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Sky Blue FC heads into NWSL season with high hopes

Combination of clever draft picks and returnng player set up New Jersey-based club for successful 2015 campaign

Christie Rampone will be with Sky Blue FC for the team's first three games before departing for World Cup duty
Christie Rampone will be with Sky Blue FC for the team's first three games before departing for World Cup duty
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

After a winter that just won't let go on the Northeast, the Sky Blue FC are ready to welcome warm weather and get off to another strong start in the 2015 National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) season.

After training around the seemingly non-stop snow in February and March, Sky Blue FC beat four Division I collegiate squads without giving up a goal as well as work in some newcomers.  And now with spring finally showing up, head coach Jim Gabarra hopes his lineup will begin to bloom, even though he's missing some key players.

Like all NWSL teams, they will have to do without six players like Christie Rampone and Kelley O'Hara, for a portion of the season as they prepare for the Women's World Cup in June.

"A lot of our players we have coming back are not here and are with their national teams, so it's been interesting, particularly with our back four," said Jim Gabarra.

The Sky Blue FC combined a strong college draft in January with some key signings of returning players in hopes of putting out a strong 11 against FC Kansas City.

The most important signing is last summer's scoring sensation Nadia Nadim. She sparked a five-match winning streak at the end of the season with seven goals in six games to go along with three assists. She has played well in the last three pre-season games will team up Maya Hayes. Hayes found a scoring touch in pre-season, one that hopes to carry over into regular season play.

"I'm really happy to be back and looking forward to helping the team as much as possible," said Nadim. "I hope to continue where I left off with the chemistry I had with the top four. I hope to continue to score goals."

"That was our biggest priority, to get her (Nadim) back and signed for this year," said the coach. "Anytime you have a goal scorer who plays the way she does and produces the way she does, to have her is a huge bonus."

One of the biggest hits of the pre-season has been the development of midfielders Katy Freels and first-round draft pick Sarah Killion, out of UCLA. The two has displayed a strong chemistry together in pre-season, feeding off each other. Freels has also shown a scoring touch.

"Sarah is very technical and very easy to play with," said Freels afar the North Carolina match in March. "It's been a very easy transition and I am looking forward to playing with her this year."

Taylor Little, Nikki Stanton and discovery player Shawna Gordon round out the midfield mix.

Defense is where the Sky Blue may have the best depth.  Rampone and O'Hara will play in the team's first three games before leaving for the World Cup. Lindsi Cutshall, Meg Morris, Halyey Haagsma and Cami Levin all return on the backline.  Second-round draft selection Kristin Grubka, who won an NCAA title, last year with Florida State University, has made an impression in camp as well.

Brittany Cameron will replace the retired Jillian Loyden in goal with Aubrey Bledsoe a capable backup.

The Sky Blue wants to get off to another fast start like last spring but want to avoid a swoon in mid-season. Even five straight victories at the end weren't enough to get them in the playoffs, missing by one point.

"One of our tasks and instruction to the team is to make sure we carry on that momentum that we had last year at the end of the year," said Gabarra. "I think it's more of a lesson in that every game counts and that every point maters."

Sky Blue FC will be tested early as FC Kansas City is one of the teams predicted to be near the top of NWSL.

Sky Blue returns hope on April 18 to host the Houston Dash.