What if? It’s the question that probably haunted Sky Blue FC through the offseason. What if Jim Gabarra’s side hadn’t been so conservative last offseason and had added a few more pieces of quality? What if players like Hayley Haagsma and Taylor Lytle hadn’t missed most or all of the season with injury? What if they had Nadia Nadim at the start of the season? What if the season had lasted just a few games more?
The last question is easy to answer: Sky Blue FC would’ve likely made the playoffs. Gabarra’s side finished the year on fire, winning their last five matches and nearly pulling off the greatest escape. In fact, the only side SBFC lost to after June 8 was the eventual league champions, FC Kansas City. The way the club finished last season has infused an optimism here that hasn’t been seen in a long time.
So has securing Nadim on a permanent deal. And bringing in highly touted rookies Sarah Killion and Kristin Grubka. And trading for Samantha Kerr. And keeping much of the core from last year’s team together. The goal of a title is presumably within their grasp if all goes right. But this is also the most expectation associated with SBFC, perhaps ever. How they handle that pressure will define SBFC’s season.
Jim Gabarra’s been the man in the middle after tasting glory when he won the WUSA title with the Washington Freedom over a decade ago. His Freedom clubs since and SBFC sides have never been bad but have never been spectacular. It’s a record that has seen Gabarra’s sides in the playoffs more often than not but struggle to make significant process once there. For a side that added aggressively in the offseason, the status quo probably won’t be acceptable. Gabarra knows that anything less than the playoffs this season will be seen as a major disappointment, and this might be the most pressure he’s faced as a boss in a long, long time.
Much of the tactical intrigue in the past year has centered around Kelley O’Hara and Caitlin Foord on the flanks. The debate over whether to play them as wingers up front or as full-backs bombing forward has been ceaseless but finally looks to be settled as the new season begins. O’Hara moving into the attack to support Nadia Nadim was just the tonic the offense needed, and given the trust that Cami Levin seems to have helped build at left-back, it’s hard envisioning O’Hara back on defense here anytime soon. Foord, however, will probably be on defense for the foreseeable future considering her compatriot Sam Kerr’s addition on the right flank. Seeing the Australian duo’s interaction down that flank could be one of the more thrilling combos in the league.
The rest of the defense isn’t quite so settled. Kristin Grubka might have played defensive midfielder before CoCo Goodson retired but is probably now penciled in at center-back for a long time. Christie Rampone should partner her when here, but it remains to be seen how much will be left in the tank at season’s end after her WWC run. Lindsi Cutshall probably steps in when Rampone is gone, and big things will be expected in her third season in the league. Right-back is a huge worry without Foord, as the main contender during the WWC might be the extremely raw Meg Morris. Cutshall or Nikki Stanton also could be in the running, but it’s a clear zone of worry at the moment.
The midfield is simple for the most part. Katy Freels and Sarah Killion aren’t going to be shaken from their starting berths, and the main question is how far up the pitch Killion plays. I think she’ll be more advanced than your typical anchor in midfield but may drop back to form a double pivot when SBFC are protecting a lead late. The third midfield spot is a big question with Sophie Schmidt and Ashley Nick gone. Shawna Gordon is a prime contender, but what exactly her role is remains to be seen.
The attack is easy when everyone’s here: O’Hara and Kerr wide, with Nadia Nadim central. During the WWC? Uh, much tougher. Nadim will still be spearheading the line, but Maya Hayes, likely to play on the left wing, is the only other natural forward on the roster that won’t be at the WWC. Taylor Lytle could feature on the right flank, but her health is a question mark going into the season. Finding a viable frontline during the WWC could make or break the club’s playoff hopes.
SBFC will be breaking in a new starting goalkeeper (sort of), after the retirement of Jill Loyden following the 2014 season. After injuries and the form of Brittany Cameron limited Loyden to four games in 2013, the former USWNT player to just four games, she once again took hold of the starting role for SBFC for seventeen of twenty-four matches.
