CARY, N.C. — New faces, new coach, new philosophy. The 2018 version of Sky Blue FC bears little resemblance to last year’s team that finished sixth in the NWSL with a 10-11-3 record.
When the team came to Cary, N.C, for its season-opener against the North Carolina Courage Saturday, the starting lineup featured just two players who started the 2017 season finale – Erica Skroski and Mandy Freeman.
Gone are Sam Kerr and Kelley O’Hara, replaced by a herd of newcomers led by Carli Lloyd, rookie Savannah McCaskill and NWSL veterans like Katie Johnson, Christina Gibbons, and Janine Beckie.
“I love the group,” said head coach Denise Reddy, the former Washington Spirit assistant who took over at Sky Blue in November of last year. “It’s just going to be a process.”
The process appeared to be ahead of schedule in the first half against the Courage, who would need 92 minutes to get a 1-0 win. Despite the loss, there were a whole lot of positives the team could take away from their first game of 2018.
“There’s a new philosophy, a lot of new players, and obviously, this was our first game of the season,” said Lloyd, who was acquired in a blockbuster trade that sent Kerr to Chicago. “But the first part of the first half, were really stuck to our game plan. We were playing two-touch, and there were some good things going on.”
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At the opening whistle, Sky Blue immediately put the defending regular-season champs under pressure and looked like a seasoned unit for the first 30 minutes.
“We had a really good first half,” said Reddy. “I was happy with the way we were knocking the ball around and making them play defense. Those long stretches (of possession) are next level for us. We have to be able to do that throughout the game.”
Predictably for a team with so many new pieces, Sky Blue could not maintain the possession, pressure or consistency needed against a team as athletic and cohesive as the Courage.
“We lost our rhythm a little bit in the second half, and we found ourselves mostly defending,” said Reddy. “We want to have more of the ball than we did. It was kind of one pass, two passes, defend.
“It’s not the easiest thing to come down to North Carolina and play. The majority of their team came back (from last year). Everyone knows the system and their role. It made it difficult for us to come home with points, even though we came close.”
Reddy’s group came as close as you can get to bringing a point back to New Jersey. Led by Lynn Williams and Crystal Dunn, the Courage had a 23-3 advantage in shots. But the Sky Blue backline stayed calm and organized under the barrage of North Carolina attempts.
“It wasn’t easy to break that back four down,” said Courage Coach Paul Riley. “Their back four was the width of the 18.”
Sky Blue was two minutes away from going home with a point, when Jessica McDonald ran onto an inch-perfect pass from Jae Hinkle, touched it around goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, and knocked home the only goal of the game.
Next is the international break, then the home-opener against Seattle on April 15. The Courage game, while a loss, served as some positive reinforcement for Sky Blue and a building block for Game Two.
“I’m excited,” said Lloyd who will certainly benefit now that fellow midfielder Raquel Rodriguez has returned after an excused absence. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. We have to stay true to the game plan and just keep getting better and better each week. It’s just going to take time. We have to work each day and be patient and keep building.’
Shea Groom, acquired in the O’Hara trade, agrees.
“With that many trades and Denise coming in and trying to build a new team, it’s going to take time,” she said. “I thought we had moments today. We were in it. I think if you were watching the first half, you were saying ‘Sky Blue is in this.’
“We are confident in our identity, we’re confident in what Denise is trying to build and the players we have on the field. It’s going to be really good.”
The biggest question remaining is where the goals will come from. Kerr led the league with 17 last year. Sarah Killion and Maya Hayes had five. But offense is generally the last part to gel. As Reddy and her players said, it’s a process.
“I’m really excited,” said Lloyd. “I love Denise’s philosophy, her coaching style, her training sessions. I’m just eating it up. As long as we keep building and getting better, I think we can be a really, really good team.”
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