It's early in 2016 -- early enough that the new year is still full of hope, promise and expectations of the all things that are possible in the upcoming year.
And Sky Blue FC and their fans are no different than anyone else. After a watershed year for women's soccer in 2015, Sky Blue fans want to join the party and have cause for celebration, too.
A nice thought but things need to get busier quick for the New Jersey-based side if they want to break a two-year streak of not qualifying for the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) playoffs. Since season's end Sky Blue FC has been the quietest team in the NWSL. All other teams have picked up new players either by trade or signings. Sky Blue has not.
With the turning of the calendar to 2016, here's a few things to consider in this new year:
They need a new coach - like now: There has been nobody at the top spot since mid-October when the team and coach Jim Gabarra amicably parted ways. Gabarra has since been named the coach in Washington. With the National Women's Soccer League's (NWSL) college draft coming up in a few weeks, no coach suggests no leadership, at least as far as the on-field stuff goes.
Sky Blue is one of two teams without a coach as Western New York parted ways with Aaron Lines a few weeks ago. But the Flash made big news on New Year's Day signing South Korean international midfielder Jeon Ga Eul, even without a coach in place.
Christy Holly, an assistant on the 2015 staff, has been doing the player evaluations and personnel work. He probably is the favorite to get the coaching job. But whether Holly is actually doing the work already is becoming irrelevant. Without someone to provide direction, it's impossible to put together a blueprint for the season, including who to draft, who to trade and trade for. The word is that the Sky Blue has been turned down twice and are still searching for the right candidate.
Figure out the draft: Last year's draft was exceptionally strong with this year's not so much. The top players available are Penn State's Rachel Rodriguez, who led the Nittany Lions to the national championship last month and Virginia midfielder Emily Sonnett. Locally, Rutgers defenders Brianne Reed and Erica Skroski, both selected to All Americans teams are the best locals available. Sky Blue FC drafts third overall on Jan. 14 in Baltimore. Portland has the first two picks acquired through a pair of trades.
There could be a gem out there but without a head coach in place, it's hard to draw up realistic and feasible draft strategies.
Luckily, Sky Blue FC was not affected too much by the expansion draft. They lost a starter in Cami Levin and backup goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, who played on eight minutes last summer, to Orlando.
The 2016 draft would be helpful to fill out the midfield area or provide depth at other spots.
Determine Rampone's status: Christie Rampone has said she wants to give the Olympics a shot this summer. But she's had a few nagging injuries including a knee injury that required surgery just before Christmas that will sideline her for four to six weeks. She obviously wasn't picked for the United States national team camp that is prepping for Olympic qualification and with an 18-player roster for the Rio games, she must now be considered a longshot for the American side. Her leadership abilities are unquestionable but with a shorter roster than last summer, it's uncertain whether this accommodation will be possible.
A healthy Rampone who can be with Sky Blue for a full-season will help the New Jersey side. But how much she will have left at 41? Again, until the Sky Blue knows her intentions, it's hard to plan for the future.
A plan to survive the Olympic break: There's been no formal announcement by the NWSL, but there figures to be a league-wide break in the action in July for the Olympics, similar to the one last summer for the World Cup. The 2015 break proved deadly as the New Jersey side fell too far behind in the chase for a playoff spot. The same players will probably miss out early with Catilin Foord and Sam Kerr from Australia, Kelley O'Hara from the USA, possibly Rampone and striker/middie Jonelle Filigno from Canada all playing in Rio. Missing at least 3 starters - including two of your three scoring threats - won't be easy on team chemistry. They need to figure a way to avoid a long losing streak. While there are enough key players who won't be in the Olympics, they will need to get a solid performer from an unexpected source. Look for Maya Hayes to bounce back and provide that spark.
Final analysis: The pieces are certainly all there for Sky Blue to make significant strides and compete well for a playoff spot. Team chemistry will be important; so will Rampone and Kerr's recovery to leg injuries suffered this off-season. And just today, Sky Blue is reporting that Foord broke her collarbone and will be out for an undetermined time. But it all starts with naming a head coach and have a solid plan going forward. And, as I have been saying, it needs to happen soon. Until that happens, everything else is a wild guess.