Loyden’s departure leaves some sizable boots to fill in goal, but it may not be as tough a task as for some other teams. Cameron, after all, was pretty much the de facto starter in 2013 while Loyden was out and will be willing and eager to take up what may be her final shot at a full-time starting job at this level. The twenty-eight year old has long been regarded as one of American pro WoSo’s best backup keepers through stints with four professional clubs in two leagues. Cameron didn’t quite match 2013’s form during last year’s time in goal and will need to see an uptick in her form once again to be confident of keeping herself as first choice for SBFC this year.
Cameron will be competing with newly signed Aubrey Bledsoe for the starting role. The top goalkeeping prospect entering the 2014 NWSL Draft, Bledsoe instead opted out, playing in the W-League for the powerhouse Los Angeles Blues before heading off to Norway for a short stint at IK Grand Bodo. A skilled keeper with explosive athleticism and all the tools to succeed at the top level, Bledsoe will be expecting to be the #1 here sooner rather than later. The former Wake Forest keeper does suffer from the occasional rush of blood to the head, and cutting out those individual errors will be key to her hopes of becoming a club’s future in goal long-term.
The battle between Cameron and Bledsoe may rage all year long, with both having the potential to shine for SBFC behind a backline that looks very solid indeed on paper when all the projected starters are on the pitch. Gabarra’s shown a willingness to play the hot hand through two seasons as well, meaning this situation could be a fluid one as the season goes on, with both keepers potentially in line to see major minutes in goal.
When all was said and done last year, SBFC finished with a middle of the road defense in terms of goals allowed. There was much chopping and changing throughout, with Caitlin Foord and Kendall Johnson splitting time at right-back, while Cami Levin and Kelley O’Hara split time at left-back. The previously unshakable duo of Christie Rampone and CoCo Goodson was joined by Lindsi Cutshall when either of the center-back starters was out. But with Johnson and Goodson gone and O’Hara, Rampone, and Foord missing major time this year on international duty, there are some stark changes in line for this unit.
Time may be winding down for thirty-nine year old Christie Rampone, but SBFC will hope that their ageless wonder at center-back still has enough left in the tank to propel them towards silverware this season. The USWNT center-back is likely to miss a big chunk of the season at the WWC, but her club side will be hoping that the tournament and its buildup won’t be too taxing and that Rampone can finish out this season for them. She’s still more than capable at this level, but there were still signs last season that Rampone may be beginning to slow down, as she wasn’t able to match a 2013 campaign that was very impressive for SBFC. Rampone will likely be provided a new center-back partner with CoCo Goodson having retired, and it’ll be interesting to see how fast a rapport between her and her new central defense partner, likely Kristin Grubka, can develop with Rampone away from the side for so much of the early part of the season.
Right-back figures to be occupied by the electric Aussie, Caitlin Foord, when she’s back from international duty. Foord saw time at both right-back and right-winger last season, but with the defensive options for SBFC having thinned out a bit after last season, it’s difficult to imagine Foord playing higher up for extended minutes in 2015. The Australian youngster is still just twenty years old, making some of her inconsistency understandable. Foord’s contributions to the attack are still a bit inconsistent, and she also can be a bit too foul happy at times. But she has all the physical tools to play the role of a modern full-back, and the upside there is undeniable. It’s just now a matter of hoping she’s still in great form once she returns from WWC duty with Australia.
The loss of the towering Goodson to retirement may be mitigated by the addition of Kristin Grubka in the draft. There’s no way that the premier center-back on a national title winning team should’ve slipped to SBFC in the second round, but Gabarra’s side are hardly complaining about getting such great value. Grubka was tasked with holding together an FSU backline reeling from the loss of Kassey Kallman to the pros and did so spectacularly, anchoring the Noles’ D and helping them claim a national title. I’m not sure Grubka is in Kallman’s class in terms of talent, but she’s not far off and provides the same size and strength that Goodson did in the middle of the defense with more upside. If Goodson returned, I suspected Grubka might play as a defensive midfielder, but with that not the case, the FSU alum will likely anchor this backline for some time.
