With the start of the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL) fourth season just around the corner, Sky Blue FC announced its official 20-player roster for the 2016 season on Monday, April 11.
The team, headed up by Head Coach Christy Holly, saw its roster take a beating in the offseason, a result of retirements and numerous players sitting out the impending season for a variety of reasons. However, a couple of new additions might just be enough to keep Sky Blue from once again finishing at the bottom of the table.
With the departure of starting goalkeeper Brittany Cameron during the off season and the loss of backup keeper Aubrey Bledsoe in the Orlando Pride expansion draft, Sky Blue FC (SBFC) has brought in two new keepers for the season, Caroline Stanley and Caroline Casey.
Stanley was a free agent at the start of the preseason after being waived by the Seattle Reign FC at the end of the 2015 season. Stanley, who signed with the Reign in July 2015, served as Haley Kopmeyer’s backup while starting goalkeeper Hope Solo was away on national team duties and recovering from a knee injury suffered during the World Cup. Stanley played in one game for the Reign, tallying one save in a 2-1 win over the Boston Breakers.
Casey comes to Sky Blue via the 2016 NWSL college draft. Sky Blue traded two fourth-round draft picks to move up and pick the William and Mary All-American in the third round, and she won the second keeper roster spot from former Syracuse keeper Brittany Anghel during the preseason.
Not surprisingly, United States Women’s National Team (U.S. WNT) defenders Kelley O’Hara and Christie Rampone are once again on the roster, and Rampone will once again be captaining the team from the Sky Blue back line.
Although O’Hara is listed as a defender, Sky Blue will most likely utilize her talents elsewhere, as they have in previous seasons. O’Hara’s versatility allows her to play practically any position on the pitch, and she is often a key component in the Sky Blue attack. However, O’Hara’s stint with the U.S. WNT will also cause her to miss a number of matches with her club team, and the team has noticeably suffered without her in the past.
Other veteran defenders for the club team include CoCo Goodson, Kristin Grubka and Maya Hayes. Newcomers to the Sky Blue defense are 2016 NWSL College Draft pick Erica Skroski, a New Jersey native who played for Rutgers, and Erin Simon, a former Syracuse player who came to SBFC by way of open tryouts.
Fellow defender Caitlin Foord, an Australian international who has played with SBFC for the past three seasons, was rumored to be missing from the roster prior to its announcement. Foord was in fact left off the roster, although no statement from Sky Blue FC or Foord regarding the omission has been made.
Also missing from the roster is defender Lindsi Cutshall, who announced during the preseason that she would be sitting out the 2016 season at the advice of medical specialists. Cutshall, who started all 18 games that she played in last season, suffered a concussion in a July match again Western New York Flash, and lingering symptoms from that injury are likely the cause of her sabbatical from the team.
The absence of both Foord and Cutshall from the back line leaves some pretty big holes to be filled in the Sky Blue back line, but O’Hara’s experience playing outside back for the U.S. WNT make her an easy option to fill at least one of those holes if Coach Holly gets desperate.
The Sky Blue FC midfield is also full of familiar faces with veterans Shawna Gordon, Sarah Killion, Taylor Lytle and Nikki Stanton returning to the roster. Former SBFC player Ashley Nick returns for her second stint with SBFC after being traded away prior to the 2015 season.
Virginia Tech alum Kelley Conheeney also joins the roster after earning her spot through open tryouts. Conheeney remains the all-time leading goal scorer for Virginia Tech but saw her collegiate career end early and her professional career be put on hold as she battled concussion-related symptoms.
The most notable addition to the Sky Blue midfield is Costa Rican international Raquel "Rocky" Rodriguez, Sky Blue’s first round and overall #2 draft pick in this year’s collegiate draft. Sky Blue made a bold move when they traded forward Nadia Nadim, top goal scorer for the team in 2015, to Portland in exchange for the #2 draft pick.
Rodriguez comes to Sky Blue off of an NCAA championship-winning season with Penn State. Rodriguez scored the championship-winning goal for the Nittany Lions in the 2015 NCAA College Cup and was awarded the MAC Hermann trophy, the award given to the best women’s collegiate player in the nation, in January.
