(Howard C. Smith, ISI Photos)
In 2009 Sky Blue FC made a miraculous run to the inaugural WPS Championship - sneaking into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season and embarking on a cross-country road trip, knocking off the Washington Freedom, St. Louis Athletica and LA Sol, all sides Sky Blue had never beaten and all in the span of just eight days en route to the title. That the team was by then on its third coach of the season, Christie Rampone, who also happened to be the captain and central defender - and that following the match Rampone informed teammates that she was pregnant - only made the whole thing more remarkable. Since then Sky Blue has fielded teams that were, on paper at least, better than the one that won that Championship in 2009. And since then Sky Blue FC hasn't made the playoffs.
In 2010 Tasha Kai scored six minutes into the season opener, and then it all went wrong. Carli Lloyd broke her ankle three games in. Kai often found herself relegated to the bench. Rampone missed the beginning of the season on maternity leave. Anita Asante was traded to St. Louis. Meghan Schnur was in and out of the lineup with an injury. Jenni Branam broke her kneecap in a preseason game. Karen Bardsley put in a star-making performance in Branam's place - earning an All-Star starting nod for her troubles - and broke her collarbone in an All-Star training session. Kristin Luckenbill took over in goal, retiring when Branam returned. Branam got hurt again, requiring goalkeeper number four, Meghann Burke, to finish the season between the posts.Finnish coach Pauliina Miettinen was brought on with Sky Blue hoping to put an end to the coaching carousel that hung over the team through the first year. But Miettinen's style never quite fit. A 624-minute home run-of-play scoring drought sent Sky Blue sliding down the table and Miettinen was sacked with ten games to play. Rick Stainton took over but Sky Blue never found its footing again, finishing fifth - three points outside the playoffs - and scoring only 20 goals through the 24 game season.
This season Heather O'Reilly, Branam and Bardsley remained from the Championship winning side. Brittany Taylor, who played every minute of 2010 as a rookie, took over the captaincy with Rampone's departure. A trade brought England striker Eniola Aluko, 2010 number one pick Tobin Heath and midfielder Angie Kerr from Atlanta in exchange for 2011 draft picks. Defender Carrie Dew came from 2010 Champion FC Gold Pride and Asante returned after a 2010 that also included spells in Chicago and Washington DC after the initial trade to St. Louis. Casey Nogueira from Chicago, Carolyn Blank from Atlanta and Allie Long from Washington joined O'Reilly, Heath, Kerr and Therese Sjogran - on loan from LdB FC Malmo in her native Sweden - in the midfield. Spain's Adriana signed on as Aluko's strike partner and both Branam and Bardsley returned healthy. And Sky Blue hired another new head coach, Jim Gabarra, who'd recently left the Washington Freedom after a ten-year stint that included the WUSA, W-League and WPS versions of that team, to finally, for real this time, bring stability to a job that was the very definition of unstable.
Like every team Sky Blue would have to deal with the revolving door that the Women's World Cup brought, losing Sjogran, Aluko, Bardsley, Asante, O'Reilly and Heath - but the team Gabarra assembled was deep enough to compensate. On paper at least.
Sky Blue spent part of the preseason in Turkey, finishing as runner-up to LdB Malmo in the four-team tournament. The 2011 WPS season officially kicked off against Kai's new team, the Philadelphia Independence. Sky Blue FC jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first half and the Gabarra era seemed to be off to a solid start. The team was scoring goals and beyond that, playing a quick, flowing and entertaining brand of possession soccer - something not exactly commonplace at Yurcak Field, or not for the side in blue and orange, anyway. But the second half was a different story. Philadelphia got within one and then a 90th minute deflection gave the visitors the equalizer. Sky Blue headed out for a three game road trip, with stops in Atlanta, Boston and Western NY, and returned with a grand total of zero points. Among those three losses: a 1-0 defeat to Atlanta - the Beat's only win of the entire season.
But the pair of home games that followed righted the ship - a 3-0 win over Atlanta, the largest margin of victory in Sky Blue FC history, and a win over Boston. In three home games Sky Blue had managed seven goals - one better than the six the team scored through all eleven home games in 2010. The two wins kicked off a five game unbeaten streak - another franchise record - that included a comeback draw in Western NY that featured a ridiculous Nogueira goal, a draw with Boston and another win over Atlanta. That concluded the pre-World Cup part of the season and WPS took a two-week break during the Group Stage.
All this was happening as the World Cup bound internationals bounced back and forth between club and country. O'Reilly and Heath - like all the US WPS players - spent weekdays training with the US Women's National Team in Florida and flew back to be with their club teams on the weekends, eventually leaving for Germany in early June. Sjogran and the England contingent of Bardsley, Aluko and Asante also left to be with their national sides.
Coming in Part Two: The post-World Cup part of the season and a tightening playoff race loomed on the other side of the break. Would Sky Blue FC be able to keep the momentum going?