The versatile Cami Levin, will also likely play a major role in SBFC’s 2015 title hopes. Levin saw significant time at left-back, center-back, and defensive midfielder last year for the club, and there’s no telling where she’s set to line up this season for the New Jersey side. Left-back again looks like a solid bet if Kelley O’Hara is deployed further up the pitch, while Levin could also theoretically set up shop in the middle of defense with Kristin Grubka while Rampone is at the WWC. Then again, Levin could also end up in the midfield with Katy Freels and Sarah Killion to give SBFC a technical proficient trinity in the middle of the park. The only thing for certain is that the talented Levin figures to find major minutes somewhere on the pitch for the club as they chase down a playoff spot.
Lindsi Cutshall rebounded from a nightmarish rookie season to establish herself as a valuable defender for SBFC last season. A first round pick in 2013, big things were expected from the former BYU player, but injuries largely rendered her first season a washout. Cutshall dabbled a bit as a full-back last season but mainly saw time as a center-back and showcased a nose for goal, netting three times in 2014. It’s highly likely that Cutshall will partner Grubka in central defense when Rampone isn’t with the club. When Rampone is here, Cutshall might slide over into a full-back role until Levin and Foord are here and ready to go. It’s a crucial year for the former BYU star, as a convincing season would go a long way towards convincing SBFC that Cutshall might be a long-term solution for the team at center-back.
Meg Morris was a preseason warrior last season for Washington and was a regrettable cut but found a quick home for herself in New Jersey for SBFC. Morris didn’t particularly get a bunch of chances to impress for the club in her rookie season though, getting just ninety-six minutes in three matches to prove herself. While Morris may have been able to be eased into the pro game last year, it might be time for a trial by fire this year early on with so many of the club’s potential full-backs gone on international duty. Morris certainly has some intriguing physical tools, but she remains a very raw prospect at this level. She’ll have to be a quick learner though, because odds are, Morris is going to get major minutes early in 2015.
A wild card is one of 2014’s draft picks, Hayley Haagsma, who SBFC took shockingly high but had no chance to show what she was made of after tearing an ACL in the preseason. The Californian has the size to play in the middle and could be potentially used in a defensive midfield role as well. The question is over Haagsma’s status though, as she did not play in any of the club’s preseason matches. With the team already a little short on defensive depth, Haagsma’s presence would be greatly appreciated.
At full strength, this could be one of the league’s best defenses. But with Rampone and Foord missing a fair amount of time on international duty, there could be some issues, especially at full-back, where the club didn’t really do a great job of replacing the departed Kendall Johnson. That could loom large early in the season until Foord gets back, while the overall lack of end of the bench depth in the backline could hurt the team this year.
SBFC’s midfield was pretty much set in stone last year, with Katy Freels, Sophie Schmidt, and Ashley Nick featuring in the center of the park, with Cami Levin occasionally coming in for Nick. That will change this season, with Schmidt stepping away from club football for this year, while Nick was traded to Houston. Sarah Killion will step into one of the vacated spots, while the battle to replace Nick as the anchor in midfield may be one of the most important ones here this season.
Katy Freels has grown into an invaluable piece of the puzzle for SBFC and will be looking to be the architect that gets the club back to the playoffs this season. Freels was irreplaceable at the heart of the midfield, chipping in with five goals and four assists. If Freels had had Nadia Nadim to thread passes to all season, there’s no telling how many more assists the former Auburn midfielder would’ve tallied. Freels may be the biggest beneficiary from the additions of Nadim for the full season and Sam Kerr, giving her plenty of weapons to work with on the frontline. Adding Sarah Killion to take some of the defensive heat off of her in the midfield also should help Freels’ cause. That she wasn’t chosen for the U23-ish camp in the offseason was a disgrace, and the calls for Freels to get her shot at the next level will be even louder if she stars this season.
Through the preseason, Freels already looks to be developing some potent chemistry in the midfield with the club’s top draftee this year, Sarah Killion. Killion may be one of the most complete midfielders to come out of the college ranks in some time. The UCLA star can serve as an anchor in front of a back four, act as a connecting force between defense and attack, or even function as a viable playmaker further up the pitch. So far, it looks like a cross between option #2 and option #3, and engineering a working partnership between Killion and Freels may be a key to SBFC making a deep run this year. It seems like only a matter of time until Killion breaks through to the USWNT, and a big season as a rookie in New Jersey would only accelerate that timetable.