Having played on the Costa Rican Women's National Team since 2010, Rodriguez has experience at the international level, putting her at an advantage over many rookies coming into the league. After having played against the likes of Brazil and the U.S. in the 2015 Women's World Cup and 2016 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournaments, Rodriguez will not be deterred by the tempo, speed of play or physicality of the NWSL. Rodriguez will no doubt be a defining feature in the Sky Blue starting XI.
Up top for Sky Blue will be Samantha Kerr, the Australian international who was the 2015 Golden Boot winner for SBFC. Joining her is Kim DeCesare, coming back to Sky Blue for her second year, and newcomer Danielle Schulmann, another rostered player who worked her way onto the roster through open tryouts.
Leah Galton, the English international selected by Sky Blue in the second round of the draft, is a contracted player who is out of market until she graduates from Hofstra University in May. As Sky Blue is already at the 20-player roster limit without Galton, a roster cut will have to be made once Galton becomes available.
In the some of the biggest news to come out of the 2016, former U.S. WNT and Sky Blue FC forward Tasha Kai returned to professional soccer and her former team after a multi-year leave of absence from the sport.
In her first stint with Sky Blue, Kai was an integral part of the attack, scoring 11 goals and tallying two assists over two seasons with the team. Kai also helped lead the team to win the Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) league title in 2009.
With the U.S. WNT, Kai won a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics and a bronze medal in the 2007 Women's World Cup. She racked up 24 goals and 13 assists in 67 appearances with that national team.
Although she has been away from the game for a number of years, Kai seems to have already jelled with the rest of the team. She scored one of only three goals Sky Blue scored during preseason games, and her chemistry with O’Hara was noticeable even after only a short time of training together.
"We are all very excited to get the season underway," Holly said in a statement released by the team. "We now have a solid preseason under our belts where we were able to blend in the new faces within our club. Internally, we have set very high standards and big expectations for what the future holds for this newly assembled team."
While not as solid as some other NWSL club team rosters, Sky Blue is by no means the weakest team headed into the regular season. The team has some pretty solid starters in O'Hara, Kerr, Rodriguez and Kai, and when healthy, Rampone is a force to be reckoned with on defense.
Sky Blue took a big gamble in essentially trading Nadim for Rodriguez, and hopefully Rocky proves to be worthy of the price the team paid for her. Her experience with the Costa Rican WNT puts her at an advantage of other league rookies, but her short time with the team in preseason still leaves her as a bit of a question mark.
The biggest obstacle to the Sky Blue roster seems to be depth. Bringing back Nick, a player the team traded in exchange for position in the 2015 draft, shows the lack of talent in the SBFC player pool, as does the addition of several players from open tryouts.
Already predicted to be finishing at the bottom of the table once more this season by some soccer supporters around the league, Sky Blue definitely has its work cut out for it this season, but that does not mean they should be counted out.
Although they finished eighth at the end of last season, they were just eight points shy of making the playoffs. If a couple of games had ended in wins instead of draws for Sky Blue, or if some games had ended differently for some other teams, Sky Blue might just have snuck into the playoffs.
Some critics may see the overhaul of the team as a hindrance to the team's success this season, it just might be the breath of fresh air the team needs to once again return to the top of the table.
Sky Blue FC opens its 2016 season on Sunday, April 17 against the Seattle Reign FC in Seattle. Its home opener is on Sunday, April 24 against the Washington Spirit.
Sky Blue FC Roster by position:
Goalkeepers: (2) Caroline Casey, Caroline Stanley
Defenders: (7) CoCo Goodson, Kristin Grubka, Maya Hayes, Kelley O’Hara, Christie Rampone, Erin Simon, Erica Skroski
Midfielders: (7) Kelly Conheeney, Shawna Gordon, Sarah Killion, Taylor Lytle, Ashley Nick, Raquel Rodriguez, Nikki Stanton
Forwards: (4) Kim DeCesare, Tasha Kai, Sam Kerr, Danielle Schulmann