Everyone loves a good underdog story, and this year, it’s Sky Blue FC.
Sky Blue currently sits fourth in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) table with a 6-4-4 record and 22 points. That means that, just a week before the month-long Olympic break, Sky Blue is sitting in a playoff position.
Before the season even started, many people had already counted Sky Blue out. The off-season departures of former Head Coach Jim Gabarra and nine players from the 2015 roster, many of whom were starters, made Sky Blue’s future look bleak.
Some people even used the team’s off-season turmoil to predict that Sky Blue would finish at the bottom of the table, if not dead last.
So how did Sky Blue surprise so many by being so good?
It started with personnel. To fill some of the vacant personnel positions, Sky Blue first promoted assistant coach Christy Holly to head coach. While many people felt the extensive amount of time between the announcements of Gabarra’s exit and the naming of Holly as head coach indicated Holly’s promotion was more out of desperation than anything else. However, the team’s performance this season has many people rethinking that initial observation, and some have even gone so far as to toss his name out in regards to the NWSL Coach of the Year award.
Sky Blue then took to filling the vacancies on their roster and in retrospect, may have brought in one of the top “recruiting classes” in the league. The team drafted Costa Rican-international Raquel Rodriguez, English-international Leah Galton, defender Erica Skroski and goalkeeper Caroline Casey with their four picks in this year’s collegiate draft. They also brought in rookie Erin Simon and newcomer Kelly Conheeney via the open tryouts process, and it was announced at the start of preseason that former Seattle Reign goalkeeper Caroline Stanley had signed with the team. The biggest player addition was that of former USWNT and Sky Blue forward Tasha Kai, who signed with the team in February after a five year absence from professional soccer.
Sky Blue’s newcomers may be some of the most impactful in the league. Of the team’s 16 goals so far this season, half of them have been scored by players new to the NWSL. Each of Sky Blue’s draft picks has also come up big for Sky Blue so far this season, and at least one of them is almost always in the Rookie of the Year conversation.
The newcomers wouldn’t have gotten to where they are on their own though. The returning players, especially the veterans who have been with team since the NWSL’s inception, have played a major role in helping the newcomers find their footing. Christie Rampone’s captaincy and experience makes her an obvious leader for the team, but Kelley O’Hara and Taylor Lytle, among others, have also really stepped up into leadership roles.
“I mean I love the environment. I love the girls,” Simon said in an interview with Once a Metro back in April. “They're all willing to help me grow as a player. In college, it’s kind of like you're fighting for positions, whereas here it's more for the betterment of the team, trying to help each other grow as players as well as making Sky Blue a better team and growing as an organization.”
That willingness to help each other also goes hand in hand with Christy Holly’s approach to coaching the team, another contributing factor to the team’s surprising success.
“Christy Holly says all the time that it’s a family, and we definitely have the family type of atmosphere,” second-year defender Kristin Grubka said. “We're just close with everybody, so I definitely think it's a family feel and knowing on the field that, trusting each other enough, that everyone will get their job done on the field.”
The idea of the team being a family is one that comes up repeatedly when talking to players, and it’s apparent that the entire team as thrived within that family dynamic. It’s also no secret that even the newest players on the team refer to Rampone as “Ma,” a clear indication of both her role as matriarch and the team’s familial bond.
“That's what I think makes us and is going to get us through the season, is our team, our team camaraderie and how we all have each other’s back,” Kelly Conheeney said.
The final key to Sky Blue’s success has been the underdog mentality. They’re not a team with especially big names or talent, not when compared to Portland, Seattle or even the Pride. And they know it.
“I think you could probably consider us more of the underdogs on paper. [Critics] may think, ‘They're not going to be good compared to some of the other teams,’ you know? And that's something that's driven us,” Erica Skroski said at the start of the season. “We just know that if we play the way we can play… we [are] going to be successful, and I think that's going to continue to carry over to the rest of our games.”
Sky Blue FC seems to have found the winning formula of coaching, fresh blood, family and sheer determination.
Taylor Lytle might have summed up the team’s success the best when she said, “I think that we just have a lot of younger kids coming in that are hungry to play and prove themselves, and you mix that with some veterans who have played in the league or played somewhere else, and it eventually just jells very well for us. And I think that we're all just kind of fighters trying to prove ourselves. You know, we're not a team that has a lot of huge names and stuff, so I think we're all just willing to fight for each other, which is nice.”
The real question is, can Sky Blue keep this momentum going and finish the season still in a playoff position?
If Sky Blue has anything to say about it, you’ll see them in October.