An under the radar but potentially important signing is that of Shawna Gordon, who was a bit of a globetrotter last year, beginning in Australia with Western Sydney Warriors before she starred with the W-League powerhouse Los Angeles Blues last Summer before moving on to Umea in Sweden. Given some of Gordon’s performances at W-League level, it was only a matter of time until she got a chance at this level, and SBFC may benefit from the astute signing. Gordon can play as a left-winger, but considering the high likelihood of the team going with a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation given their attacking personnel, Gordon may instead play closer to central midfield.
Draftee Lo’eau LaBonta was a bit of a late bloomer in Palo Alto but turned into a key component of the Stanford attack by the end of her tenure with the Card. Not quite a true #10 in attacking midfield, LaBonta was more of a direct threat to goal with a cannon of a shot to trouble opposing keepers from range. LaBonta may have to show she can keep the offense ticking over though. While the Stanford player did come up with no small number of clutch goals against big opposition as a senior, she was also very inefficient with the ball, posting poor shots per goal and shot on goal percentage numbers. At the very least though, LaBonta should make for an intriguing super sub option off the bench for SBFC this year.
Nikki Stanton proved to be an unlikely success story last season, beginning with SBFC’s reserve team before signing with the first team in late June. Stanton would only see token action in four matches off the bench but did enough to secure herself a contract for 2015. The most likely role for Stanton is probably as a tenacious ball winner in the center of midfield, though her tenacity may also make her a candidate to slide in on the backline if necessary. Whatever the role, the former Fairfield star is likely to see much more than seventy-eight minutes of action considering the club’s glut of absences during the WWC.
Third-year player Taylor Lytle endured a lost season for SBFC in 2014 after breaking her tibia and tearing her lateral meniscus in a gruesome injury last May. Lytle had shown herself to be a very dangerous player for the club up to that point, most famously scoring a blockbuster goal to stun Portland on the road in 2013. But like her fellow Red Raider alum Haagsma, Lytle didn’t play in the preseason, so her status is up in the air going into the weekend’s opener. If Lytle is able to rekindle some of her old attacking ability, SBFC will be all the stronger for it, especially when the likes of Kelley O’Hara and Sam Kerr are away.
Killion and Freels could legitimately turn into the league’s most dangerous midfield combination with some time. The latter is still an undervalued star at this level, while the former could end up begin one of the league’s best midfielders in short order. Filling the other slot is the concern, though at least Gabarra has multiple options to pick from.
A franchise forever defined by a lack of goals got them in buckets last season once Nadia Nadim arrived midseason. It’s pretty much a given that had Nadim been available for just a few more weeks that SBFC would’ve made the playoffs, such was her form in front of goal. This season, with the addition of Sam Kerr to the equation, SBFC may possess the best three-punch combo in attack in the league. The problem is, only Nadim is here for the WWC stretch, while most of the cover is gone as well. If Nadim isn’t scoring, SBFC could be in some big trouble when the other ancillary pieces are gone.
SBFC’s attack looked typically toothless up until midseason signing Nadia Nadim arrived. Once the Danish international set foot on the pitch for the club, Gabarra’s side became infinitely more dangerous in front of goal, with Nadim positing some ridiculous numbers in the six matches she played. It wasn’t just the fact that Nadim scored seven goals in those six matches but that she only needed twenty-three shots to do it. Those are MVP type numbers, and if Nadim can come close to those stats over the course of a whole season, odds are SBFC will be battling for the regular season title. The question now, of course, is whether she’ll be able to do it when teams are hellbent on swarming her with defenders, which will be an especially pressing question during the WWC when the club’s attacking depth is essentially nil. It’s hard to bet against Nadim given last year’s evidence though.
Flirtations with a full-time role at full-back seemingly put on ice for the moment, at least at club level, Kelley O’Hara will look to get back amongst the goals for SBFC this season. O’Hara had been playing left-back for club and country up until late May, when SBFC decided to move the former Hermann Trophy winner back into the attack. The result was seven goals and four assists over the back end of the season, even as she moved back to full-back for a handful of matches. Gabarra faces a bit of a dilemma early in 2015, as his club will be without any real full-back cover at all until Caitlin Foord and Cami Levin return, meaning O’Hara might be needed at left-back until she herself has to leave for international duty. At full strength though, O’Hara looks the likeliest option at left forward and could help give SBFC a lethal three-pronged attack on the frontline.
