defender Christie Pearce was put on the season-ending injury list following an accumulation of injuries that occurred throughout the course of the season. The team was suddenly without their head coach, captain, and most veteran player, enough to send any team—especially one as young and inexperienced as Sky Blue—reeling.

But, if you ask fans what they remember most about last season, most of them will give you the same answer: Sam Kerr. Kerr’s explosive 2017 performance is probably the only thing that could have eclipsed the off-field drama that surrounded the team in the second half of the season. But there she was, scoring goals and shattering records left and right, and by season’s end she had racked up 17 goals on the year, enough for a new NWSL single-season goals record, league MVP, and the Golden Boot.

Despite Kerr’s best point-stealing efforts—her late-game goal-scoring heroics salvaged many a point for Sky Blue over the course of the season—Sky Blue fell short of the playoffs by six points, finishing out the season in sixth place. If Sky Blue had crashed and burned at the end of the season, few would have blamed them. Instead, they banded together to grind out results for a not-too-shabby, middle-of-the-table finish.

What’s New: “Just looking at the team this year, we have a brand new coaching staff, we only have a few coaches returning, and almost half the team is new,” second-year goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan said. “We’re basically starting over again. I almost feel as if I’m coming in for the first time again as a rookie.”

As Sheridan said, the 2018 version of Sky Blue looks very different from last year’s version. Denise Reddy was named Holly’s successor back in November, and she immediately got to work rebuilding Sky Blue from the ground up.

Gone are Kerr and Nikki Stanton, traded to Chicago for Jen Hoy in a three-team blockbuster deal that also brought Carli Lloyd and Janine Beckie to New Jersey. Gone are Kelley O’Hara and Taylor Lytle, traded to Utah in return for Shea Groom and Christina Gibbons. And gone is any lingering hope of once again seeing Caitlin Foord in a Sky Blue kit, traded to Portland by way of Seattle in return for Katie Johnson and Rebekah Stott.

Other new Sky Blue additions include Brazilian midfielder Thaisa Moreno, who Reddy signed one month before selecting West Virginia standouts Michaela Abam and Amandine Pierre-Louis in the NWSL College Draft. Savannah McCaskill, Adrianna Leon, and Amanda Frisbie also joined the club by way of the Boston Breakers via January’s dispersal draft.

If things click: If Sky Blue finishes in the bottom third of the table, few people will likely hold it against them. They’re a team in transition, and 2018 could easily be written off as a rebuilding year if they do. But Sky Blue has a history of clawing their way to the middle of the table even when the cards seems stacked against them.

“At the end of the day, we’re a lot of new players, we’re a new coaching staff, and it’s going to take time,” Reddy said. “There were a lot of good things to happen [in Sky Blue’s 6-0 win against St. John’s], but for them to happen consistently, it’s going to take time.”

Luckily for them, Sky Blue has a little more time before officially kicking off the 2018 season, as they were the odd man out for opening weekend, receiving the league’s first bye. That means they essentially have an extra week with a full roster—something they, and almost every team, lacked for most of preseason as internationals came and went from national team camps—to hammer out any kinks in their system before playing their season opener on the road against the North Carolina Courage on March 31.

“It [is] kind of an extra week of preseason. I don’t think it can hurt in the long run,” Reddy said. “It might not be so much beneficial for the first or second game, but in the long run, I think it will be.”

But it won’t be an easy road for Sky Blue, especially at the front end of their schedule. Their bye weekend will cause them to enter the 2018 season already behind in points, and they face both the Courage and the Seattle Reign twice and the Chicago Red Stars once in their first six games. Hard tests for a team as new as Sky Blue.

But despite the newness of the team, it’s also a team with a lot of talent, something Sheridan was quick to point out.

“Everything has just been taken up a notch, and the girls have accepted the challenge and honestly proven that this is going to be a battle this year. Not against everyone else, but within the team. There is so much talent and so much ability, I think it’s going to be so hard for Denise [to make weekly lineup decisions]. I don’t want her job,” Sheridan laughed.

Although defense is still an area of concern for Sky Blue, they do have a lot to be excited about in the attack. There’s Beckie, a player with a wealth of potential who, if Reddy can bring out the level of play she’s displayed with Canada, could be especially dangerous to opposing defenses. Hoy remains one of the most underrated players in the league and proof that even fourth-round draft picks can be invaluable to a team, and Katie Johnson was stellar off the bench for Seattle last season.

Although they are without the scoring prowess of Kerr, they have added the likes of rookie Savannah McCaskill, a two-time SEC Offensive Player of the Year who has recently impressed at the senior national team level, and Adriana Leon, who was tied for 11th in goals scored in the league last season with six.

In their first preseason match together last weekend, the attacking duo partnered nicely to create—and more importantly, finish—multiple opportunities on goal. McCaskill’s speed allowed her to create space, while her tough play allowed her to fight to get off a cross or shot. That, combined with Leon’s powerful shooting and finishing ability, could result in a surprisingly potent attack for the New Jersey-based team, especially with veteran midfielder Carli Lloyd behind them in the midfield feeding them balls.

“We have an incredible amount of talent up in the front, and it’s going to be great to see them just going out there and enjoying it and putting the ball in the back of the net,” Sheridan said. “I also think you’re going to see a lot of goals.”

Speaking of Lloyd, not only does she bring her commanding presence in the midfield, but she also brings something the team was lacking before she joined the team: veteran leadership. Reddy emphasized the importance of that leadership on a team like Sky Blue.

“I coached her in Chicago a while back, so she’s definitely matured as both a player and a person, and her leadership and her calm—she’s been in most situations—and understanding, being able to say, ‘Okay, this is what we need. This is what we’re looking for out there,’ and being able to kind of lead. We do have a very young team, so I think that’s huge in itself,” she said.

But what Reddy is focused on right now is the bigger picture. She’s crafting the team to play to her philosophy, building them into a unit that is strong on both sides of the ball.

“I would love to establish a playing style where people say, ‘This is the way they play.’ Not being able to pick it apart, but saying, ‘They have a playing style. They have a defensive base. They’re very, very hard to play against and extremely dangerous in the attack,’” she said.

As for Sheridan, she knows there’s a lot of work ahead for Sky Blue, but she’s confident in her team and what they are capable of this year.

“I am excited because I know that I’m in an even more incredible group of women, and I can’t wait to go out there and show the U.S. and the world what we have,” she said.

“It’s just so exciting because I feel like nobody’s seen us yet. We’re a new up-and-coming thing and we’re something to be reckoned with. We’re a force, and I just don’t think people are prepared for us.”

What the opponents think

The Equalizer has asked members of NWSL coaching staffs to comment on opposition clubs around the league. They were all promised anonymity.

“Denise has done a terrific job in recruiting in players that I think will really do well for Sky Blue. What I think Denise has done is that she’s signed players that are really suited for Sky Blue and how they like them to play.”


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