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From open tryouts to starting lineup: Erin Simon's home-team dream comes true

The New Jersey native recalls her unusual journey onto the Sky Blue FC starting XI

Jane Gershovich, ISI Photos

When Erin Simon went to Sky Blue FC’s open tryouts in March 2016, she had low expectations.

The self-described "small-town Jersey girl" just hoped to get noticed, to stand out from the 50 or so competing for an invitation to the team’s preseason camp.

An invitation to camp did not seem an unreasonable goal. Simon had already competed in Orlando Pride’s open tryouts and earned an invitation to their camp, but the allure of playing for her home team was too strong for the Oakhurst, New Jersey native to pass up.

"Why wouldn’t I try for Sky Blue when it’s right in my home state?" she asked matter-of-factly, as though her decision was obvious.

And for a lot of girls growing up playing soccer in New Jersey, that decision is an obvious one.

Simon started playing soccer when she was just three or four. She can't remember the exact age she started playing: it has just always seemed like there was a ball at her feet. Growing up, she said she was often the "fast girl on the boys’ team."

But for Simon, it wasn’t always just about soccer. Like many other players, she competed in several other sports as a kid.

"I just played everything, like basketball, softball, track," she said.

Simon would go on to play both soccer and basketball for her high school, Red Bank Regional High School, but ultimately, soccer won out.

"I just had more of a love for it. I looked forward to playing soccer more," she said. "I just felt a better connection with the sport itself, and I just spent more time playing with a soccer ball than with a basketball."

At Red Bank Regional, Simon was a star forward, scoring 21 goals in her junior year to break the school record for goals in a season. Going into her senior year she had scored a total of 36 goals, tallied 19 assists and was tapped to lead her team as captain her senior season. Not surprisingly, she was already considering playing soccer at a Division One college, and her goal seemed easily within reach.

But during the summer before her senior year, disaster struck. While playing for her club team, FC Copa, Simon collided with another player and fell awkwardly, tearing her ACL. As a result, she missed her entire senior season and watched as her dreams of playing D1 soccer seemed to all but vanish.

"That was a big recruiting time of year, so I wasn’t really recruited," Simon said. "I had a lot of doors close to me D1 wise."

Luckily for Simon, Phil Wheddon, the head coach for Syracuse University, was not deterred by her injury.

"Syracuse stuck with me. [Coach Wheddon] stuck with me and had faith in me and gave me a shot, and we just went with that," Simon commented.

In her first year at Syracuse, she had 10 starts in 18 games played, scored four goals, recorded two assists and took 30 shots on goal. During her sophomore season, Simon led the team in assists (4) and was second in points (19) and goals (5).

However, in the spring of her sophomore season, the team lost one of its starting outside backs, leaving a noticeable hole in the defense. Despite her stellar performances as a forward at both the high school and collegiate levels, Simon contemplated making the shift to defense. After talking with her father and her coaches about it, Simon made the switch.

"It wasn’t a hard decision to make because I didn’t really have the attributes of a forward. As a forward in college, you need to have that attacking mentality, but I would rather pass it off than take the shot," she claimed. "I knew we were weak in that spot, and I wanted to do what was best for our team at that point."

As an outside back, Simon finished her last two seasons at Syracuse starting in all 37 games played in, tallying two assists and firing off four shots.

It was during her time at Syracuse that Simon realized her dream of playing professionally might be more of a goal than a dream.

"I guess it was a dream when I was little, just like every girl just dreams of it, but I didn’t really think I would get there because I’m just a small town girl from New Jersey. But when I got into college and had my first after-season individual meeting with my coach, I sat him down and was like, ‘I really want to try and play professionally.’ He was the one who told me, ‘You can really do it, if you put your mind to it.’"

It was with that advice and the dream of playing professionally in her home state that Simon came into Sky Blue’s open tryouts during her final semester of college. Simon said the open tryouts were difficult because each player must showcase herself to the coaches in just a couple of hours each day, and one bad day could result in not being invited back.

But Simon did not let the pressure defeat her.

"I learned the best thing to do is just to work really hard because coaches love hard-working players," she stated. "You just control what you can control, so you just control your attitude and work ethic and let the rest just do itself."

Simon’s hard work at open tryouts paid off. Impressing Head Coach Christy Holly and the rest of the coaching staff, Simon received an invitation to the team’s preseason camp. During preseason, she played all but one half of Sky Blue's preseason matches, helping the team shut out both St. John's University and the University of North Carolina.

At the conclusion of preseason, Coach Holly informed Simon that she had made the team.

"Not only did she win a contract, but she also pushed her way into the starting eleven, which is fantastic to see," Holly said.

Simon was one of six players on Sky Blue’s starting lineup making their NWSL debuts in the team’s season opener against the Seattle Reign FC on April 17. Despite the inexperience of the lineup, Sky Blue managed to walk away with a hard-fought 2-1 win over the Reign, and much of that was thanks to the defense.

Lining up on Sky Blue's back line that afternoon, Simon had to face off against the likes of Kim Little, Jess Fishlock, Merritt Mathias and Beverly Yanez: some of the top attacking players in the league. If she was nervous, it didn't show. And while she might have been beaten a time or two, most spectators were impressed with Simon's play that day, as was her coach.

"Since she has been in [the starting eleven], she’s really imposed herself on the team," Holly added. "Since she arrived here, she has absorbed as much information as possible, and she has adapted every day to the challenges that have been placed in front of her. Through each step, she has shown a fantastic attitude and a great level of energy in her approach to the game."

A lot of Simon’s attitude is a result of how she came into the league. Rarely do rookie players make full team rosters via the open tryout process, let alone crack the starting lineups right away, and Simon is fully aware of that.

"It’s a blessing to follow my dreams. I’m just really grateful that I’m even on the roster," she said.

Her gratitude translates into her play on the pitch, and she works hard to make her coaches, team, fans and home state proud.

"I’m just going to be the best I can be to help the team excel and do the best we can in the league," Simon stated. "The fans can expect that I’ll give it 110 percent every single game, to give everything I’ve got."

When on the field for Sky Blue, Simon does give it everything she has, just as she has throughout her journey to make the team. Simon has overcome obstacles time and time again in her career, but she has persevered, followed her heart and kept working until she had achieved her goals.

She realizes she may not be the most talented player on the field, but she knows that does not always matter.

"I do believe in the phrase ‘When talent doesn’t work hard, hard work beats talent.’ That’s kind of my little motto," she said.

And Simon has proved that with hard work, anything is possible.