Newly acquire Samantha Kerr was one of the few bright spots on WNY’s rotten season last year. Kerr was an absolute goal machine in 2014, netting nine goals and adding four assists for good measure. The Australian’s breakout season in front of goal meant that the trade that sent her to New Jersey was an absolute bombshell. It may also been the piece of the puzzle that SBFC needed to secure to turn their side into an offensive wrecking machine after some very promising returns late last season. The only problem is that Kerr’s going to be a late arrival after the WWC ends for her Australia side, a fact which may make it hard for her to settle into her new surroundings mid-season. But if she has enough in the tank and settles quickly, there’s no reason why Kerr can’t light up opposing defenses as she did with WNY last year.
Local product Maya Hayes was a no-brainer pick for an SBFC club sputtering on offense before last season’s draft, but the Penn State alum ended up cutting a bit of a forlorn figure early in the season as she seldom tested opposing goalkeepers during a ghastly stretch. Hayes would settle as the season went on, even if the scoresheet didn’t necessarily show it. With Nadia Nadim leading the line at center forward, Hayes was pushed out to the wing, and that’s probably going to be her role this season with Nadim back in the fold. Forwards who don’t score don’t tend to last long at this level though, so SBFC will be hoping for more than a single goal from last year’s first-round pick. With so many forwards away on international duty early, Hayes should get every chance to put her name in lights this season.
Mexican international Monica Ocampo earned a reputation as a microwave off the bench for SBFC in 2013, often coming in and burning holes right through opposing defenses. She finished with eight goals despite starting just nine matches, raising hopes going into 2014. Ocampo cracked the starting lineup more often but was also less effective, netting just three goals on forty-four shots and had a SOG % of just over 33%, which isn’t exactly sterling. The Mexican goalscorer will likely be back later in the season after international duty, and given the firepower elsewhere, Ocampo could be back to her super sub role, which really isn’t the worst thing in the world for SBFC.
Canadian Jonelle Filigno was a natural allocation to SBFC last season having played her college ball at Rutgers. But there was skepticism over Filigno’s chances of making an instant impact after her scoring record was spotty with the Scarlet Knights. Filigno hardly upset the odds either, breaking into the starting lineup just six times as a rookie. The Canadian didn’t exactly make a great impression in her limited minutes either, managing just three shots on target and one goal. With Nadim here full-time and the addition of Kerr, you wonder just how many minutes Filigno can really get when she returns from WWC duty.
An O’Hara-Nadim-Kerr frontline is just too good to not make it rain goals, especially with some of the team’s midfield talent. But until the WWC is over, the group isn’t going to be complete, which is a problem considering the vacuum in cover behind Nadim. If Maya Hayes can’t have a breakthrough season, there’s going to be a lot of weight on Nadim’s shoulders to keep the offense flowing until the club is whole in the attack.
Sky Blue FC looks like the league’s cause celebre going into 2015. Combine the full-time addition of Nadia Nadim with the trade for Sam Kerr and what’s generally acknowledged as a pretty good draft, and there are a lot of pundits tipping the New Jersey side for the playoffs. I’m guessing I’ll be the outlier in my prediction. I think SBFC could run into some major problems up front and on the backline come the WWC. The absence of Kerr and Foord for most of the season (and to a lesser extent, Ocampo) is going to loom large, especially with other sides getting to benefit from most of their internationals being here for a few games before the WWC. Other than Nadim, the frontline looks barren during the WWC unless Maya Hayes has a breakout season. Add to that what looks like an average at best backline during the same period, and the club’s depth issues look a bit concerning. From 1-11 or 12, SBFC looks like a team that could make a run for a title. Beyond that, they look like a team that could struggle for consistent wins.
And yet for all that, if everything clicks when the full complement of players is here, Sky Blue FC could easily end up as a top two or top three team. But the margin of error is probably a lot thinner than most suspect, and I’m, regretfully, thinking the absence of Kerr and Foord at the beginning of the season is going to leave SBFC just short of the playoffs.